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  • 18 Jun, 2024

Has India's Muslim Population Surged?

Has India's Muslim Population Surged?

A recent government report suggests that the proportion of the country's Muslim population has risen by 43% since 1950, sparking an unsupported conspiracy theory.

New Delhi, A new working paper published by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC) reveals that the proportion of Indian Muslims in the country's population has surged by over 43% since 1950. 

Amidst India's intense national election campaign, where Modi has increasingly depicted alarming scenarios of Muslims supported by opposition parties seizing control of the nation's resources, the timing of the report has drawn criticism. Certain factions within Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have seized upon the paper's findings to reinforce a narrative long propagated by the Hindu right, suggesting that the religious majority of the Muslim community in the country is endangered.

Therefore, what assertions does the paper make, and what do the actual statistics indicate? Is the Muslim population of India genuinely expanding at a significantly faster rate compared to other communities, such as Hindus? Moreover, what are the reasons behind the criticism directed towards the report?

What are the Findings of the Working Paper?

The report examines global demographic patterns from 1950 to 2015, drawing on data from the Association of Religion Data Archive (ARDA), an accessible online repository of global religious statistics.

It asserts that during the studied period, the Muslim population's proportion in India surged by 43.15 percent, rising from 9.84 percent to 14.09 percent. In contrast, it notes a 7.82 percent decline in the majority Hindu population share, decreasing from 84.68 percent to 78.06 percent.

Furthermore, it highlights a slight increase in India's Christian population share from 2.24 percent to 2.36 percent, marking a 5.38 percent rise, and a 6.58 percent growth in the Sikh population, climbing from 1.74 percent in 1950 to 1.85 percent in 2015. While it acknowledges a growth in India's Buddhist population from 0.05 percent to 0.81 percent, it omits the percentage increase, which amounts to nearly 1,600 percent based on this methodology, for the community.

The report observes that in the majority of the 167 countries surveyed, the population proportion of the dominant religious faith has diminished. However, some countries in India's vicinity, such as Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, as well as Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and Bhutan, defy this trend.

Regarding India, the report suggests that the rise in the population of various religious minorities reflects a "cumulative measure of their well-being." Despite numerous international reports and rankings warning of a decline in religious freedom in India, the data, according to the paper, indicates that "minorities are not just protected but thriving" in the country.

However, according to some economists, the paper overlooks crucial context, and its release during the election period prompts inquiries into its motives.

Santosh Mehrotra, a development economist and visiting professor at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, remarked, "The paper appears to fulfill the agenda of the ruling regime rather than serving as genuine 'research'."

Does this Data Lack Proper Context?

The report bases its findings on a survey rather than the decadal national Census, last conducted in 2011. The 2021 census was postponed due to COVID-19, yet the Modi government has not yet outlined a timetable for its delayed execution. Typically, demographers view census data as more reliable, as survey outcomes, with smaller sample sizes, may hinge on participant selection.

"There's no substitute for the census, and policymaking without this essential data is hampered," stated Aashish Gupta, a demographer and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Oxford. "This absence has far-reaching implications, from fund allocations to policy formulation—none of the changes in India over the past 14 years have been factored in."

Critics of the paper argue that it overlooks the actual growth in the Hindu population during this period and how it compares to the increase in the Muslim population. From 1951 to 2011, the Muslim population rose from 35.4 million to 172 million, while the Hindu population increased from 303 million to 966 million—a growth rate five times higher.

According to Gupta, all of these factors erode the paper's credibility. "This paper exaggerates insignificant details," he remarked. "It serves as a tool for propaganda and political agendas rather than a scholarly endeavor."

The Myth of Muslim Population Growth

For years, India's Hindu majoritarian right has propagated a conspiracy theory known as "population jihad," alleging that Indian Muslims have higher fertility rates and aim to eventually surpass Hindus in numbers.

However, official government data reveals a different reality: Muslim fertility rates are declining more rapidly than those of any other major religious group in India. Between 1992 and 2021, the fertility rate among Muslims decreased from 4.41 to 2.36, while for Hindus, it dropped from 3.3 to 1.94.

Gupta pointed out that the report overlooks this significant demographic shift.

Critics argue that the new government paper inadvertently lends credence to a debunked narrative. According to Mehrotra, when politicians propagate anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, they may be dismissed as coded messages. However, a divisive paper bearing the stamp of the EAC carries a degree of legitimacy.

“This government is misusing its resources to further its political agenda,” remarked Mehrotra. "For the past century, the Hindu right has been stoking fear about the Muslim population, and this paper adds to that narrative without exercising critical analysis."

Importance of the Report

As the re-election campaign progresses, Modi has intensified his rhetoric against India's 200 million Muslims, seemingly labeling them as "infiltrators" and characterizing them as "those who have more children," although he appeared to distance himself from these remarks in a subsequent interview.

The new government report has provided fresh ammunition for baseless assertions from the PM's party that India's Hindu majority is under threat.

Amit Malviya, head of the BJP's national information department, referenced the report to share on X that if the opposition Congress party were to take charge, "there would be no country left for Hindus." Another minister from Modi’s cabinet, Smriti Irani, asserted that the report provided "evidence of the harm inflicted upon Hindus" and emphasized that the Congress's legacy entails "persecution and disrespect towards the Hindu community."

Gupta remarked that the new EAC paper "exploits the fears that are utilized to vilify India’s minority communities." "To some extent, it serves as a strategic maneuver—a tool for propaganda," he added.

As some sections of the Indian media amplified the conclusions of the report, the Population Foundation of India, an independent think tank, expressed concerns, accusing them of “spreading alarm regarding the growth of the Muslim population”, calling the interpretations “not only inaccurate but also misleading and baseless”.