Cover Story

Population politics

Print edition : October 02, 2015

At Id in Chennai. The average sex ratio among Muslims is higher than it is among Hindus. Photo: M. PRABHU

Muslim women participate in a unique "Kavad Yatra" taken out in the Hindu month of Shravan in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, on August 24. Photo: PTI

At a resettlement colony in New Delhi. According to the Sachar Committee, in terms of several development parameters, Muslims lagged behind even the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Commuters on a Patna-Gaya train. For the past five decades there has primarily been a programme to control numbers rather than to focus on reproductive and human rights. Photo: AFP

Pravin Togadia, the VHP's international president. He demanded the imposition of the two-child norm on the Muslim community. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its Sangh Parivar associates are carrying on a mischievous campaign against Muslims based on the Census data on population growth, apparently with the Bihar elections in view.

ON August 25, the office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India released the data on Population by Religious Communities of Census 2011. The timing of the release was surprising and intriguing as it had been some years since the results of Census 2011 were published officially and discussed at length at various fora. The manner in which the government’s publicity machinery and significant sections of the media projected the data added to the sense of artifice that surrounded the whole exercise.

For instance, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) release not only provided the details of the data but also an interpretation of what the data released by sex and residence up to the level of sub-districts and towns constituted. The total population in 2011 was 121.09 crores, of which Hindus constituted 96.63 crores (79.8 per cent), Muslims 17.22 crores (14.2 per cent), Christians 2.78 crores (2.3 per cent), Sikhs 2.08 crores (1.7 per cent), Buddhists 0.84 crore (0.7 per cent), Jains 0.45 crore (0.4 per cent), other religions & persuasions (ORP) 0.79 crore (0.7 per cent) and religion not stated 0.29 crore (0.2 per cent). It was stated that the proportion of the Hindu population to the total population during the decade (2001-11) had declined by 0.7 percentage point, the proportion of the Sikh population by 0.2 percentage point, and the Buddhist population by 0.1 percentage point. It was also stated that the proportion of the Muslim population to the total population had increased by 0.8 percentage point and that there was no significant change in the proportion of Christians and Jains. The PIB release also stated that the growth rate of the population in the preceding decade (2001-11) was 17.7 per cent with Hindus registering a 16.8 per cent growth rate, Muslims 24.6 per cent, Christians 15.5 per cent, Sikhs 8.4 per cent, Buddhists 6.1 per cent and Jains 5.4 per cent.

The release of the data was followed by a sensational presentation of the same in sections of the media and extreme responses, predictably, from fundamentalist Hindutva organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their leaders such as the VHP’s international president Pravin Togadia and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Lok Sabha member Sakshi Maharaj. Togadia demanded the peremptory imposition of the two-child norm among the Muslim community. His ideological colleague, Sakshi Maharaj, who had a few months ago exhorted Hindu women to produce four children each, advocated immediate steps to introduce a piece of legislation that would impose a uniform civil code and the two-child norm on Muslims. Almost on cue, the Bihar unit of the Durga Vahini, the self-professed women’s wing of the VHP, announced a house-to-house campaign in the State highlighting the “perils pointed out by the Census 2011 data on religious communities”. The launch of such a campaign and the State chosen for its launch clearly indicated the possible reasons for the timing of the release of the data on religious communities.

Elections to the Bihar Assembly are scheduled to be held in October and November. As in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are advancing their campaign on the twin poles of development and communal polarisation. Already there has been a spurt in low-intensity communal conflicts in Bihar, with over 400 being reported over a period of six months. The majority of these have occurred in districts where the Muslim population is not significant. There were signs of a growing communal polarisation on local and micro issues in almost all these districts. Evidently, the creation of a panic situation on the basis of an ostensible rise in the Muslim population was bound to further aggravate communal polarisation and possibly fetch electoral gains for the BJP and its allies.

Commenting on the Sangh Parivar organisations’ use of the Census data on religious communities in their election campaign, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad told Frontline that the release of these figures at the present juncture was intriguing and the refusal to release the results of the caste census was equally mysterious. “Several political parties and social organisations have been demanding that the caste census be made public, but the government machinery under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is steadfastly refusing to do so. There is no doubt that this is deliberate. There is definitive information that the census has registered an increase in the population of the Other Backward Classes [OBCs] and the Scheduled Castes [S.Cs]. If the data are published and accepted, the government will have to make appropriate and proportionate changes in the reservation policy and the quota allocated to each caste. But the Modi government will not address this because the main socio-political weapon of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates is communal propaganda and polarisation,” he said.

