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Muslims up, Hindus down: What’s the larger picture behind India’s religious population trends?

Muslims up, Hindus down: What’s the larger picture behind India’s religious population trends?
The 2024 Lok Sabha elections will go down in history as a fine example of a no-holds-barred contest. From religion and reservation to sexual abuse and vote-rigging allegations, this year’s voting cycle saw no dearth of controversies pop up — points of contention that were ruthlessly weaponised by the ruling and opposition parties.

While the minority debate might seem like the oldest news in the book, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has continuously alleged that the Congress Party will uplift Muslims over all other religious groups, if the latter is voted to power. While such claims remain an exaggeration, considering that the opposition party’s manifesto mentions nothing as such, a new bit of information has helped the political right stir the pot once again.
Hindus become a smaller slice of the pie
According to a brand new report submitted by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (EAC-PM), the nation’s population share of Hindus fell by 7.8% between 1950 and 2015.

In contrast, the population share of many other minorities rose, with Muslims increasing by 43.15% — a jump from 9.84% to 14.09% of India’s population. Meanwhile, the population share of Hindus fell from 84.68% to 78.06% during this time.

To the rest of the world, this might seem like a normal change, considering that earlier studies (and even the EAC-PM research itself) have already shown that the share of religious majority groups is going down in countries worldwide.

However, many BJP leaders raised concerns that this trend was the result of Muslim favouritism that was “altering the demography” of our country. To that end, prominent leaders such as Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar also brought into question how much of the sharp growth in Muslim popular share was being fuelled by illegal immigrants and conversions.
Report or misreport?
While many other BJP leaders have used the EAC-PM report to raise alarms on the alleged dwindling status of Hindus in India — as the party has done many times in the past — other experts note that the report’s findings have been represented in a dangerously misleading manner.

For one, many experts brought up the fact that there isn’t sufficient data to conclusively come to such population claims, considering that India’s decadal census has been indefinitely delayed since 2021. In addition, the report itself has claimed to be agnostic regarding what factors were driving these positive diversity changes. In contrast, it lauded the policies that might have enabled minorities to flourish — a tone that completely contrasts the stance taken by several members of the ruling party.

The non-profit Population Foundation of India (PFI) also warned that the EAC-PM report should not be used to incite fear or discrimination against any community. The population research organisation explained that the total fertility rate — shown to be the main driver of population changes in India — has fallen for all religious groups, especially Muslims, who have the highest fertility rates in India.
Why does the fertility rate matter?
The total fertility rate, or TFR, is a measure of how many children women normally bear on average in their lifetimes. As per the latest estimates, this stands at around 2.4 kids for Muslims and 1.9 for Hindus in India. TFR is typically higher in lesser-developed countries due to the lack of access to birth-control measures and lower levels of female empowerment. In contrast, it is generally lower in areas with better income, education and human development. Therefore, a low TFR is actually a good thing, provided it manages to replenish the population.

To that end, PFI notes that the steepest TFR decline in recent times has also been observed among Muslims, declining by 1% compared to the Hindu’s 0.7%. Considering that the Muslim community still has the highest TFR, the non-profit explains that this lowering trend notes how fertility rates are finally equalising across India’s religious spectrum.

PFI also highlights that the TFR among Muslim women in Kerala is even lower than the TFR among Hindu women in Bihar, emphasising the significant impact of factors like education and healthcare on population dynamics across different regions and religious groups.

"Population Foundation of India urges the media to refrain from using demographic studies to create fear and division. It is essential to present data accurately and contextually, highlighting the role of education, income and socio-economic development in shaping demographic trends. We advocate for policies that promote inclusive development and gender equity to ensure a balanced and harmonious society," they conclude.