Monday, 30 November 2015

India: Resolving Hindu - Muslim population controversies

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

If the economy is allowed to develop unimpeded the population issue has to be discussed thoroughly.

Differential population growth and fertility rates by religion are a major political issue in India. There is a widespread feeling that the main cause of population explosion in India is the   higher fertility among Muslims as compared to other religious groups, especially Hindus. Further, it is often argued that the growing demographic imbalances in India should indeed be matter of serious concern as they seem to have serious repercussions on the very survival of the “Indian civilization”. [1]  Whether we agree or not, I strongly believe that unless the Hindu-Muslim population issue is resolved, it will have serious implications for the socio-economic development. In addition, it will affect everything from efforts toward a uniform civil code to the debate about religious conversions to assumptions about Indian secularism.   A national plan, therefore, is urgently required to step up to resolve the issue. This post discusses the issue and provides facts/information for rational analysis and action plan.[2]

India is home to many religions and cultures in the world. Various religions like Hinduism apart from Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism started in India. With around 80 per cent of India's population, Hinduism is the most dominant religion in India. Islam is the second most dominant religion in the country. Jain, Sikhs and Christians are also present in the country but in a very small proportions and their share is declining or stable. The Hindus are present in almost every nook and corner of the country. On the other hand, the Muslims are mainly concentrated in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Although the census might say that India contains a majority of persons who describe themselves as Hindu, it remains a constitutionally secular republic which does not officially recognize any religious identity as a defining characteristic of an Indian.  However, Census data on demographic transition shows a journey split on religion lines. During the decade 2001-11, India’s total population increased by 17.7 per cent; however, according to the Census data on Population by Religious Communities indicate that over this period the Muslim population in India grew by 24.6 per cent while the decadal population growth for Hindus stood at 16.8 per cent. In absolute numbers, the Hindu population increased by 139 million during 2001-11 while the Muslim population increased by 34 million.


The share of other religious groups like Sikhs and Christians in the total population remained steady at around 2 per cent each, roughly in the same range as in the 2001 census (Table 1). Over 2001-11 decade, Christians grew by 15.5 per cent Sikhs by 8.4 per cent   Jains by 5.4 per cent and Buddhists by 6.1 per cent.  Those stating other religions and persuasions grew by 19.6 per cent in the 10 years preceding 2011.


Though Muslims' all-India decadal growth is less than the 29.3 per cent recorded between 1991 and 2001, their state-wise decadal growth rate was higher than that of Hindus in all 35 states and Union Territories in 2001-11, as noted in the previous decade. In some states, the Muslim population registered more than their national average that is in Mizoram (46.9%), Haryana (45.7%), Punjab (40.2%), Nagaland (39.9%), Uttarakhand (39%), Rajasthan (29.8%), Assam (29.6%), Jharkhand (28.5%), Bihar (28%), Gujarat (27.3%), Maharashtra (26.3%), J&K (26.1), etc. Kerala, with 27 percent  Muslim population  of the state, returned interesting results with a 12.8 per cent rise in Muslim population between 2001 and 2011, far higher than the corresponding figures for Hindus (2.2%  with 55 % of total population) and Christians (1.4% with 18%).


Religious minorities in India - with the exception of Sikhs - live more in urban areas than rural. While only 29 per cent of Hindus live in urban areas, 40 per cent of Muslims and Christians and a whopping 80 per cent of Jains live in towns and cities in 2011. The gender skew varies significantly between various religious communities with sex ratio (number of females for every 1000 males). The good news is that compared to 2001, the ratio has improved in each of India’s six largest religious groups, the most impressive improvement being among Muslims (from 936 to 951) and the lowest among Hindus (from 931 to 939).  



 Table 1: Trends in Indian population by religious groups, 1991-2011
Religious group
Percentage of total population
Decadal growth in per cent


Is India’s overwhelming Hindu majority shrinking? The Census 2011 data shows that since independence, the share of Hindus has dropped by 4.3 percentage points while the share of Muslims has increased by more than 4 percentage points from 9.8 per cent in 1951 to 14.2 per cent in 2011.  According to the 1951 census, Hindus comprised 84.1 per cent of the population post partition, after the inflow of Hindus from Pakistan and the outflow of Muslims at partition changed in the country’s demography. Hindus comprised just about 66 per cent of the population of India before partition. The drop in share of Hindus, due to a steady dip in the rate of growth of the Hindu population, comes on the back of rising education and income levels of the majority community.

