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Will Muslims ‘Outnumber’ Hindus In India In The Near Future?

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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort on the occasion of the 71st Independence Day, in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo / PIB

Population explosion is an age-old issue in India, but it gained traction once again after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned it in his 2019 Independence Day speech.

PM Modi, known to generally celebrate India’s ‘demographic dividend’, expressed concern at a “betahasha jansankhya visphot” (reckless population explosion) and stressed the need for government action to control the situation.

The announcement drew mixed reactions. The Congress leader P. Chidambaram cheered it. On the other hand, some BJP leaders seemed to sniff in the announcement a signal of the government’s intention to enact some kind of legislation to control the Muslim population.

The BJP and RSS leaders have, for years, been blaming Muslims for the purported ‘spurt’ in the country’s population. They have been raising the ‘bogey‘ of the community eventually outnumbering Hindus in the country (Refer to A note on the growing demographic imbalances in the Indian subcontinent by Dr M.D. Srinivas, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, 1999.). In fact, a few politicians from the ruling party have used the PM speech to exhort Hindu women to birth at least four children.

Based on the official data, however, this narrative does not hold water.

Data in the past four National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) have shown that “over the past 24 years, new-generation Muslim families have done a better job at family planning, though their statistical figures still trail Hindu families.” Similarly, a new middle class is emerging among Muslims and that wants to be part of the mainstream. For example, Soyeb Aftab, an 18-year-old Muslim student from Rourkela (Odisha),  has scored 720 out of 720 marks and has become the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET 2020 topper. This is the first time in history that someone has secured 100% in NEET.

Let us consider some plain facts:

Will Muslims outnumber Hindus in India in the near future? There is a sense of paranoia that if the Muslim population is ‘allowed’ to increase, it will overtake the population of Hindus in the coming years. Before we resolve the issue, let us discuss what has happened since independence.

The Census 2011 data shows that since the Census 1951, the share of Hindus has dropped by 4.3 percentage points from 84.1% to 79.8% of the total population in 2011 while the share of Muslims has risen by 4.4 percentage points from 9.8% (no Census was conducted in the JK in 1951) to 14.2% in the corresponding period. Hindus comprised just about 66% of the population of India before partition in 1947. It is interesting to note that the projected figure shows a slight increase in the share of Hindu Population in 2021 as compared to 2011: 80.3% versus 79.8% (Table 1).

The population growth rate of various religions has come down in the decade (2001-2011). Hindu population growth rate slowed down to 16.76% from the previous decade figure of 19.92% while Muslim witnessed a sharp fall in growth rate to 24.60% in 2001-2011 from the previous figure of 29.52%. Such an abrupt fall in population growth rate for Muslims didn’t happen in the last six decades (Population by Religious Communities, Census of India 2011).

Table 1: Trends In Population Of India By Religion– 2051-2021

Religion Hinduism Islam Christianity Sikhism Jainism others
1951 84.10 9.80 2.30 1.79 0.45 1.86
1961 83.45 10.69 2.44 1.79 0.46 1.17
1971 82.73 11.21 2.60 1.89 0.48 1.12
1981 82.30 11.75 2.44 1.92 0.47 1.12
1991 81.53 12.61 2.32 1.94 0.40 1.20
2001 80.46 13.43 2.34 1.87 0.41 1.55
2011 79.80 14.23 2.30 1.72 0.37 1.51
*2021 (projected) 80.30 14.61 2.25 1.63 0.36 0.85
% of total  households NFHS-4 (2015-16) 81.4 12.5 2.7 1.6 0.2 1.6
*Projected figures for the year 2021 are based on various sources like. NFHS-4 (2015-16), Population Reference Bureau and United National Population Division.

Also refer to: The Future Population of India, Population Foundation of India, New Delhi (2007). Devendra Kothari (2011) Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario, A Brief, MIPD, Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi.

