How most newspapers missed the real story behind the census data on religion
New Delhi: The Muslim population is going up while the population of Hindus is going down. This seems to be the message being spread by the bulk of news reports on the ‘population by religious community’ data released by the Census of India on August 25.
However, a deeper analysis of the data makes it clear that the population growth rates of both Muslims and Hindus are on the decline and that the two rates are beginning to converge over time.
The growth figures for the main religious communities in India over the decade ending 2011 show that the Hindu population increased by 16.8%, Muslim by 24.6%, Christian 15.5%, Sikh 8.4%, Buddhist 6.1% and Jain 5.4%. As of the 2011 census, 79.8% of Indians were Hindu.
The statistics for the previous decade (i.e. from the 2001 census) show that the Hindu population increased by 19.9% while the Muslim population increased by 29.5%. Simple arithmetic then dictates the decline in the growth rate for Muslims—4.9 percentage points— is greater than that for Hindus—3.1 percentage points—when compared to the last decade.
But then a story like that most definitely won’t warrant sensationalist or scare-mongering headlines.
So what did the day’s headlines say?
Amar Ujala: Aabadi ki raftaar, Hindu ki dheemi, Muslimo ki tez (The population growth of Hindus is slowing while that of Muslims is increasing)
Pioneer: Muslim numbers up, Hindus down
Hindustan Times: Hindu proportion of India’s population less than 80%
Times of India: Muslim share of population up 0.8%, Hindus’ down 0.7%
The Indian Express headline had a better nuance — ‘Hindus dip to below 80% of the population; Muslim share up, slows down’ — but of all the mainstream newspapers, The Hindu got the story absolutely right: ‘Muslim population growth slows’, its report, by Rukmini S. and Vijaita Singh, was headlined.
Apart from The Hindu, what most media reports failed to realise is that the story was not that Muslim population growth is higher than Hindu population growth. This has been the case for at least the past six decades. But as our chart shows, the big story is how the gap between these two growth rates is closing.
It is also important to point out that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of women with respect to men among Muslims.
According to the latest census data there are now 956 Muslim women for every 1,000 Muslim males, while in the previous decade it was 936 for every thousand. In comparison the increase in the sex ratio for Hindus hasn’t been that high: from 931 Hindu females for every 1,000 Hindu males to 939 this decade. The sex ratio for Sikhs has also risen and is now 902—up from an abysmally low 893 in 2001.
Fertility being higher among Muslims since independence, demographers say, is a completely natural phenomenon since their rates are closely linked to socio-economic factors. For one, the increase in access to education and health and changing family expectations is bound to reduce fertility, and this is the reason why the rate of population growth across all communities is coming down. The fact that the Muslim growth rate is showing the sharpest decline is a positive sign from the standpoint that it reflects improving access to healthcare and education.
It was suggested by some that the release of the religion census data was held back by the previous UPA government for “political” reasons and has now been released by the NDA government, allegedly for “political” reasons again. If this is true, it merely shows how India’s leading political parties have no knowledge at all of the basics of demography or statistics.