Same data, new spin: The noise over the study on Hindu-Muslim population explained

The authors of a recent study on religion-wise population in India says that growth in Muslim population is a sign that minorities are safe in India, but it is being misinterpreted for communal rhetoric.
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A report on religion-wise population growth in India has raked up a controversy, as it shows that the percentage of Muslim population has increased from 1950 to 2015, while the percentage of Hindu population has seen a slight dip. The report itself, prepared by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, shows this in a positive light, as a step towards more diversity and heterogeneity. The paper suggests that this is a sign that India is providing a “congenial environment for the flourishing of minorities.” But BJP leaders have given it a communal spin, falsely insinuating that Muslim population is growing at an ‘alarming’ rate due to ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘conversions’, and also blaming Congress for the same. 

The data from the paper says nothing new when compared to Census data till 2011, but is being used to give credence to the polarising Hindu-Muslim communal narrative pushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the ongoing elections.

Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has claimed that the report’s finding on Hindu and Muslim population changes is important. He asked why “only the Muslim community” population had risen so much, and wondered how much of the growth was due to “illegal immigration” and religious conversion. “This is what decades of Congress rule did to us. Left to them, there would be no country for Hindus,” BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya said while reacting to the study. Several mainstream media outlets have also covered the report with misinterpretations along similar lines. 

Not new information 

Citing data from the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset (RCS-Dem, 2017), the paper says that in India, “the share of the majority Hindu population decreased by 7.82% between 1950 and 2015 (from 84.68% to 78.06%). The share of Muslim population in 1950 was 9.84% and increased to 14.09% in 2015 – a 43.15% increase in their share.” 

Critics have questioned the basis of the 2015 estimates of religious population used in the study, since the last decadal Census was conducted in 2011, and the next one scheduled for 2021 is yet to begin. Shamika Ravi, member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister and one of the authors of the study, said that the 2015 figures are population projections based on past Census data. 

First, the paper itself shows that the percentage drop in the share of the majority religious group, Hindu, in India (7.8%) is a lot lower than the global levels. Worldwide, “the share of the majority religious denomination has gone down by approximately 22%,” the study said. So not only has India's Hindu population fallen at a rate that is not concerning, but the figures are not new, and don’t say anything different from Census figures. 

“The change in religious composition of a population is a complex phenomenon because several factors contribute to it, such as migration, conversion, differences in fertility rates and variation in territorial boundaries as a result of political processes. We abstract away from the causes of this change and instead focus on the share of the minority population as a cumulative outcome measure of their well-being,” the report titled Share of Religious Minorities: A Cross-Country Analysis (1950-2015) authored by authored by EAC-PM member Shamika Ravi, consultant Apurv Kumar Mishra, and Abraham Jose says. 

KS James, who served as the director of International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS) till recently and oversaw important studies like the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), told TNM that while the EAC’s paper provides data that is in line with Census figures, computing the growth rate on the share of the population for comparison gives misleading results and will exaggerate the rise in the Muslim population and the fall in the Hindu population. 

For example, if the Hindu population in the United Kingdom increased from its share of 0.3% to 1.2% over the last 70 years, speaking of it in terms of percentage growth gives us a massive growth rate of 300%, while the share still remains critically low. He said that instead, the change in percentage points gives a fairer picture. 

In that case, the share of India’s Hindu population has decreased by about seven percentage points (84.1% in 1951 to 79.8% in 2011), and the share of Muslim population has gone up by about 4.4 percentage points (9.8% to 14.2%) from 1950 to 2011, as per the Census. These numbers are well known and unsurprising, given that the growth rate of various religious groups has been slightly different, James said. 

In July 2023, the Union government suspended James, and reports suggested that this was because the government was unhappy with the data that surfaced from the NFHS surveys that were carried out under his supervision.

“In 60 years, when the population growth was very high, Muslims’ share in the population increased by less than five percentage points. Now that the fertility rate has slowed down, their share may not change much in the future. There is no way Muslims can become a majority in India,” James said.

