Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The demographic bogey

EARLIER this month, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query, the Union Home Ministry headed by the de facto number two in the government, Amit Shah, declared that the perceived threats to the Hindu religion were ‘hypothetical’ and ‘imaginary’.

We can only hope that this response feeds into the current political discourse. But that may be asking for too much. As of now, the Sangh Parivar’s political mobilisation strategy rests on marginalising the Muslims, especially in northern India. Just the other day, Yogi Adityanath hot-buttoned it by declaring that prior to his assuming office in 2017, all food rations used to go to those who addressed their fathers as ‘abba jaan’— a thinly veiled reference to Muslims. Figures, of course, gave the lie to this claim since at that time, there were 14 crore beneficiaries of this scheme initiated by the then government run by the Samajwadi Party, and census figures show that there were less than 4 crore Muslims in the state at the time.

Ad hominem attacks on Muslims are not uncommon these days. Social media and ‘WhatsApp University’ have played a dubious role in spreading fake information. Politicians, ever ready to stir trouble, have taken it up with laws, some to limit families, others banning conversions, ever ready to burn the straw man.

The Sangh Parivar is not unaware of this; most of their leaders are, after all, educated. But to accept its conclusions would mean abandoning what has proved to be a spectacular political mobilisation tool. Never mind that tens of millions of people have been marginalised socially, educationally and economically, something that only detracts from the country’s health. Attempts to square the circle by declaring, as RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has, that “every Indian citizen is a Hindu” mean little in the real world which is run by the Adityanaths of the world.

One persistent narrative suggests that the Hindus will soon be outnumbered by Muslims in the country. The 2011 census says that Muslims constitute 14.2 per cent of the country’s population and this figure is slated to reach around 18.4 per cent by 2050. But by then, the Hindus will constitute 76.7 per cent of the population and Hindu and Muslim population growth rates will be similar.

A recent Pew Research Centre poll has some answers to this demographic anxiety. It found that India’s religious composition has remained largely stable since Partition and though for years Muslim fertility rates were higher than those of Hindus (a consequence of higher levels of backwardness and illiteracy), they are now more or less converging.

In 2015, the fertility rate for an average Muslim woman was 2.6 and for her Hindu counterpart, it was 2.1. The fertility rate is the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime.

A fertility rate of 2.1 means just enough babies will be born to maintain the population levels constant.

Government figures for nine states, released earlier this year, reveal that Hindi-speaking states like Bihar have high fertility rates for people of both religions, while those in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh or Karnataka are below the replacement level for both. The fertility rate in Jammu & Kashmir is 1.45, lower than the fertility rate of Hindus in other states, but ironically, the rate for Hindus in J&K is even lower at 1.32.

Another vicious narrative relates to the alleged prevalence of forced conversions. But the real-world data gives it the lie. In 2018, an RTI reply in Maharashtra noted that the total number of those who converted in the state in the 43 months studied was 1,687. Most converts to Islam and Hinduism came from the other’s faith. In a population of around 120 million people, the number is clearly statistically irrelevant.

Figures in other states are likely to be similar. The Pew study cited above surveyed nearly 30,000 Indian adults and found that religious preferences were very stable in the country. As many as 99 per cent of those born Hindu had remained the same into adulthood, while the figures for Muslims and Christians were 97 per cent and 94 per cent, respectively. There were conversions, but Hindus gained as many people as they lost. Yet, there is an enormous din around the need to ban conversions and some nine states have actually passed laws against conversion in recent years.

In democracies, it is not unusual for divisions to be accentuated during election time. All parties try and maximise their votes by indirectly and sometimes directly using caste and religion. After the elections, these divisions need to be healed and governance be based on the citizenship of the individual, regardless of caste, creed and gender. This, unfortunately, has not been happening in India. One reason for this is the constant cycle of elections, but another is that false beliefs have taken hold in a significant section of the population, based on the dishonest propaganda.

As India hurtles towards becoming the most populous nation on earth, it needs to keep a careful watch on social friction that is tearing its national fabric apart. No matter what the Assam or UP governments do, in 2050, there will be 310 million or so Muslims in the country. They will be vastly outnumbered by the 1.38 billion Hindus, but they will not be a small number. Making large chunks of minorities feel that they are somehow not quite Indian is a self-destructive approach. All Indians need to be better educated and productive; leaving behind entire communities and groups will most certainly not yield a New India.

The Tribune September 28, 2021

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