In absolute terms, the Hindu population increased more than three-fold from 303 million to 966 million during the 60 years till 2011, while the number of Muslims increased from    35 million to 172 million in the corresponding period. Thus, the nearly five times increase in the size of Muslim population in the corresponding period is a major cause of concern among the majority Hindus.

That may be the reason why a slight dip in proportion of Hindus from 80.5 per cent to 79.8 per cent of India’s population in the decade to 2011 as compared to an increase in Muslim percentage from 13.4 per cent to 14.2 percent has dominated analysis of census data on religious communities. A Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VSP) leader responded to the findings by suggesting that India was on its way to becoming another Afghanistan or Pakistan. Not long afterwards, a vice president of the Hindu Mahasabha demanded that Muslims be forcibly sterilized. Shiv Sena’s official newspaper Saamna, echoing founder Balasaheb Thackeray, called for Muslims to be disenfranchised. In addition, there has been a steady stream of outlandish statements advocating that every Hindu couple needed to produce four children (the number has now gone up to ten). What is the chance that these declarations of intent will get picked up and adopted by a significant number of Hindu women?
Fortunately, none of these views appear to represent mainstream opinion. But, they stand out as examples of how not to discuss demographic change. If sensible people cannot speak calmly about the issue, they effectively cede it to assorted cranks, bigots and conspiracy theorists, as noted by the TOI editorial.[3]
An analysis of available data indicates that extreme statements, as noted above, miss the wood for the trees. The Pew survey suggests a far more nuanced picture than the overheated rhetoric that grabs the headlines. With fertility rates comfortably above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, in absolute terms India’s Hindu population is growing, not declining. Over the next 35 years, it will swell by over 300 million people to total nearly 1.3 billion. By 2050 it will be 77 per cent Hindu. But India also is expected have 311 million Muslims in 2050, making it the country with the largest population of Muslims in the world. [4]  Currently, Indonesia has the world’s largest number of Muslims followed by Pakistan. 

No doubt, Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus because they have the youngest median age and the highest fertility rates among major religious groups in India. In 2010, the median age of Indian Muslims was 22, compared with 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. Likewise, Muslim women have an average of 3.1 children per woman, compared with 2.6 for Hindus and 2.3 for Christians. Due to these factors, India’s Muslim community will expand faster than its Hindu population, rising from 14.2 per cent in 2011 to 18.4 per cent in 2050.[5]

It is widely believed that cultural and religious factors are causing high fertility among Muslims. But how far it is a valid assumption needs further research. No doubt, Muslims have higher fertility rates than those in other religious groups.  Information provided in Table 2, however, indicates that Muslim women in general do not want more children but they have them due to many factors. Trends in the decadal population growth reveal that a significant drop in the decadal population growth among Muslims was observed as compared to the earlier decades (Section A, Table 2). In short, Muslim share grows but at a slower pace. In addition, at the national level total fertility rate (number of children per woman) is falling fast across all religions — faster for Muslims than for Hindus — which suggests India’s population may stabilize in just a few years with right type of policies. The number of children per Hindu woman has gone down from 3.3 children in 1992-93 to 2.6 in 2005-06, as per the National Family Health Surveys (NFHSs). The Hindu-Muslim fertility differentials, however, declined from 1.1 children per woman in 1992-93 to less than 0.5 children in 2005-06, as shown in Section B (Table 2).