According to the Census of India which has been held every decade between 1951 and 2011, during these sixty years, the percentage of Hindus went down from 85% to 80%, and the percentage of Muslims went up from 10% to 14%.

Much of the rise in Muslim population, however, happened during the 20th century, when it grew from 9.91% in 1951 to 13.43% in 2001. Between 2001 and 2011, Muslim population percentage went up only by 0.8 percentage points. Moreover, if the RCS-Dem dataset projections were to be compared with the Census data, the percentage of Muslims in the population would have seen a slight decline from 14.23% in 2011 to 14.09% in 2015 (by 0.14 percentage points). 

While the 'percentage points' are used to indicate the amount of the change, 'percentage growth’ is used to describe how much a number has changed in relation to a previous number.

What are the facts on the religious population in India?

Statements like the one made by Rajeev Chandrasekhar reinforce the right-wing’s fear-mongering narrative that Muslims are increasing in number due to forced religious conversions, illegal migration and a higher births, and that the Congress if voted to power will deny resources to poor Hindus and oppressed castes in favour of Muslims. 

”How much of this growth has been because of illegal immigration and conversion? How much of this growth is of the Muslim community alone, is crowding out the other minority communities like Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians from the benefits that minorities get from the Government of India and state governments?” Rajeev asked. The BJP has been making similar misleading claims despite there being no mention in Congress manifesto of snatching away rights or benefits of SC, ST or OBC members to give it to Muslims. 

While the total fertility rates have been higher among Muslims than Hindus for a few years now, the overall fertility rate as well as that among both Hindus and Muslims have been steadily declining with time, as per the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) conducted by the Union Health Ministry. While Muslim fertility rate is the highest among all religions as per NFHS-5 (2019-21), the community’s total fertility rate has also seen the sharpest decline by about one percentage point (from 3.4 to 2.4). 

The study notes that changes in religious composition of a population is a complex phenomenon because of many factors involved “such as migration,conversion, differences in fertility rates and variation in territorial boundaries as a result of political processes.” However, the authors said they only wanted to focus on “the share of the minority population as a cumulative outcome measure of their well-being.”

As has reported, a 2021 study released in 2021 by the Pew Research Center  had concluded fertility rates to be the primary driver of population change in India. The same study also found that 98% of Indian adults identified with the religion in which they were raised, suggesting that religious conversions cannot be the main driver of Muslim population growth. 

The Population Foundation of India said the falling trends in total fertility rates across communities “underscores that the fertility rates are converging across different religious communities” and that fertility rates are linked to education and income levels, not religion. “States with better access to education, healthcare, and socioeconomic development, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, exhibit lower total fertility rates across all religious groups,” it said. 

Reacting to the media coverage of the study, the Population Foundation of India issued a statement cautioning against misreporting intended to “spread alarm regarding the growth of the Muslim population. Such interpretations are not only inaccurate but also misleading and baseless.”

"The media's selective portrayal of data to highlight the increase in the Muslim population is an example of misrepresentation that ignores broader demographic trends," the statement said. It also noted that as per the Census, even the decadal growth rate for Muslims — the percentage of total population growth in a particular decade — has been declining over the past three decades. 

“Specifically, the decadal growth rate for Muslims decreased from 32.9% in 1981-1991 to 24.6% in 2001-2011. This decline is more pronounced than that of Hindus, whose growth rate fell from 22.7% to 16.8% over the same period. The census data is available from 1951 to 2011 and is quite similar to the data in this study, indicating that these numbers are not new,” the statement said. 

Although the timing of the report and media coverage around it is being questioned, the study itself concludes that, “Given its plural, liberal and democratic nature, India has continued its civilisational tradition of harbouring persecuted populations from several countries over the last six decades.” Repeating this claim, Shamika said, “The Indian experience is similar to Western liberal democracies, where minorities’ share is actually growing with time."  

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