Political consequences of 2011 religious census: BJP can gain from growth in Muslim population

The drop in the Hindu share of India's population below the psychologically significant 80 percent level to 79 percent could easily have been predicted, given demographic trends seen for over a century. Readers of Firstpost, in particular, should not have been surprised as we had predicted this more than four years ago in an article jointly authored by Manika Premsingh and me.

However, what is important to flag this time is not the confirmation of overall trends, but how the "secularists" have been in denial all along, and why these numbers will impact politics.

Two half denials, in particular, need mention. One, that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is not that significant. The numbers prove that Muslim population growth rates are far above their national decadal average of 24.6 percent in all border states, barring West Bengal and Tripura. Even in these states, their growth rates are more than 11 percent higher than Hindu growth rates. In Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and even Bihar (which is close to the Bangladesh border but doesn't actually share a border), decadal growth in the Muslim population is well above the national average. This cannot but be explained by immigration.

The second denial that needs to be partially debunked is that poverty alone explains the higher birth rate among Muslims. This can only be half true for the fact is population growth rates among Muslims is higher even where their literacy or income levels are comparable to Hindus - as in much of the southern states. Decadal Muslim growth rates are 5-10 percent higher in all the southern states, and is highest in Kerala where the Muslim community is by no stretch of imagination backward or poor. This suggests that religious attitudes to birth control are not an insignificant factor in population growth. The community has a lot of things to mull over.

The political implications of the 2011 religious census can be huge. These are the obvious ones.

 Political consequences of 2011 religious census: BJP can gain from growth in Muslim population

Representative image. AFP

First, at 14.2 percent of the Indian population, Muslims are a viable political force if organised well. It is important to note that Dalit politics is based on this same threshold figure of 15 percent of the population. Kanshi Ram welded the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh into a political combo that could do deals with other castes and groups to bid for political power. The rise of Muslim-based parties like Asaduddin Owaisi's MIM and Badruddin Ajmal's AUDF in Assam is based on this logic of critical electoral maths.

Second, as Muslim parties seek the consolidation of Muslim votes, the "secular" parties will find that they will either have to offer formal power sharing with them or lose the Muslim vote. In the short term. The BJP could gain from this polarisation. In the long term, if the BJP wants to be permanently in power, it should offer formal power sharing pacts with Muslim parties.

Third, the release of the religious census before the Bihar assembly elections is interesting for Bihar is the one state in India where both the Hindu and Muslim growth numbers are not that far apart: the Hindu decadal growth rate in Bihar is 24.6 percent, far above the national Hindu average of 16.8 percent, and not too far below the Muslim figure of 28 percent. Bihar will provide the first indicators on how polarisation politics will play out.

Fourth, the one figure that does not tie in with anecdotal evidence is the stagnant Christian population share of 2.3 percent, given the sheer effort being put into proselytisation activities by evangelists. Two explanations are possible: that conversion activities are failing or counter-productive, or that the new converts from the SC/ST groups may be concealing their new religious status in order to not lose out on the benefits of reservation.

A third and a weaker explanation is also possible, that it is the more literate and better off sections of Hindu society that are converting, and this demographic is already shrinking among all communities. But this does not appear likely. This phenomenon obviously needs deeper study. My guess is that the older Christian churches are shrinking due to the higher literacy and income levels of their followers, while the new converts may be from the lower income demographics where birth rates may be higher but they may have reason to avoid declaring themselves Christians too quickly. Census 2021 may have some answers.

Fifth, the stagnation in the shares of the Jains, and the drop in the shares of Buddhists and Sikhs also needs deeper understanding. The Jains, of course, remain at 0.4 percent, and this could be the result of their higher socio-economic status.

The drop in Sikh proportions could also be due economics and the rising share of Muslims in the population mix. The drop in Buddhist numbers from 0.8 to 0.7 percent suggests that the attractions of conversion - as advocated by Babasaheb Ambedkar - are reducing as Dalits start benefiting from economic growth and quotas.

This may also explain why Dalits no longer feel the need to stay loyal to Dalit parties. They may be merging back with the mainstream Hindu demography in terms of religious or civilisational identity even if they remain steadfast in bargaining for their own interests with major parties. Perhaps, the rise of Narendra Modi from a caste just above them is helping them see possibilities of caste and class collaboration.

Updated Date: Aug 26, 2015 22:00:55 IST