 Table 2 Hindus versus Muslims: a fertility planning comparison.
A:Trends in decadal population growth  in percentage
B:Trend in number of children per women (Total Fertility Rate )
1992-93 (NFHS-1)
1998-99 (NFHS-2)
2005-06 (NFHS-3)
C: Trends in unwanted childbearing per woman
1992-93 (NFHS-1)
1998-99 (NFHS-2)
2005-06 (NFHS-3
D:Trends in percentage of couples using modern  contraception
1992-93 (NFHS-1)
1998-99 (NFHS-2)
2005-06 (NFHS-3)
E:Trends in unmet need for family planning services
1992-93 (NFHS-1)
1998-99 (NFHS-2)
2005-06 (NFHS-3)
Source: Census of India and National Family Health Survey 1, 2 and 3.

Based on the fertility planning data of NFHSs, it is estimated that every fourth (27.6) Muslim child born in India is a result of unwanted pregnancies.  The impact of unwanted fertility can be measured by comparing the total wanted fertility rate with the total fertility rate. The total wanted fertility rate represents the level of fertility that theoretically would result   if all unwanted births were prevented.   As per the NFHS-3 (2005-06), the total wanted fertility rate of Muslim women is 2 children per woman lower than by 1.1 (i.e., by 36%) than the total fertility rate of 3.1 (Section C, Table 2).  This means that if unwanted births could be eliminated, the Muslim fertility rate would drop to below the replacement level fertility (2.0 children per Muslim woman) needed to initiate the process of population stabilization.

Of course, we do not know that the rapidly declining fertility of Muslim women will continue. It would not be surprising if Muslim fertility stabilized at a somewhat higher level than non-Muslim fertility in India. As a result, Muslims may maintain a population growth rate somewhat higher than other groups and their percentage of India’s population might slowly grow. It is because the use of modern methods of contraceptive is very low among Muslims as compared to others.  Religious differences in the use of modern contraception, based on the NFHS-3 data, clearly indicate the prevalence rate of modern contraception is the highest among Jains (69%) and lowest among Muslims (36%). Around 50% of Hindus are protected by any modern method like sterilization, pill, IUD and Condom (Section D, Table 2), which are available in the official family planning program.  The prevalence of sterilization does not differ much among most religious groups, except for the fact that it is very low among Muslims.  The proportion of women and men who have been sterilized is twice as high for Hindus as for Muslims (22% compared to 41% among Hindus).

Unmet need for family planning [6] is an important indicator of assessing the potential demand for family planning services or modern contraceptives. In spite of poverty and illiteracy, the prevailing unmet need for modern  family planning services is surprising, especially among Muslims.  NFHSs data indicates that Muslims have lower use rates of modern contraceptives than Hindus. That may be the reason why unmet need for modern contraceptives is the highest among Muslims as compared to other religious groups.  As compared to Hindu women, Muslim women have high level of unmet need for family planning services, as shown in the Section E (15 % versus 22%). 

Now question arises why Muslims are not able manage their fertility? It is widely believed that Indian politicians kept Muslim educationally and economically backward and used as vote bank. This is result of it and no use in blaming a community. So, what should be agenda? The socioeconomic development played a key role in the Muslim dominated North Africa and Central Asia including Turkey, where fertility started declining even without a very aggressive family planning program.  On the other hand, in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, followed by Bangladesh and then Iran, it was family planning programs that affected fertility. [7]  It appears that the Sachar Committee did not give importance to the concept of the reproductive health in its recommendations to improve the conditions of Muslims in India. [8]

In Bangladesh total fertility rate has gone down to less than 2.5 children (Table 3). In Pakistan, it is four. Pakistan is behind mainly because the contraceptive use rate among eligible couples is around half as it is in Bangladesh, even though living conditions are better in Pakistan. It appears that the family planning program in Pakistan has not been effectively implemented as compared to Bangladesh.   
  Table 3 Selected Muslim dominated countries: Total fertility rate, 2010
Average number of children per woman  (TFR) 2010
Saudi Arabia
Source: 2010 Population Reference Bureau, Washington DC

Well, the only major religion left out of the demographic transition in India is Islam. And this group could be helped by providing family planning services looking to the needs of clients as happened in Bangladesh. India’s contraceptive method mix is skewed towards female sterilization, and the range of methods women can use to space their births is narrow. Many Muslim scholars believe that the permanent method of contraception is not permitted in Islam. So India has to diversify its approach to include other modern methods of contraception including injectables with quality in its program.[9]

Indonesia and Bangladesh, both developing, Muslim-majority countries, have outperformed India in terms of falling birth rates by simply providing quality services looking to the needs of clients including easy access  to a bigger basket of choices in contraception. Bangladesh probably has socio-economic indicators that are similar to some large Indian states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

I think that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Government of India must address this issue squarely, and the authorities have to accept that there is a problem in the management of family planning programme and resolve it. [10]  Matters cannot be shoved under the carpet now.

