Sakshi Maharaj, a member of Parliament for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, this week said that Hindu women in India should have at least four children.

“Give one to the sages, send the other to fight at the borders,” Mr. Maharaj told a religious gathering in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, referring to Hindu holy men and India’s tense border with Muslim-majority Pakistan. He didn’t say what to do with the other two offspring.

His comments triggered upset and the politician was criticized by opposition parties for suggesting that women were machines to produce babies. Mr. Maharaj’s party distanced itself from the family-planning advice, saying it doesn’t reflect BJP policy.

The remarks, however, reflect an angst about the relative size of India’s religious communities — and debate over religious conversions — that has been dominating the national consciousness, political debate and media coverage in India for the past few weeks. They also prompt the question: How big are the world’s major religions in India and how are their numbers changing?

The Census of India gathers granular level data about the population’s religion every 10 years. So you might think that the answer shouldn’t be too hard to find. The problem is, the most recent figures available are 14 years old.

Data on religions was gathered along with household data in 2011, but unlike other information collected at the time, it hasn’t so far been published. Want to find out how many people live in houses that have televisions, toilets or tiled floors? The data is there to find. 

But ask how many Indians identify themselves as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains or other and you have only figures from 2001 to rely on. At that time, the proportion of Hindus in India was 80.46%; the Muslim population accounted for 13.43% of the total.

Religion data from 2001 was released in September 2004. So, according to that time frame, we might have expected the most recent figures to arrive last September. Dr. C. Chandramouli, Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, in an interview at his office Tuesday said that data on religion would “be released soon.”

“We have been ready [with the 2011 data] for quite some time but there were a series of elections so we were not releasing it for some time. Anything which would be sensitive we don’t release,” Mr. Chandramouli said. State elections in Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Maharashtra took place late last year, and elections in Delhi are expected soon.

Priyadarshi Dutta, a New Delhi-based researcher and columnist for the Daily Pioneer, suspects there is something else going on. “When the 2001 data on religion was released in 2004, there was a controversy because it showed that the Muslim population, and the rate of growth, had gone up, said Mr. Dutta.

Mr. Dutta said the apparent increase in the rate of growth of the Muslim population raised concerns among some policy makers that it could cause social or political tensions, and that some people in the government wanted the figures to be adjusted. Complicating matters: Earlier data didn’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison, because in some earlier census counts, the figures for two Muslim-majority states (Assam and Jammu & Kashmir) hadn’t been included in the religious tallies, he said.

The Census did not take place in Assam in 1981 and Jammu and Kashmir in 1991 because of what the Census calls “disturbed conditions.”

“Both adjusted and unadjusted figures were published, but the conflict was never fully resolved,” Mr. Dutta said.

He has requested the figures through India’s Right to Information law on several occasions. “I received a response that they would be released by the end of 2013,” he said.

In another answer to a similar RTI request, Mr. Dutta says he was told that the figures were still being finalized. He thinks that data are being withheld because “if they show an increase in Muslim population, you will see unrest in parts of the country and further polarization.”

“If the Indian state is really secular, why should it hide if the Muslim population has gone up?” Mr. Dutta asked. “The longer you delay the date, the figures will become obsolete.”

Religion can be a prickly issue in India. Communal riots have claimed thousands of lives since independence.

Asked what he makes of suggestions that the data has been held up because of what it shows about the growth of the Muslim population and the decline of the Hindu majority, Mr. Chandramouli declined to comment. Staff in the data-dissemination unit at the Census of India offices also declined to comment.

Rafiq Dossani, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at Rand Corp., a California-based think tank, said he didn’t know why the figures hadn’t so far been published and wasn’t certain that a rise in the Muslim population would be the reason. “Ever since partition, Muslims have been a sensitive issue — but that hasn’t held up figures before,” Mr. Dossani said.

Some analysts have looked at past data in order to predict the future religious makeup of India. Rajinder Sachar, author of the government-commissioned report on the status of Muslims in India in 2006, said that the Muslim population could have grown to around 18% of the total between 2001 and 2011.

“My estimate was that by the end of the 21st century the Muslim population would be 21% of the total,” said Dr. Sachar, a former chief justice in the Delhi High Court. He added that a delay in the publication of the most recent figures could have to do with a discussion over whether or not to include a person’s caste in the results.

“Caste was included a long time back but then it was decided to take it out,” of the results, Dr. Sachar said. He added that, in his view, Hindus who were afraid of the growth of the Muslim population are part of a “lunatic fringe.”

“Hindus and Muslims have had good relations for centuries in India,” he said.

J.K. Bajaj, director of the Center for Policy Studies in Chennai and author of the Religious Demography of India, estimates an 11-percentage-point drop in the Hindu population in India by 2060 or 2070.

In an emailed response, Dr. Bajaj said he thought that there must have been some “technical reasons for the delay” in the publication of the latest religion figures, adding that “the publication of such data is useful for everybody.”

“We eagerly await the publication, because the disaggregated numbers at the state, district and lower levels are of greater significance than the gross All-India averages. And such detailed numbers can only be counted, these cannot be estimated,” Dr. Bajaj said.

In the meantime, without the raw figures on religion, prophesies, it seems, are all there is to go on.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-IRTB-27830