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India: Religious Census Data Stirs Controversy

Did the BJP release population data to use it as “ammunition” to incite Hindu masses? So says the opposition.

September 5, 2015

Did the BJP release population data to use it as “ammunition” to incite Hindu masses? So says the opposition.

With a considerable delay, India’s government has published census data collected in 2011 on the religious affiliations of the population. The publication and timing of information has become a political issue.

Religion plays a crucial role in this nominally secular democracy. On more than one occasion, religious issues have had a decisive impact on the outcome of political elections in India.

Often, the relationship of Hindus and Muslims stands at the center of religious disputes. Reminiscences of the past, and memories of eviction, communal violence, discrimination and marginalization overshadow the relationship.

The troubles of the past live on in the minds of the people and impact community affairs today. Reciprocal accusations feed a climate of fear and suspicion and remain a source of communal tensions in some parts of the country.

A hidden agenda?

For many observers and media commentators, the timing of the publication of the sensitive religious data has a political motive. It is related to the upcoming elections in the state of Bihar, they say.

Arguably, this election is the most important political contest of the year. The Bihar Assembly elections lead up to further regional polls. As things stand, every one of those contests is graded up to a political referendum on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Enlarge Muslim girls in Delhi, India

The opposition says Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have released the population data now so that the data could be used as “ammunition” to incite and mobilize the Hindu masses in Bihar and elsewhere.

Looking back, it would not be the first time Narendra Modi has used religious slogans to mobilize his core Hindu nationalist following.

“In the build-up to the assembly elections in Bihar, the data could stir up even greater heat and passion than it would normally,” reported The Times of India. Their headline announcing the data looked like this: “Muslim share of population up 0.8%, Hindus’ down 0.7%.”

Interpreting the data

The data revealed that the share of Hindus in India’s population had fallen very slightly from 80% to 79.8%. At the same time, the share of Muslims rose slightly from 13.4% in 2001 to 14.2% in 2011.

In absolute numbers, India’s overall population stood at 1.21 billion, of which 966 million belong to the Hindu religion and 172 million to the Muslim religion.

Demographers suggest census data should be analyzed not as one-time-snapshots, but in a historical context. In India, population tallies have been conducted every ten years.

Therefore, the data are available for long-range interpretation. One important conclusion to draw from the census data is that all communities show a downward trend in growth.

This downward trend is bigger among the Muslim population than the overall national average. While the growth rate of India’s Muslim population in the decade before 2001 was 45.2%, the same rate shrunk to 24.6% in 2011.

In other words, the dynamism of Muslim population growth has decreased significantly. Also noteworthy, this trend has been going on for some time.

While the annual growth rate of India’s Muslims was higher than 3% before the change of the millennium, it has decreased to 2.5% since.

The root causes

Sociologists explain the demographic development keeping in mind the structural social changes. “The impact of primary education on fertility decline is quite high among Muslims,” says Amitabh Kundu of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development in New Delhi.

While he concedes that a large portion of Muslim women are still not literate, economic growth and education levels are increasing. Consequently “fertility levels will drastically go down.”

Amirullah Khan has studied the correlation of schooling and reproduction and says that access to primary education is “the single biggest variable that determines family size.”

He explains that if young girls go to school, the age of marriage immediately goes up. “As a direct implication, the first pregnancy is delayed by three to five years.” The societal result of this linkage is visible in the recent census data.

The takeaway

This is good news for India and Muslims. The bad news is that not all are rejoicing. Some people are highlighting the fact that the Muslim share has gone up (slightly), giving fodder to nationalist propaganda that Hindu supremacy may be endangered.

Remember, it is election season in India and populist rallying cries have more traction than differentiated empirical data.

Some Muslims are concerned about what may happen next. Eminent Sunni cleric Maulana Mahali called the release of the data “a political stunt that will only end up widening the growing gap between the two communities.”


Opposition says BJP released population data to use it as “ammunition” to incite Hindu masses.

Communal violence, discrimination and marginalization in India overshadow the Hindu-Muslim relationship.

The share of Hindus reduced from 80% to 79.8% and Muslims rose from 13.4% to 14.2% from 2001-11.

India's census data should be analyzed not as one-time-snapshots, but in a historical context.

The growth of India's Muslim population has decreased from 2001 to 2011.