Why Nirmala Sitharaman Is Wrong to Say 'Growing' Muslim Population Means All Is Well

The finance minister evoked the debunked bogey of high Muslim population growth rates. She, however, did not note that Indian Muslims are facing a severe crisis of under-representation, especially in public life.

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s recent comment about Muslims in India has generated a lot of commentary.

In response to a question asked at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, Sithraman on April 10 said, “India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, and that population is only growing in numbers. If there is a perception, or if there’s in reality, their lives are difficult or made difficult with the support of the state, which is what is implied in most of these write-ups, I would ask, will this happen in India in the sense, will the Muslim population be growing than what it was in 1947?”

But citing the “growing” Muslim population as a metric to judge Muslim well-being is disconcerting at many levels.

Sangh bogey

For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindutva organisations in India, “rising Muslim population” has long been a rallying cry. Among these circles, there has been anxiety over the churn in the demography of the country. The anxiety has found its expression on several occasions and has been articulated by multiple Hindutva outfits.

Recently, Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, carried a story on the same with the headline “Why growing population of Muslims in India should be a matter of concern”.

In another instance, Akhil Bhartiya Sant Parishad’s Himachal Pradesh in-charge, Yati Satyadevanand Saraswati, has urged Hindus to give birth to more children to prevent India from becoming an Islamic country.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath mouthed the same logic in January 2020, when he had said the “Muslim population [had gone] up as they got special rights”. Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has recently stated that Muslims are “35%” of Assam and “not a minority”. He also said, “Muslim population consists 35% of the total population of the state. There is no need to encroach the lands of tribal people residing in the Sixth Schedule areas. If Das, Kalita Barman, Gogoi, Chutia have not settled on their lands, Islam and Rahman must also refrain from settling in those lands.”

The dog whistle of rising Muslim population also came to the fore when Ashwini Upadhyay, a BJP leader and lawyer, moved the Supreme Court in November last year, “seeking a direction to the Law Commission to prepare a comprehensive policy or legislation to deal with population control”. However, the court refused to entertain his petition.

The reality of India’s demographics

As per the 2011 Census, Hindus constituted 79.80% of the population at 96.62 crore (966.2 million) and Muslims accounted for 14.23% at 17.22 crore (172.2 million).

Devendra Kothari, former chairperson of the national committee to review the family welfare programme, cited scientific analysis to say that the rate of Muslim population growth will go down in the next Census.

“In the next census, the Hindu population would show a slight increase in the share of the population to increase to about 80.3% in comparison to 79.80% in the 2011 Census. The Muslim population share would either stabilise or go down,” the population and development expert told PTI in April 2022.

According to official data, the demographic ratio of India shows an increase in Muslims from 9.8% in 1951 to 14.2% in 2011, when the last Census was held, and a decline in Hindus from 84.1% to 79.8%. However, the increase in the Muslim population is just 4.4% points in 60 years.

In his book, The Population Myth, former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi has busted myths propagated about a Muslim population explosion which talk of the “Muslim population increasing” plays into.

The crisis of un-representation looms large

Quraishi has said a “myth” of Muslim appeasement was created in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage polarisation, and that despite accounting for over 14% of the population, Muslims’ representation in civil services and other government cadres was around 2-3%.

The prime minister’s high-level committee on Muslim social educational and economic backwardness, referred to as the Sachar Committee, had revealed startling details in 2006 on low levels of Muslim representation in the bureaucracy.

But for the first time in independent India, there is currently no minister in the Union cabinet who hails from the community. Aakar Patel recently wrote, “Of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha and 92 Rajya Sabha MPs, not one is a Muslim. Incredibly, of its more than 1,000 MLAs across India, there is not a single Muslim.”

Since 2014, political scientists have pointed out that the absence of Muslims in public life is stark.

Political scientist and Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Zoya Hasan, has written in her chapter in the Politics of Representation: Historically Disadvantaged Groups in India’s Democracy, in October 2022 (edited by Sudha Pai and Sukhdeo Thorat), “Muslim representation in parliament was at an all-time low in 2014. In the 1980 election, almost 10% of those elected were Muslim. In 2014, they accounted for less than 4%, the lowest figure since 1952.

Their representation has declined even as the community’s population has more than doubled from 68 million in 1981 to 172 million in 2011. The number of Muslim MPs has halved from 49 in 1980 to 23 in 2014 which was down from 30 in 2009. The under-representation of Muslims is stark when compared to their population proportion of 14.3%. Going by their population ‘they should have at least 77 MPs in the Lok Sabha but their number is only 23, accounting for a deficit of 54 members.’

This has been rightly described as an unprecedented moment in the history of India’s democracy.

Against this backdrop, for the Union finance minister to cite the “growing population” of Muslims since 1947 as the reason why no questions should be raised about their well-being echoes the worst prejudices of the Sangh parivar. Her statement also raises more questions than answers about the intent and the commitment of the present government to an inclusive democracy comprising all citizens as equals.