More significantly, even as this blatantly communal propaganda with dangerous social implications was being carried out, no one in the Union government, including those at the highest levels, thought it fit to allay fears and explain that the population figures in their totality pointed to several positive social trends across different communities.

Salutary trends

Writing on the U.S.-India Policy Institute website, the economist Dr Abusaleh Shariff, who was member-secretary of the Rajinder Sachar Committee (2005-06) that looked into the social, economic and educational situation of the Muslim community, listed five salutary trends that were noticed in the Census data. One: India’s population is declining faster than previously expected. Two: The rate of decline over the decade for Muslim population (4.9 per cent) is marginally higher than for Hindu population (3.5 per cent). Three: the population decline was faster in India’s populous States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar compared with many other States. Four: the sex ratio has improved for all of India in the past decade. Five: The sex ratio for the Hindu community has improved marginally and it has significantly improved for the Muslim community.

But no such informed and responsible delineation came forth from the government or those in power. On the other hand, the associates and allies of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, including lawmakers Sakshi Maharaj and Mahant Adityanath, were allowed to freely propagate the ostensible population explosion bogey. Shariff pointed out that in 2001, too, the increase in the Muslim population was sought to be made into an issue. Then, too, the details of the data were not scrutinised carefully. Hindutva leaders such as Togadia cited the 2001 Census figures to raise protestations about a huge rise in the Muslim population. But details of the Census showed that this so-called jump was because the 1991 Census had excluded the Muslim-dominated State of Jammu and Kashmir and its population was taken into account only 10 years later.

Declining Total Fertility Rate

A closer analysis of the data on religious communities shows that the increase or decrease in Muslim populations or any other religious cohort in the States and in the districts is because of a range of factors that include socio-economic indicators, migration and access to quality health care—overall health services and reproductive health services. Scholars and demographers have reason to believe that there is tremendous intra-State and even intra-district variations in reproductive behaviour among different religious cohorts and that to assume that any one factor was behind the decline or increase, least of all exhortations to produce more children, was superficial in the least. What is clear is that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR)—the average number of children expected to be born to a woman during her entire reproductive span —has been coming down. In 2013, the national average was 2.3 per woman and varied from 2.5 in rural areas to 1.8 in urban areas. The TFR varied from 1.6 in West Bengal to 3.4 in Bihar. The TFR in rural Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu was 1.7 while in rural Bihar it was 3.5. In urban Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal it was 1.2 while in urban Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it was 2.5, marginally higher than the national average. Therefore, the situation was far from alarming. There was no baby boom contrary to popular fears.

Interestingly, a June 2013 paper written for the Centre for Population and Development that studied fertility at district levels in India drawing lessons from the 2011 Census by authors Irudaya Rajan (interview on page 17) and Christophe Z. Guilmoto found that the volume of births was affected by several structural factors of regional populations. Studies have shown that populations with distorted sex ratios or with a large population of youth will be characterised, ceteris paribus (other things being equal or constant), by a deficit of women of child-bearing age and consequently lower birth rates. Crude birth rates (CBRs) are important dimensions of population dynamics since they are the major determinants of variations in population growth across Indian districts. The TFR is, therefore, a much better estimate of reproductive behaviour than CBRs.

The good news is that fertility rates have gone down below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman in 12 States and Union Territories; that is, 174 of the 621 districts, or 28 per cent of all Indian districts, have fertility levels below 2.1. The vast majority of districts with fertility levels below the replacement level of 2.1, the authors say, are in the five southern States and the Union Territories and the north-western States of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Therefore, supply factors, which include health services and the dubious and criminalised sex selection services, seemed to be at play here. Religious factors cannot be the reason for higher fertility rates. Otherwise, how would one explain why the TFR of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, both Muslim-dominated countries, is lower than the all-India average.

