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‘There is nothing like a Hindu birth rate or a Muslim birth rate’

Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, who's out with a new book 'The Population Myth', on the politicisation of population data, myths about the polygamous Muslim and the lack of an efficient communication strategy

Written by Kaushik Das Gupta | New Delhi |
Updated: March 28, 2021 9:06:54 am
Family ties: As education and literacy go up, the number of children goes down — across communities. (Photo: Getty)

Your book demystifies critical aspects of demographics in India. Is demographics actually well understood in the country?
It’s understood only as a vague general term — population. There are generalised notions like some people, particularly Muslims, have too many children and because of their high birth rates, the Hindu-Muslim ratio is getting disturbed, and they are likely to overtake Hindus very soon, etc. The politics of polarisation is principally built on this narrative.

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In Chapter 8 of my book, which describes the politics of population, I have quoted statements of the top leadership of right-wing organisations, which talk of Muslims overtaking the Hindus mainly by marrying four wives. There are slogans such as Hum paanch, humare pacchees, hum chaar, humare chaalees. These myths have been repeated ad nauseam for years. Many leaders have called upon Hindus to produce many children. The most recent example is the Uttarakhand chief minister (Tirath Singh Rawat) exhorting Hindus to produce large numbers (of offspring) to get entitled to bigger ration quotas.

In your long career as a civil servant, you may have encountered such tendencies.
I did not encounter much communalism within the civil services in my time. But, in conversations with people, I did hear murmurs such as Hindus have two children, while Muslim have 10. In fact, when I started writing a paper on the subject in 1995, I too lived under some myths such as Islam is against family planning and that Muslims have too many children by having a high incidence of polygamy. That this was a fallacy became apparent when I started looking at actual figures — the gap between birth rates of Hindus and Muslims was never more than one child, which has now come down to 0.5. Also, if Muslims have the highest birth rate, Hindus are not far behind with the second-highest.

In your book, you talk of region-specific birth rates. Could you please elaborate?
I have argued that there is nothing like a ‘Hindu birth rate’ or a ‘Muslim birth rate’. Birth rates are region-specific. A Hindu family in Bihar might have four children while a Muslim family in Kerala or Tamil Nadu may have less than two children. Similarly, the birth rate of Muslims varies widely across the states — from 1.74 per cent in Tamil Nadu to more than 4 per cent in Bihar. Actually, in 22 states, the birth rate of Muslims is less than that of Hindus in Bihar. If religion was a factor, Muslims everywhere would be having many children. There are as wide variations in Hindu rate of growth across states, as well. The factors which influence the birth rates of people across all communities are socioeconomic.

The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India. by SY Quraishi

What have we done right with respect to family planning in India and where have we gone wrong?
Early recognition of the problem was the best thing that happened to India. We were the first country in the world to start a national family-planning programme in 1952. I think our family-planning programme is quite a success story. Without coercive measures (except during Emergency 1975-77 the backlash of which is still evident), 24 states of 29 have reached the stage of ‘less than replacement level’. The replacement level is 2.1 children, which means that when the parents die, their two children take over. The national growth rate is 2.4, mainly because of the high birth rate in states, popularly known as the BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states.
I talk of three main socioeconomic determinants of family planning. One, education and literacy. As education and literacy go up, the number of children goes down — across communities. Two, there is the same correlation of birth rates with income. Third, as family-planning service delivery improves, birth rate goes down. In terms of all these determinants, Muslims are the most backward — they are the least educated and poorest, and service delivery to them is the weakest because doctors are reluctant to go to Muslim pockets. Of course, these main factors interplay with others. For example, with literacy, the age of marriage gets delayed. Late marriage means late pregnancy, shorter fertility period. Education also is a stepping stone to higher income, with spin-offs on birth rates. It is unfortunate that people who talk of high-birth rate of Muslims don’t address Muslim incomes and education and hesitate to serve in Muslim areas.

One myth that you talked about extensively in your book is the myth of the polygamous Muslim. Can you elaborate on that?
The allegation is that Muslims marry four women so that they can produce more children. This is a myth at several levels. According to Status of Women in India Committee Report 1975, polygamy is prevalent in all communities and Muslims have the least. The Census data from 1931-1961 corroborates this (This aspect was deleted from Census enumeration after that). Second, polygamy is statistically not possible as the gender ratio is severely against women — in 2020, there were 924 women against 1,000 men. Thirdly, Islam’s view on polygamy is misunderstood, I dare say, even amongst Muslims. Islam permits polygamy, that, too, conditionally; it is not an injunction. The verse related to polygamy in the Quran, in fact, has two conditions — marrying orphans and widows and treating them equally.

Can you talk about Islam and family planning?
Nowhere in the Quran is family planning prohibited. There are only interpretations, both for and against. In my book, I discuss both these interpretations. I have talked about the clinching verse of the Quran: “Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste until God gives them the means” (Qur’an 24:33). It means men should marry only when they have the wherewithal to support a family. Islam talks of things like the quality of upbringing, health of mother and health of children. In Islamic countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, Imams have propagated family planning from masjids. In fact, Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of population control — their birth rate is 2.1

What should be done to dispel these myths?
The government must dispel myths both among Hindus and Muslims with facts and figures. I once asked an official what the government was doing to reach out to Muslims. His response — ‘We make no distinctions between communities’ — though politically correct, was wrong in terms of communication strategy. We should have equipped our staff with the right information (a resource book) about Islam and family planning, to counter myths. They should have reached out to liberals among the clergy to seek their support in the family-planning programme. In one chapter, I have given a detailed communication strategy.

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