The Focus on Religion in the 2011 Census Data Overshadows The Serious Impact of the Differential Growth of Hindi and Non-Hindi Regions

What the 2011 census shows is that the proportion of Muslims in India has again risen, as it has in every census since 1961. Kate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
12 January, 2016

On 27 December 2015, Union Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Giriraj Singh called for curbing the “uncontrolled growth” of population through a uniform policy. Singh said that the time had come to redefine the meaning of “minority” in India, and once again drew attention to the religious data from the 2011 census.

Since the publication of these figures, an old debate has played itself out along predictable lines. What the data shows is that the proportion of Muslims in India has again risen, as it has in every census since 1961. Similarly, the proportion of Hindus (in the way in which the census defines Hindu) has decreased in every census since 1961. It is important to state that both Hindus and Muslims are growing in terms of absolute numbers, but in terms of proportion, Muslims are growing at a higher rate than Hindus. The “debate” has centered on the disproportionate increase of Muslims vis-a-vis Hindus. The fault-lines of this debate are clear. One side states that it is poverty, poor formal education and “backwardness” among the Muslims of India (most of whom are from backward castes) that is responsible for this increase and it is this ”poorness” or “backwardness” that explains the phenomenon. The opposing camp pins the disproportionate increase among Muslims to “Muslimness,” with thinly veiled suggestions that it is the ideology of the Islamic creed, and its specifically theological injunctions against the use of contraceptives that are responsible.

A truth (and there is no single “truth” when we talk of people that are varied in so many aspects) that can be concluded from existing data, supports both positions. For example, while it is true that there is significant variation in Muslim family size and growth rate based on their socio-economic and educational status, there is also geographical variation. The population growth rate among Muslims of the south is lower than the growth rate of Hindus of the upper and middle Gangetic plains (what has broadly always been called Hindustan or the Hindi belt).

On the other hand, according to the 2001 census data, in several states such as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the overall literacy rates were higher among Muslims as compared to Hindus. Yet, each one of these states has registered an increase in the proportion of the Muslim population. Tamil Nadu is a particularly interesting example where the rate of poverty among Muslims is lower than that of Hindus in both urban and rural areas, and the literacy rate of Muslims is higher than that of Hindus. But between 2001 and 2011, the population growth rates of Muslims in Tamil Nadu were higher than those of the Hindus in the state. Even for a state such as Kerala that has a very high Human Development Index (HDI) score, comprising life expectancy, education (with only one percent difference between Hindu and Muslim literacy rates in 2001) and per capita income numbers, the population growth rate of Muslims has been consistently higher than that of Hindus or Christians. This is true elsewhere as well. In the last few decades, in most nation-states across continents with a significant Muslim minority population (greater than five percent), the Muslim population growth rate exceeds that of the largest religious group of that region. This trend is projected to continue worldwide. So, we have trends that are common to Muslims across regions and things that are different between Muslims across regions (and more in common with non-Muslims in those regions). But why does any of this matter?

The constitution of the Indian union, for the most part, does not view its administered region as some kind of a homeland for a particular religious community. It does not envisage the union as a permanent Hindu majority homeland. But that is the spirit of the law. The Indian union is a post-Partition formation, and the passionate debate about the percentage of Muslims in India shows just how long the shadow of the 1947 partition is. It is therefore immaterial whether or not the state calls itself secular. There is no nation beyond the people; and what the people of India think, in most cases, have little to do with what their constitution states. They never got to vote on the clauses of the constitution or, for that matter, on the choice of being constituted as such.

Unwritten understandings about permanent communal majorities, forged during the Partition, have a wide currency. The violence of the Partition and a mismatch between public and official discourse makes any kind of demographic transition unthinkable to the present majority, notwithstanding the fact that most serious projections based on current growth rates and decadal decline trends predict that the percentage of the Muslim population will not cross 20 percent. For instance, in Assam, Ahom Hindus might lose their dominant group status to Muslims but barring that, nowhere else is this even a distant concern. The census debate is a by-product of real and absurd transition anxieties (the anxiety associated with demographic transition wherein a majority becomes a minority) and serves the political purposes of those who claim to represent the interests of the “besieged” majority.

However, religion is the not the only unwritten understanding in the constitution around which the Indian union was constituted. According to the constitution, states are completely arbitrary administrative units that can be formed, changed, merged or divided by the central government; in reality most of them represent homelands of ethno-linguistic nationalities. Tamil Nadu is widely considered the homeland of Tamils where they constitute a permanent majority. The constitution, however, does not recognise this. What such a reading aims to do is to delegitimise any expression of aspiration of the states that may not be in line with the centre. How can an arbitrary legal entity created by central fiat and also alterable by the same fiat have autonomous will?

This legalese collapses in the face of the sub-continental reality where states exist broadly along ethno-linguistic lines. These entities are defined along these lines because administrative units can only be arbitrary to a point, irrespective of the total arbitrariness that constitutions permit. The ethno-linguistic ground-swells are real, aspirations to homeland are real, and since the smart cities and cosmopolitan hubs of the Indian union do not have enough experimental chambers to convert all inhabitants into “nothing but Indian,” these are here to stay. The Manipuri or the Kannada identity does not seem to have any immediate plans of committing suicide.