As the noted economist Abusaleh Shariff pointed out in his blog, the total Hindu population that grew between 2001 and 2011 was 138 million, equal to the entire Muslim population of 2001. The rate of decline for the Muslim population over two decades was higher than that of Hindus. But that was not seen as a positive trend. Nor was the higher sex ratio among Muslims—951 females for every 1,000 males, seen as a progressive indicator for the nation as a whole. The all-India sex ratio stood at 943; the ratio for Hindus was 939.

Mohammad Salim Engineer, national secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, told Frontline that contrary to what was propagated, Muslim leaders never told the community to produce more children. “Yes, we tell them not to kill them. The average sex ratio is high because of the high sex ratio among Muslims. It is because the community is free from female foeticide as indicated by the Sachar Committee as well. We are not against the release of religious data but object to the misuse and demonising of one community,” he said. Engineer pointed out that the rate of growth among Muslims was comparable to that of the S.Cs and the Scheduled Tribes. “They should stop this population phobia and think about utilising the human resource that we have,” he said.

Targets and goals

But successive governments have done little to counter the phobia. Alok Bajpai, head of the Core Grant and Knowledge Management at the Population Foundation of India (PFI), a premier organisation specialising in population and development issues, told Frontline that the National Population Policy of 2000 was a good document and spoke of doing away with targets. “Yet, targets are given and camps are held,” he said. In November 2014, after the sterilisation deaths of young women in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, the PFI, along with a few other organisations, came out with a report, according to which the Family Planning Programme that has been around for the past five decades has primarily been a programme to control numbers rather than to focus on reproductive and human rights as agreed by India at the historic International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, which laid stress on the slogan “development was the best pill”.

India was a signatory to the Cairo declaration but the Indian authorities have devised their own ideas of development and the pill. Government goals for family planning, the ICPD declaration said, should be defined by the unmet needs (of ordinary people) for information and services (not by targets set by the government and other agencies). Demographic goals, while legitimately the subject of government development strategies, should not be imposed on family planning providers in the form of targets or quotas for the recruitment of clients, it said.

The decadal rate of growth, Bajpai explained, was declining for all communities. “I would call it a natural demographic transition. The data that have emerged has to be demystified. Any increase or decrease is not because of religious factors. Muslims in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh will respond differently depending on access to education and economic opportunities. The more alarming data that have come out in Census 2011 is the sex ratio. For instance, among religious communities, too, there are variations as per regions,” he said. This meant that religious communities had different responses depending on the regions and the overall cultural and socio-economic milieu where they were located. The overall sex ratio among Christians, at 1,023, was very good but it was bad in Haryana and Punjab. Similarly, the growth rate of the Muslim population in Kishanganj in Bihar and Mewat in Haryana would be comparable given common indicators such as low literacy rates and poor access to health services, despite Haryana having a high per capita income.

“There is no population bomb happening. The data also reveal that nowhere will Muslims even come close to the Hindu population. Bangladesh and Indonesia are doing very well as far as the TFR is concerned. They are providing services. It is not religion that dictates contraceptive use. We have examples in Uttar Pradesh where Muslim women have got themselves the injectible contraceptives without informing their families. Likewise, in Rajsamand district in Rajasthan, we have had experiences of both Hindu and Muslim women seeking access to family planning services. I know of cases where women get themselves injected before marriage as they fear that they will not have a say in the size of the family later,” he said.

The bulk of family planning in India is in the form of female sterilisation. Another interesting data released by the Census office recently did not draw as much attention as the data on religion did. This was the Clinical, Anthropometric and Biometric survey for nine States, covering 284 districts and sampling 1.6 million people. This survey showed staggering rates of anaemia among all age groups apart from underweight and stunting. While there was no religious community-specific study about the prevalence of anaemia, it was apparent that the phenomenon cut across all economically disadvantaged groups. With the overall slash in budgets, including that of the Women and Child Development Ministry and the Minority Affairs Ministry, and with a stagnant health budget, which is lower than in the percentage terms in Brazil, Russia, China (three other members of the BRIC grouping), health outcomes and fertility outcomes will be slower.

Evidently, an objective and nuanced analysis of the Census 2011 data on religious communities will be more informative than the half-baked and imperceptive projections made by the Hindutva combine in their campaigns and the interpretations in sections of the media. But, as was evident in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a successful strategy for winning elections is based on the creation and perpetuation of myths and the electoral exploitation of the same. Census 2011 data on religious communities are indeed going through such a process.

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