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

12 January 2016
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
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

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.

Garga Garga Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, West Bengal.

Keywords: Muslim Hindu Hindi national census