In addition, policies are urgently needed to empower the Muslim women. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an organization working for Muslim women empowerment, has written a letter to the prime minister of India to codify the Muslim Personal Law as per a draft prepared by them and makes certain prevalent practices illegal in order to empower women.  These include making illegal unilateral oral triple talaq, polygamy, compulsory marriage of women with another person if she intends to re-unite with divorced husband, temporary marriage contract (Muta), etc. The letter states, "Certain orthodox and patriarchal males have dominated the debate on rights of Muslim women and have stonewalled any attempt towards reform in Muslim Personal Law”. [11]  If approved by the government, it will help to improve the decision making power of Muslim women. In addition, efforts should be made to promote female education and employment opportunities.

In sum, over the coming decades, India’s changing religious demographics may likely upend politics as we know it, particularly in states with large Muslim populations such as West Bengal and Assam.  India has to find a way to talk about religious demographics as other nations do — mostly without fuss, rancor or wild policy suggestions. It is because Indian Muslims want to be part of main stream. No doubt, Muslims have higher fertility rates than those in other religious groups.  But, in India, there is no clash of civilizations.  Indian Muslims are a part of Indian culture, as argued by the   noted Islamic Scholar Mahmood Madanani. “This is because of both India’s culture and its historical legacy. Muslim heritage is a part of a larger tradition of multiculturalism and mutual tolerance.  [12] 

 The latest Census data on religious communities provide an opportunity to plan and construct suitable development interventions geared towards education, gender equity, economic development and access to family planning, irrespective of culture or religion, as noted by Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director of Population Foundation.[13]

[1] For details, see: “A note on the growing demographic imbalances in the Indian subcontinent” by Dr. M.D. Srinivas, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, 1999.

[2] Refer my earlier post:”Growing Population in India and Islam: Some Facts” at

[3] Refer TOI editorial:  India needs to find a sane way to discuss relative decline in Hindu population at

[4] For details, refer:

[5] Refer my earlier post: ”Growing Population in India and Islam: Some Facts” at

[6]The standard definition of unmet need depends upon the apparent inconsistency between a woman’s contraceptive behavior and her stated reproductive preferences. The concept of unmet need was highlighted first time in India in a study conducted by the author in Rajasthan in 1988 on behalf of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. Based on the field data, the study revealed that there was sizable number of eligible couples that were not using contraceptive methods but did not want another child.  For details, see Devendra Kothari, Family Planning Programme in Rajasthan: Beyond the Existing Approach, Indian Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur, 1989.

[7] Refer report entitled: “The Future of the Global Muslim Population”, was part of a Pew Forum program analyzing religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

[8] In March 2005, the Government of India appointed a high level committee to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims. The 7-member committee, headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar (retired) submitted its report to the Prime Minister in November 2006. The Sachar Committee’s report is an extremely valuable document on the social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims.

[9] The government of India may soon introduce an injectable contraceptive for women under the national family planning program. The country's top drug advisory body has approved the use of Deoxy Medroxy Progestrone Acetate (DMPA) and recommended its inclusion in the government programme in September 2015. Though the proposal has garnered acceptability in the MoHFW, it is awaiting a final official nod from the ministry.

[10] Kothari, Devendra and Sudha Tewari. 2009. “Slowing Population Growth in India: Challenges, Opportunities and the Way Forward”. MIPD Policy Brief No.2, Management Institute of Population and Development, a unit of Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi.

[11] Refer news item at:

[12] Refer Mahmood Madanani’s article: Islamic State Vs Islamic Ideals, Times of India, December 4, 2015.