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The Muslim population

Among the three countries that once constituted undivided India, Pakistan in 2001-11 had a decadal population growth rate of about 20 per cent, India’s Muslims (it has now been revealed) 24 per cent, and Bangladesh slightly more than 14 per cent. If India’s Muslims had witnessed Pakistan’s population growth rate of 20 per cent, the country would have had about five-six million fewer Muslims in 2011. And if Bangladesh had experienced the same 20 per cent population growth rate, it would have had seven million more Muslims. So does the explanation for the higher growth rate in India and the lower rate in Bangladesh lie primarily in the migration of Bangladeshis to India? It might seem so, given that the growth of the Muslim population in the border districts of West Bengal and Assam has been the highest (which is not to say that illegal immigrants don’t settle in more distant parts of India, including Delhi).

Even at 20 per cent, the growth rate of the domestic Muslim population would be higher than for all non-Muslims (17 per cent). The difference though would be smaller than the census numbers have recorded, and would be explained by two factors: the lower socio-economic status of Muslims in India (the poor tend to have more children), and the greater resistance of Muslims to family planning. This latter is evidenced by the higher growth rates in the population of both Pakistan and Bangladesh in the period since Partition. But there is no cause for the paranoia in some circles that “Hindus will be reduced to a minority” in India. More reasonable projections suggest that the Muslim population at its peak may be 18-19 per cent of the population.

That would be a significant change from the 10 per cent of 1951, and it is just as well that the government has released the religion-wise census numbers (the previous government had no business hiding them, as though they contained a dirty secret). But one must understand the numbers in order to be able to deal rationally with the issues they raise.

There are three specific issues. First, if the higher growth rate in the population of Muslims is because of their inferior socio-economic census, then that underlying problem should be addressed. However, the report of a commission that went into this a few years ago and recommended solutions was widely criticised. Its recommendations have no chance of getting any purchase with the present government. Second, ways should be explored to encourage more Muslims to adopt family planning.

The third issue would be to explore whether illegal immigration can be reduced. Since this would seem to be the primary problem, every effort should, of course, be made in this direction. But if one is to judge by the experience on the US-Mexican border, there is little chance of success, even if fences are set up and the Border Security Force made less corrupt (anecdotal evidence is strong that they facilitate immigration in return for pay-offs). It is worth bearing in mind that if India continues to do better economically than Bangladesh (whose per capita income is now barely two-thirds of India’s), there will be even more illegal immigration.

Does that mean there is no escape from a steady increase in the Muslim population? Whether one likes it or not, that is the likely prospect for the foreseeable future. Asking Hindus to have more children or attacking Muslims politically will not deliver solutions. What Hindus can usefully do is stop killing girl children, as Mr Modi exhorted the other day. That way there will be more Hindu women reaching child-bearing age.


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