Once again, the debate on census population data on religion misses the point.

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Muslims have shown a 50 per cent higher decline in growth rate than Hindus. This positive higher decline of Muslims has been occurring since 1981 and is expected to continue in a manner such that, soon, the Muslim growth rate will be similar to that of the Hindus.With the release of the Census 2011 data on religion and misleading reports in the media, the growth of the Muslim population has become the focus of the debate once again. Almost 10 years ago, in 2004, a similar but sharper controversy had erupted when the government released the Census 2001 data on religion.

There were strong but misguided media debates on the differentials in population growth by religion in reference to Census 2001. The debate was so intense, and often so malicious, that the Union government established a committee to find out the “social, economic and educational status of the Muslims”; it published a report, popularly known as the Sachar report, which has dispelled misunderstandings about Muslim population growth, as well as the status of social, economic and educational conditions according to major socio-religious categories. Now, over a decade later, it is appropriate to ask what has changed that pertains to the Muslims of India.

Many often wonder whether the release of census data coincides with some political activity, like elections. The answer seems to be in the affirmative. Further, the data is released in a context where, for over a year, the sadhvis and sadhus occupying a “place of pride” within Parliament have been yelling urgency in containing the growth of Muslims. It is time to find out if such rhetoric — “paanch beevian aur un sabke 25 bachche” — has finally yielded results.

India is projected to have 311 million Muslims in 2050 (11 per cent of the global total), making it the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

In the nearly 70 years since Independence, religious violence has claimed thousands of lives, including those of modern India’s founder, Mahatma Gandhi, and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A recent Pew Research Centre report on religious restrictions found India to have one of the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion in the world.

With this background, let us get into the specific highlights of the Census 2011 population by religion data.

First, the total population growth rate declined from 21.5 per cent to 17.7 per cent, which is a continuation of the decline of the population of all religions since 1981. The decline has been somewhat faster than what many experts expected, which is reassuring since population stabilisation will occur earlier than projected estimates.

Second, the Muslim population has increased from 13.4 per cent of the population to 14.2 per cent, which is 0.8 percentage points higher. But the rate of growth is considerably lower than in previous decades. Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus for a couple of more decades because they have the youngest median age and relatively high fertility among the major religious groups in India. In 2010, the median age of Indian Muslims was 22, compared with 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. Muslim women bear an average 3.1 children per head, compared with 2.7 for Hindus and 2.3 for Christians.

Third, in 2011, Hindus constituted 79.8 per cent of the population, compared to 80.5 per cent in 2001. This is the result of a rate of decline over the decade of 3.5 percentage points. It is the difference between the decadal growth rate of Hindus in 2001, which was 20.3 per cent and their growth rate between 2001 and 2011, which is 16.8 per cent. Compare these with the ratios for Muslims, who had a decadal growth rate of 29.5 per cent in 2001. This growth rate, between 2001 and 2011, has declined steeply to 24.6 per cent. This decline works out to be a high 4.9 percentage points.

Fourth, when these percentage point declines are compared between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims have shown a 50 per cent higher decline in growth rate than Hindus. This positive higher decline of Muslims compared with Hindus has been occurring since 1981, and is expected to continue in a manner such that the Muslim growth rate will soon be similar to that of the Hindus. The fast pace of decline in Muslim women’s fertility rate is occurring while they have a much lower mean child-bearing age, which in itself is evidence that falling Muslim fertility is choice-based and irreversible in the near future.

Fifth, overall, there is considerable improvement in the sex ratio in 2011 — 943. This improvement has been phenomenal among Hindus. This is a very positive story of Census 2011. Yet, Muslims have better sex ratios compared to Hindus, which is also a contributing factor in the relatively higher number of births.
Sixth, it has been pointed out since the mid-1980s that the prevalence rate of contraceptives among Muslims has been increasing faster than among Hindus and is likely to catch up with the national average earlier than expected. The rate of increase in contraception among the Muslim community, even in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, has been high.

In conclusion, it would be most appropriate to ask why the census of India has not yet published data according to religion for essential social and economic indicators — such as literacy rates and levels of literacy, work participation rates according to occupation, and the distribution of public employment in national and state governments. Such data highlight the participation of various religious communities in public spaces and also provide a better yardstick to measure equal opportunities in India.

The sadhvis and sadhus in Parliament would be better-off shouting slogans that favour the establishment of national- and state-level equal opportunity commissions in India. Also, it is time the Union government established a committee to review the improvement in the social, economic and educational situation of the 175-million strong Indian Muslim community since the Sachar Committee turned in its report.

The writer, executive director of the US-India Policy Institute in Washington DC, was also member-secretary of the Sachar Committee

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