Source: Census of India, and National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16)

According to the projected figures, the Hindu population growth rate will go down further to 15.7% from previous decade figure of 16.8% while the Muslim population may witness another sharp fall in growth rate to 18.2% from the previous figure of 24.60% in the decade 2011-2021 (Projected figures for the year 2021 are based on various sources like NFHS-4 (2015-16), Population Reference Bureau, and United National Population Division.).  One can notice that the difference between the Hindu and Muslim population is narrowing fast. I believe that gap will further decrease in the Census 2031.

So there is no sense in saying that Muslims will overtake Hindus, as argued by the many right-wing politicians.

Minorities in India, much like in the United States, are not really anywhere close to being dominant and the fear of any “Muslim takeover in India is baseless,” as stated by the 2019 Economics Nobel-winner Abhijit Banerjee.

Why is the Muslim population growing slowly? There are many factors behind this unexpected trend but two factors are very important: The emerging middle class and declining fertility.

In India, a small, emerging yet visible Muslim middle class has surfaced, “breaking the perception of a monolithic impoverished community,” as noted by Ashwaq Masoodi, Nirman Fellow at Harvard University. The NFHS-4 shows that even though, among all religions, the presence of Muslims in the highest wealth quintile (top 20%) of the country is still the lowest, the share has gone up (from 17.2% to 18.8% by 2015-16).

Representational image.

In the mid-1990s, the community realized the importance of education, as documented by several researchers including Anwar Alam, a senior fellow at the Policy Perspectives Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank.

It wasn’t a dramatic move. Instead, some chose hybridised education, which meant that more and more Madrasas had to slowly modernize themselves to include English and computer training in their curriculum influencing the Muslim mindset.

A widely used measure of fertility levels is the ‘total fertility rate’, or the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime.

According to the first NFHS-1 (1992-93), this figure was 4.3 children for Muslims and 3.3 children for Hindus, or a fertility gap of 30.3% or one child per woman. Latest NFHS-4 data shows that this gap has narrowed to 20.5% in 2015-16, a difference of half a birth on average per woman, even as both communities are having fewer children than before. (IIPS. 2017. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015-16: India. Mumbai: IIPS.).

Even when Muslim fertility is declining, the fertility gap would not narrow until the Hindu fertility level reached the replacement level. In demography, it is considered to be 2.1 children per woman. The former Director of IIPS, and a known demographer, P.N. Mari Bhat had projected that Hindus will achieve replacement fertility by 2021 and a stable population by 2061; Muslims will achieve replacement fertility by 2031 and population stabilization by 2101 and will account for 18.8% of India’s population then. Bhat’s 2011 projections are extremely close to NFHS-4 figures.

So, what should be the agenda? The only major religion left out of the demographic transition in India is Islam. And this group could be helped by providing family planning services looking to their needs, as happened in Bangladesh and Indonesia.  Muslim scholars believe that the permanent method of contraception is not permitted in Islam. So I strongly feel that India has to diversify its approach to include other modern methods of contraception with quality in its programmes like Bangladesh and Indonesia.

India has to find a way to talk about religious demographics as other nations do — mostly without fuss, resentment or wild policy suggestions. It is because Indian Muslims want to be part of the mainstream. But, in India, there can be no clash of civilizations.  Indian Muslims are a part of Indian culture, as argued by the noted Islamic Scholar Mahmood Madani. “This is because of both India’s culture and its historical legacy. Muslim heritage is a part of a larger tradition of multiculturalism and mutual tolerance.”

In spite of poverty and illiteracy, the prevailing unmet need for modern family planning services is surprising, especially among Muslims.  As compared to Hindu women, Muslim women have a high level of unmet need for family planning services, (12 % versus 16%).

I think that the Government of India must address this issue squarely, and the authorities have to accept that there is a problem in the management of family planning programme and resolve it (Kothari, Devendra. 2014. Managing Unwanted Fertility in India: Way Forward, in Sharma Suresh and Joe William (eds.), National Rural Health Mission: An Unfinished Agenda, New Delhi: Book Well.).

If the economy is allowed to develop, unimpeded, the Hindu-Muslim population issue must be discussed thoroughly. Rumour and hate mongers have to be faced head-on.

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