Why fears over rising Muslim population share, immigration unfounded

The rise of communal tension in recent years owes much to the BJP’s stress on two themes. One is high Muslim fertility that supposedly threatens the majority status of Hindus. The second is the threat to India from Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, who have been called “termites” by Home Minister Amit Shah. Both themes have been torpedoed by recent analysis of India’s own data by the Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan US think tank.

The Muslim population share has indeed risen in every census since independence, from 9.8% in 1951 to 14.2% in 2011. The Hindu share has fallen from 84.1% to 79.8%. The 2021 census has been postponed because of Covid. The rise of 4.4% population share for Muslims in six decades has been very gradual. Continuation of this trend would make  the Muslim population share no more than 20% at century-end. In fact, the increase will be much less because the gap between Muslim and Hindu fertility is falling fast and may close altogether in the foreseeable future.

The National Family Health Survey of 1992-2015 is the most recent authoritative source of fertility data. In this period, the total fertility rate of Muslims — number of children per woman — has fallen steeply from 4.4 to 2.6. The fertility rate for Hindus has declined more slowly, from 3.3 to 2.1. Clearly Muslims are adopting family planning at a faster rate than Hindus after a late start.

The world over, rising incomes were accompanied by falling fertility. Very poor families had no understanding of or access to family planning, infant mortality killed more than half of children born, and having several children was a form of old-age security. With rising incomes, parents want to focus all their resources on a few children and ensure success for them. Hence rising incomes have led to falling fertility the world over, with neither Hindus nor Muslims proving exceptions in India. Muslims are more economically backward and will therefore take more time to reach the fertility rate of 2.1 children will exactly replace the number of parents, leading (with a time lag) to zero Muslim population growth.

In India, there were additional historical reasons that led to slower population growth for Hindus than Muslims. The most important one was that Hindu tradition forbade widow remarriage, whereas Muslim tradition encouraged quick remarriage. In earlier decades, the male death rate was much higher than today, and so widowhood at child-bearing age was more frequent. Child marriage was common, and if the boy died before puberty the girl became a child widow condemned to childlessness. Migrant male labour was more common among Hindu groups than Muslim ones, and separation from their wives meant fewer children. These two historical differences have narrowed considerably over time.

The Pew Centre notes that the fertility gap between Muslims and Hindus was 1.1 children in 1992, and has more than halved to 0.5 children in 2015. If this trend continues, the gap should disappear altogether in a little over two decades. In short, there is no threat whatsoever to the huge preponderance of Hindus in India.

Migration is another possible cause of changes in population share of different communities. But the Pew Centre found that as many as 99% of Indians counted in the last census were also born in India. It is not well known that out-migration from India is thrice that of in-migration, so fears of India being overrun by foreigners is fantasy. In 2015, 15.6 million people born in India were living abroad. By contrast, in-migrants — people born abroad but living in India — numbered only 5.6 million. Possibly in-migrants are undercounted but there is no evidence to show the numbers are large. The biggest inflow has come from Bangladesh (3.2 million), Pakistan (1.1 million), Nepal (540,000), and Sri Lanka (160,000), and many are Hindus.

More Muslims are migrating out of India than into India. The biggest out-migration destinations are the United Arab Emirates (3.5 million), Pakistan (2 million) and the US (2 million). Muslims account for 27% of out-migrants against their population share of just 14.2%. Hindus account for only 45% of out-migrants against their population share of 79%. The biggest imbalance relates to Christians with 17% of out-migrants against their population share of 3%. Contrary to RSS belief, missionaries are not swamping India with conversions: the population share of Christians has stayed at 2.3% from 1951 to 2015.

In sum, neither of the alarms raised by the BJP over Muslim population share and immigration have substance. These are falsehoods aiming to win votes by making Hindus fearful through baseless alarmism and false data. In the coming state elections, these falsehoods will need a lot of combating.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on 2 October 2021.

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