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India’s faith census spurs debate

Since India’s anti-colonial struggle, right-wing Hindu ideologues have depicted Islam and Christianity as “alien faiths” whose adherents are more loyal to distant holy lands than to India, revered by Hindu nationalists as their own sacred motherland.

Since India’s anti-colonial struggle, right-wing Hindu ideologues have depicted Islam and Christianity as “alien faiths” whose adherents are more loyal to distant holy lands than to India, revered by Hindu nationalists as their own sacred motherland.

And few were surprised that the return to power of Mr Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which is rooted in the Hindu nationalist movement — was accompanied by an initial resurgence in noisy rhetoric about the threat to India’s Hindu majority from a Muslim “population explosion” and Christian missionaries converting hordes of Hindus to their faith.

But last month, demographic myths were confronted by hard numbers. On Aug 23, Mr Modi’s government released one of India’s most politically sensitive data sets: The breakdown of the country’s 1.2 billion people by their religious faith. Collected during the 2011 census, the figures were suppressed by the previous Congress-led administration, which feared the data would fuel communal tensions — and disadvantage them politically — ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections.

In the current data release, critics of the ruling party see an attempt to advantage the BJP in important, upcoming state assembly elections in Bihar. But like a political Rorschach test, how the census data have been interpreted has depended on the predilections of the interpreter.

From 2001 to 2011, Hindus did fall slightly as a proportion of the total population, dropping to 79.8 per cent — down 0.7 percentage points from 80.5 per cent in 2001. Muslims rose to 14.2 per cent of the population in 2011, up 0.8 percentage points from 13.4 per cent a decade earlier. That shift was driven by the faster growth of the Muslim population — which increased 24.6 per cent — compared with the Hindu population — which increased 16.8 per cent — over the decade.

Right-wing Hindus have seized on the headline figures as proof of India’s Hindu majority eroding. “Hindu population going below 80 per cent is an alarm bell. If you don’t want to listen, no matter, but (the) bell is ringing,” Professor Rakesh Sinha, honorary director of New Delhi’s India Policy Foundation, tweeted to 44,000 followers.

Mr Surendra Jain, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, told journalists that Islamists “are provoking Muslims to make India a Muslim nation”. Mr Yogi Adityanath, a BJP parliamentarian, called it a “dangerous trend”.

But demographers see a different story: That the Muslim population’s growth rate is declining rapidly — indeed, faster than any other Indian religious group. Decade by decade, the percentage increase in the Muslim population has dropped from 32.8 in 1991 to 29.5 in 2001 to 24.6 in 2011. Hindus’ decadal population growth increase has also fallen, but more slowly — from 22.7 per cent in 1991, to 19.9 per cent in 2001 to 16.7 per cent in 2011.

In other words, Hindus embraced smaller families — and had secured the necessary family planning services to control their fertility — earlier, but Muslims are now catching up. The population growth rates of India’s two largest faiths are poised to converge — and population breakdown will stabilise.

“If the same trend continues, the population growth rate of Muslims will be approximately the same as the growth rate of Hindus within the next two census periods,” said demographer Dr Abusaleh Shariff, a scholar at the US-India Policy Institute in Washington DC.

Dr Amir Ullah Khan, a policy analyst with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said convergence is already occurring in southern states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — which have strong public education — one of the strongest predictors of smaller families.

“The most correlated variable with fertility decline is not income or health — it’s primary education,” Mr Khan said. “You get these kids educated for three to five years, and will deliver fewer children.”

Right-wing Hindus have resumed their call for more Hindu babies and new laws against religious conversion. More relevant, though, is that more Muslim girls are attending school than ever before.

As for Christians, they are likely to remain 2.3 per cent of India’s population — unchanged from where they have been for past 30 years. That has not stopped at least one analyst from arguing that given Christian women’s lower fertility rates (owing to higher education), the Christian share of the population would have fallen in the past 10 years were it not for their success at conversions. FINANCIAL TIMES


Amy Kazmin is the Financial Times’ South Asia correspondent.

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