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Census 2011 religious data: Why it is tough to use these numbers for identity politics

The politics of what these figures could mean or what they could be 'spun' to mean is something to ponder.

Written by Seema Chishti |
Updated: August 26, 2015 4:31:33 pm
socio-econocic-caste-census The release of the full and variegated India data is a good thing and there is enough in the data to challenge stereotypes.

As far as demographers go, Census 2011 brings good news on the population stabilisation front. And now we know that even across religions, across all communities, there is a decline in population growth rates. Alok Vajpeyi, of the Population Foundation of India who has studied the data in detail, says the headline should be: “Population growth rates across communities have declined and are converging.”

This is a welcome relief for the second largest country in the world (only China has more people than India) with one of the highest densities of population in the world. The Hindu rate of growth is down, as is the Muslim rate of growth. The difference in the rate of growth of population between the two communities was approximately 10 per cent earlier but in 2011, the gap between the growth rates has narrowed further.

However, the politics of what these figures could mean or what they could be ‘spun’ to mean is something to ponder.

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Having children, producing them faster or slower have been a part of identity politics for a long time. This past year, several calls to “have five children”, were made by politicians including by a senior BJP MP. Stereotypes of “Hum Paanch, hamare pachees” (senior political leaders’ sarcastic remark on Muslims said to be bearing more children than Hindus) were invoked after the Gujarat riots in 2002. The fact that the once contraception-shy Muslim and Christian communities have taken to birth control for a variety of social and economic factors, has been sidelined for the sake of political mobilisation.

Nasbandi or forced sterilisation became synonymous in the public imagination with an ‘excess’ of the Emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975. The damaging fall-out with the camps where vasectomies were forcibly performed (1975-77), made population ‘control’ literally, a bad word, It was replaced by drives to ‘stabilise’ populations. Even internationally, population ‘control’ came under fire and ‘stabilisation’ became the more acceptable word.

Now, several government and non-governmental agencies tell you they have travelled a long way with population growth slowing down. So now the battle is not about changing ‘community’ views, but to ensure that across communities, the reproductive choice rests with women.

Across communities, this is one right that has been often taken away as witnessed in the recent disastrous attempts at forcibly sterilising women in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, among other states. Perhaps the political fallout of vasectomies in the 1970s still casts its long shadow, with forcing women a misplaced, but seemingly easier option.

With elections due within the next year in Bihar and Assam, states where the Muslim share of the population has grown, it is tempting to see the release of the religious data now, as an attempt to make these debating points rather than the other bread and butter issues that should make the cut in state elections.

However, look at Kerala: it has the highest proportion of minorities amongst the larger states as well one of the best socio-economic variables in the country. Here, across all three major communities, there are more women than men and the growth rates of the population — Hindus, Muslims and Christians — are lower than the Hindu rate of growth in states like UP and Bihar.

The release of the full and variegated India data is a good thing and there is enough in the data to challenge stereotypes. Unfortunately, it likely to be `spun’ in the days to come by political parties anxious to invoke demographic paranoia as a part of political mobilisation

Life and birth in India is far more complex.

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