The last thing we need is for reproductive decisions to be dictated by base motives that pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ and for women’s bodies to be used to wage a proxy war in which the only winner is ugly sectarianism
The recently released 2011 census tables on religion tell us that Hindus now number (that is, in 2011 they numbered) 966 million (966257353 to be precise) and Muslims 172 million (172245158 to be precise); in other words, Muslims have grown by 34 million over the span of 10 years while the now close-to-a-billion Hindu majority has added 139 million to its own numbers. These statistics have generated some anxiety and paranoia among a large number of people on Facebook and Twitter, with only a minority of these social media users being more sanguine that ‘our nation’ is not being taken over by ‘other’ people.
Misleading media coverage
Demographic fear-mongering is not unique to India and not new in India. Even before the release of these census figures, pronouncements on fearsome demographic imbalances periodically hit the news whenever ‘religious’ leaders – Hindu or Muslim – feel that they have not attracted enough attention lately. Our media rush to give them attention and also take it upon themselves to contribute to the cause.
Thus one national daily had a large front-page headline declaring “Hindu Population Falls, Muslims Rise”, while another one declaimed, “Hindu population declined; Muslims increased: 2011 Census.” Only the rare patient reader who went beyond the headlines would realize that it wasn’t the absolute number of Hindus that had fallen (as I said, that number has risen by 139 million), just that their proportion in the country had dropped by 0.7% between 2001 and 2011. At that kind of rate of change—and especially given that birth rates have been dropping for all sub-sets of the population in the country—we will have to be reborn several times before we see any reversal of the Hindu majority in the country, notwithstanding a Vishwa Hindu Parishad spokesperson’s claim that the census numbers were a ‘red signal for Hindu existence’.
In the coming weeks and months, there will undoubtedly be more sophisticated analyses of some of the interesting details that underlie these broad statistics. Some of it has already begun in the media: on regional differences in religious group growth rates (for example, that Muslims in the south have lower fertility than Hindus in the north); on the socio-economic determinants of religious differences (for example, that once we control for income and education, the Hindu-Muslim gap in birth rates narrows significantly, even if Muslim fertility still remains somewhat higher than Hindu); on religious differences in gender discrimination (for example, that Muslims have much lower levels of female sex selective abortions than Hindus, even if they are in increasing danger of aping the discriminatory practices of their Hindu neighbours); on trends in religious group fertility (for example, that fertility declines are currently sharper among Muslims).
These elaborations are useful for two reasons. One, they are of interest because they help us better understand the micro-level motivations and compulsions and constraints that underlie macro numbers. Secondly, these elaborations have a very useful policy role – if the goal of development policy is to improve the lives of a country’s citizens, then we need to know what their needs are. For example, do Muslim women have an unmet demand for contraception, and if they do, is this a need that cannot be met by the female sterilisation that is the predominant form of birth control offered by our family planning program, in practice even if not in principle?
Data needs analyses for policy, not politics
Policy planners also need to know what the consequences of high or low fertility are, as opposed to the determinants that take up so much of our time; not the rabble rousing political consequences that wilfully exploit these census numbers, but the consequences for women and families in terms of health, education and standard of living, as well as larger level consequences on the environment, savings rates and so on.
However, at the public level, these analytical elaborations of differentials by religion in population growth rates are unfortunately being largely deployed to explain or ‘defend,’ the differentials. This is well-meaning, but it does not address two important matters. First, Indian Muslims do not and should not need to explain or defend, or have explained or defended on their behalf, their preferences or behaviour, whether on childbearing or on cricket teams, to establish their Indian credentials.
Secondly, and more importantly, these analyses do not address the right of all women, Muslim or Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Jain, to control their own reproductive selves and the duty of state and society to help them exercise such control. India is a signatory to the Plan of Action of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, in which the central commitment is to the rights of women and families to decide for themselves what their family size will be.
Women’s right to reproductive choice
A paranoid and supposedly threatened Hindu majority leadership has no right to tell Muslim women to have fewer children or to exhort Hindu women to have more (as is also often done). And a paranoid and supposedly threatened Muslim minority leadership has no right to tell its women to keep breeding in the larger community’s interest.
As the bearers (and rearers) of children, women everywhere need the freedom, the physical ability and the psychosocial information to work out for themselves when—as well as, if at all—to begin childbearing, with whom to have children, and when to stop. Reproduction – whether any children, many children, or few children – is not a social or religious duty. And it certainly is not a patriotic duty, even if Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini once thought so, and even if worried Japan and Singapore and Italy today, less loudly, think so.
The last thing we need is for something as intimate as reproductive decisions to be dictated by base motives that pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ and for use women’s bodies to be used to wage a proxy war in which the only winner is ugly sectarianism.
Alaka Basu is a social demographer working on reproductive health and family planning and Professor in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, as well as currently Senior Fellow in the United Nations Foundation, Washington DC.