A senior Indian minister has made an unusual claim about the well-being of Indian Muslims. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told a conference in Washington that Muslims couldn’t be doing as badly as is increasingly reported in the Western media.
The proof? Their population has increased since independence from British rule in 1947. It was a far-fetched argument to make before a foreign audience, ostensibly to counter adverse reports swirling about the targeting of Muslims.
A BBC documentary in particular recently riled the establishment into forcibly banishing the report from YouTube and other portals. The documentary cited a secret British assessment describing anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister.
The report held Modi directly accountable for the attack on Muslims. However, the targeting of minorities has expanded geographically and in its intensity to include Christians and Dalits with Modi’s ascent to power, a charge Sitharaman struggled to contest.
Indian countermeasures have included flat denial and bombardment of gullible audiences with Goebbelsian use of Hindu nationalist media. But Sitharaman’s claim at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington on April 10 was in a different league with forbidding implications elsewhere.
By her logic, Palestinians living in an open-air prison under Israeli military occupation should be beholden to the usurpers and not challenging them. After all, their population also is growing; in fact, at a far higher pace than Indian Muslims’. Apply the minister’s population growth theory to the Rohingya, or Yemenis or Afghans, and we should need to tweak our moral compasses to gain lessons in prosperity among those we believed were given a raw deal by man-made circumstances, but whose populations have grown nevertheless to ostensibly defy the claim.
From 1990 to 2021, the population of Palestine increased from 1.98 million to 4.92 million people. As for Yemen, with the present growth rate of 3%, one of the highest in the world, its population would reach 34 million by 2025, despite the calamitous war.
The flipside of the argument would need similar adjustments. The Swiss, among other Europeans whose population is shrinking precariously, should be declared a destitute people.
What exactly did Sitharaman tell the meeting? Reports said she talked about a whole lot of things, not least presenting an account, not without a grain of truth, of the raw deal minorities get in Pakistan.
“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 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?”
It’s a minor fact that Muslim population growth has been a tad ahead of Hindus. According to the 2011 census, Hindus were 79.8% at 966.2 million, Muslims were 14.23% at 172.2 million, Christians were 2.3% at 27.8 million and Sikhs were 1.7% at 20.8 million.
Experts said the rate of Muslim population growth would go down in the next census, delayed by Covid.
“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 79.8% in the 2011 census. The Muslim population share would either stabilise or go down,” Devendra Kothari, former chairman of the national committee to review family welfare, is quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying.
As reported, according to Kothari “anyone with little knowledge of basic mathematics can calculate that even if Hindus don’t produce any offspring and only Muslims give birth to children, religious demography would not ‘tip off’ towards a Muslim majority before 2170”.
Kothari said, Muslims can only outnumber Hindus if the latter “stop producing children completely and that is not going to happen, so it is not possible”.
The Hindu right, however, persists in expressing its misplaced apprehension on India becoming an Islamic country. “Why growing population of Muslims in India should be a matter of concern” is a constant theme with Hindu extremists occasionally calling on their women to produce more children to prevent India from becoming an Islamic country.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath offers another toxic perspective: “The Muslim population [had gone] up as they got special rights.”
What special rights? The Sachchar Committee set up by the Congress-led alliance to prepare a report on the community’s standing (regarded as blasphemous by the current regime) dismisses allegations of Muslim appeasement with hard facts.
There is a clear and significant inverse association between the proportion of the Muslim population and the availability of educational infrastructures in small villages. There are no educational institutions in about a third of small villages with high concentrations of Muslim inhabitants. Meanwhile, among the large villages, about 40% with a substantial Muslim concentration do not have any medical facilities.
Professor emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University Zoya Hasan noted that “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 4pc, the lowest figure since 1952.”
Moreover, the number of Muslim lawmakers has gone down 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%. 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’.” There’s an opening for Sitharaman to use. Muslim MPs increased to 27 in 2019 – by three – an improvement in their life the West shouldn’t ignore.
This article first appeared in Dawn.