Demographic data has always been used to arouse communal passions by right-wing organisations. The recent release of the 2011 census data on religion is not an exception. Like always, a host of right-wing activists have shown their obsession with numbers. They are trying to engineer a communal distaste over the decadal growth of the Muslim population by 24.6 per cent in 2011. The moral panic is further aggravated when the fall of Hindu population from the sacred 80.5 per cent i.e. 79.8 per cent was highlighted in bold letters along with an increase of 0.8 per cent in the overall Muslim population reaching 14.2 per cent in 2011.
In an attempt to arrive at hasty generalisations, extravagant statements are made by the rightists to create disproportionate demographic anxiety among the poorly informed Indian clientele. While doing so, all norms of rational sensibility are suspended when the marginal growth of Muslim population is portrayed as a minoritarian conspiracy to turn India into a “Muslim Rashtra” through the repeatedly deployed clichés of Ham Panch Aur Hamare Pachees, Love Jihad, Polygamy, Conversion, Infiltration and so on. They remain absolutely unverifiable. It becomes all the more catastrophic when the best possible means like newspapers, pamphlets, meetings, handbills, posters, myths, rumours and gossip are deployed to sustain the “Muslim alarm” in public domain. Even the social networking sites and platforms are flooded with videos and warnings instructing Hindus about this so-called demographic alarm.
These extreme reactions are not natural but strategic. They are artificially engineered to suit the electoral purpose of right-wing organisations. Historically, the invocation of religious-wedge issues like majoritarian victimhood along demographic lines have been more fierce and strong when elections are due in one or the other parts of the country. The strategy of right-wing political parties, organisations and polemics are to sell the rhetoric of “Muslims as a threat to Hindu civilisation” to reap high electoral dividend when the-first-past-the-post system of our country has become highly competitive and the voters are fragmented along multiple identity lines. In a word, the ‘one man, one vote’ principle has transformed the Indian democracy into a numerocratic political system.
It is in this background that census data on religion is constantly playing a leading role in setting the political debates, deliberations and mobilisation in polarised terms since the publication of the first all-India census of 1871. The British motive behind the strategic tabulation of population growth, population distribution, education and literacy rates using religion, apart from other factors, was to encourage the feeling of majority/minority victimhood to sustain the colonial rule in India. While looking at the census report, HH Risely, the then Government of India&’s Home Secretary wondered if “the figures of the last census (could) be regarded in any sense the forerunner of an Islamic or Christian revival which will threaten the citadel of Hinduism or will Hinduism hold its own in the future as it has done through the long ages of the past.” However, the religious data became a matter of great electoral importance when elective representation along communal lines was introduced in India by Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 and Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919. Since then the right-wing academics, polemics and politicians started using the religious data for polarising Indian society. The first serious attempt to cast apprehension over the rise of Muslim population was made through U.N. Mukherji&’s book, Hindus: A Dying Race in 1909. This was followed by Swami Shradhanand&’s Hindu Sangsthan: Saviour of Dying Race in 1926. In pre-Independent India between 1881 and 1941, the high population growth of Muslims (89 per cent) compared to Hindus (43.8 per cent) has frequently been used to propagate Muslims as a deterministic source of threat for Hindus for politicking only. And the net outcome of this propagation was Partition which dropped the Muslim ratio from 25 per cent to 9.61 per cent.
In post-Independent India we have seen the marginal increase in Muslim population after each census from 9.61 per cent in 1947 to 9.90 per cent in 1951 to 10.69 per cent in 1961 to 11.21 per cent in 1971 to 11.4 per cent in 1981 to 12.1 per cent in 1991 to 13.4 per cent in 2001 to 14.2 per cent in 2011. It is no coincidence that every time the rise of Muslim population was viewed as Islamic conspiracy against the so called right-wing imagination of India as Hindu Rashtra.
Paradoxically, Muslims are deliberately treated as a monolith group to suit their proposition of Islam as a religion that encourages procreation to help the Muslims take political control of India in the forthcoming 100, 200 or 300 years. It is being carefully orchestrated by the right-wing ideologues that Muslims as a part of their grand design of “Muslim India” practise polygamy, avoid family planning and breed like rabbits, discourage women&’s literacy, oppose Uniform Civil Code, wage love jihad, promote conversion and infiltration. The logic of individual preference, caste, class and other socio-economic dynamics of population growth are smartly neglected because of the electoral compulsions and their non-suitability in terms of consolidating Hindu votes. It is despite the visible and welcome trends of decadal slowdown of Muslim population from 1991 (32.88 per cent) to 2001 (29.52) to even further historic decline of 4.92 percentage points in 2011 (24.6 per cent) which will eventually stabilise and then decline with the rise in their socio-educational and economic standard. The regional disparities of Muslim population growth, declining fertility rates and the improved sex ratio have also been neglected. On the contrary, polemics like Sakshi Maharaj, Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Prachi and many other hardliners like VHP activists are given a free hand to propagate their classical malicious generalisations against Muslims to mobilise the majoritarian passions and that too for electoral gains alone. Is this a cost which India is required to pay for governmental resurrections?
The situation is all the more aggravated when the government acts as a partner in crime by selectively leaking or releasing the census data to fuel the polarisation of voters, be it the January 2015 leak of religious data immediately before the Delhi Assembly elections or the release of data just before the Bihar Assembly or Assam Assembly elections.
Now we have reached a point where there is need to evaluate the Indian conception dispassionately. We need to understand that the empirically designed strategy of rightists to exploit the fear of the banal masses is nothing more than a political gimmick to attain the winning margin in the competitive electoral politics of India. In addition, once politically relevant right-wing fanatics are now becoming politically un-employable and thus disenchanted with the changing focus of India and Indians seeking “development”. Their uncontrolled and hasty invocation of religious-wedge issues is largely an attempt to regain their power positions.
The Government acts in concert with right-wing polemics by giving clandestine support to their tactic of using religious-wedge issues merely to divert the national attention from the substantive issues and to avoid the social audit of its performance on account of the lofty promises made at the time of election. Most importantly, round the year elections in a country like India - of Panchayats, Municipal Corporations, - State Assemblies, Lok Sabha Elections, by-elections have created further burden on the right-wing organisations to constantly produce and reproduce religious signs, symbols, and issues which can successfully be used to polarise voters and help them attain the winning margin. The advantage with the invocation of religious-wedge issues is its utility cutting across time, region and place. In simple terms, the communal conflict in any city, district or state will have universal appeal and influence the consciousness of people more or less uniformly.
If we wish to ensure that the essence of integrity remains the same in both the majority as well as the minority groups across the nation, we need to postpone the communal polarisation for a longer period of time by holding the elections of all bodies - Panchayats, Municipal Corporations, State Assemblies, Lok Sabha Elections or by-elections - at one particular point of time. A much needed gap of five years between the elections will give us enough living space to bridge the differences along religious lines. We should not allow the diversity of India to be completely dissolved into uniform communal thinking of rightists.
The recent release of the 2011 census data on religion is not an exception. Like always, a host of right-wing activists have shown their obsession with numbers.