While the specific drawing of the lines may be arbitrary (something that applies to the whole nation-state as well), that does not make the reality of ethno-linguistic community habitats any less valid. A legal stranglehold that denies this reality also ends up denying the basic fact that the subcontinent existed well before the constitutions were drawn up. If we can imagine the possibility of the British not ruling the subcontinent, and if large nation-states had to come into existence, they would have been the result of agreements between the different near-sovereign entities. That states and provinces did not have the agency to make such a compact in 1947 is a legacy of the British rule. Ironically, such a scenario bequeathed to us from the British is the bedrock of the post-colonial nation-states of Pakistan and the India. Both like to call themselves federal, for no one else calls them so.

So what do we know about the population growth rates of different states? There is huge variation in the population growth rate of states. The replacement level of fertility rate is 2.1. This is the rate at which the population replaces itself from one generation to next. According to a 2013 publication from the Census of India titled Vital Statistics of India: Estimates of Fertility Indicators, the large states of the union that have a fertility rate of 2.1 or less, in increasing order of fertility rates are West Bengal, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir and Odisha. India, as a whole, has a fertility rate of 2.3. The large states above this level in increasing order of fertility rates are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Just as one looks for commonality among the population proportion increase among Muslims of diverse nations, the commonality here is quite clear. All states over the level of 2.3 are so-called Hindi states. All states at or under 2.1, with the exception of Himachal Pradesh, are non-Hindi states. Suffice to say, Hindi states are increasingly becoming a greater proportion of the population of the Indian union and Hindi speakers are becoming a greater proportion of the population of non-Hindi states. This trend has been true for the decades for which data has existed.

While nearly every state has seen a change in fertility rate even between 2010 and 2013, the states that are, in total, becoming a greater proportion of the population (the ones above the fertility level rate of 2.3, for instance) also have a greater fall in fertility rate in that period compared to those states that had a fertility rate of 2.1 or less. This may also be due to a floor effect—the fertility rates in already low fertility-rate-states cannot decrease any further at the same pace, akin to hitting the bottom. Fertility rates have declined across the board but some have declined more sharply than others. The parallel with the nature of Hindu and Muslim fall in population growth rates from the 2011 Census figures is hard to miss.

What are its consequences? Firstly, there is a widening representational gap between the states. There are serious divisions in opinion about the nature of the power sharing compacts in the Indian union. The centre-state relationships in the union, as well as the relationship between north India and south India in terms of power leveraging at the centre is, at the end of the day, pegged to the parliamentary representation of these zones in the union parliament. At present, the basis of such representation is the 1971 census. Articles 81 and 82 and the forty-second constitutional amendment of 1976 (enacted during the Emergency) essentially froze the inter-regional power relations at 1971 population levels. The ninety-first constitutional amendment of 2003 extended the 1971 scenario till 2026. Until that time, territorial constituencies in the Lok Sabha, with regard to the number of seats allocated to each state, cannot be altered. Population changes between 1971 and 2001 have thrown up newer demographic realities.

If parliamentary constituencies were allocated to states in proportion with the 2001 census figures, all the Hindi states stand to gain seats, even after adjusting for cleavage of some of the states in the meantime—Uttar Pradesh 9, Rajasthan 5, Bihar 6 and Madhya Pradesh 3. This means that in the present parliamentary representation, the major Hindi states are underrepresented by at least 23 seats, which is not a small number. This also leads to a democratic deficit when population and representation develop an asymmetric relationship. This scenario of events will continue till 2026. If the present population growth rates are any indicator, by that time, the skew or the under-representation of the four big Hindi states will be more acute, possibly 30-odd seats.

A readjustment in parliamentary representation to the populations proportions of the 2021 census would mean a huge—possibly explosive—shift in power equations at the centre. That is precisely why this issue is kept in suspended animation at the cost of the principles of democratic representation. But this is also a breach of the unstated 1947 contract between ethno-linguistic groups. With the exception of Tripura, no other state has seen the local majority ethno-linguistic community reduced to a minority. Demographic shift patterns are a sign of a slow but real shift of already existent power equations. The Inner Line permit (ILP) agitation in Manipur’s Imphal valley is precisely such an outpouring. The population of outsiders in the state is now high enough to provoke a demographic anxiety in the majority, which is now asking for restrictions on entry of outsiders to ensure the continuance of their majority status in their ancestral homeland.

One cannot simply wish away such demographic anxieties in a diverse polity like that of India. While fundamental rights of all are to be ensured, especially that of minorities, innovative constitutional measures to assure the existing majorities are important. Otherwise, such anxieties channel themselves into the kind of ugly majoritarian politics where complete delegitimisation of minorities serves as a political organising tool. If we can ignore that possibility by slogans of “secularism” or ‘”we are all Indians,” we are setting ourselves up for trouble in the future.