How does one explain Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s statement that the rise in Muslim population in the state was due to high levels of illiteracy leading to larger families among Muslims than among others? The report about his press conference states that he ‘dismissed the suggestion that illegal migration from Bangladesh has led to high growth of Muslim population in the state but blamed illiteracy for the high birth rate among the community’.
Forget the fact that same Tarun Gogoi had said a fortnight earlier that illegal immigration needs to be checked as that is responsible for the troubles in lower Assam. Even his blaming the illiteracy among Muslims as the reason for the high birth rate among them is far off the mark. Let us take a state where the illegal immigration does not exist — Kerala. The decennial growth of Hindus there is 20 per cent as per the 2001 census and of Muslims is 36 per cent.
However, the literacy rate among Hindus is 90.9 per cent and that among Muslims is only marginally lower at 89.4 per cent. The story is much the same in several other states where illegal immigration cannot be blamed for higher growth rate of Muslims. Take for instance Chhattisgarh. Literacy among Muslims is 82.5 per cent but growth rate is 37 per cent.
It is not that Gogoi is unaware of the disconnect between illiteracy and population growth among Muslims. In trying to protect himself from the charge that his regime — he is now in the third term as chief minister — has been unable to end the menace of illegal immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh, he has landed himself in yet another controversy.
The chief minister admits that Muslims are not respecting the national programme of a small family norm and are having six to 10 children per couple. His own party has been refusing — along with several other ‘secular’ outfits — that Muslims are averse to family planning. To admit that they are ignoring the national programme of family planning is to lead to the causes of this deliberate refusal to fall in line with a vital national necessity.
Gogoi has found the most innocent cause: illiteracy. There again, the Congress leader is falsifying the wide range of evidence. A look at the census data of 2001 demolishes the Gogoi thesis of illiteracy being the cause of high growth of Muslim population.
The 1991-2001 decennial growth rate of Hindus was 20.3 per cent, that of Muslims was 36.0 per cent; literacy rate of Hindus was 65.1 per cent and of Muslims was 59.1 per cent. Note the fact that the Muslim literacy rate has crossed 50 per cent and is only six per cent points below that of Hindus. As seen above there are many states, where the difference in the literacy rate between the two religious groups is just marginal, whether it is Kerala or Chhattisgarh. In some like Gujarat it is even higher.
Several demographic analyses of the country emphasise the fact that high fertility among Muslims could be traced to factors other than literacy/illiteracy. A Wikipaedia search has this revelation: ‘Surveys indicate that Muslims in India have been relatively less willing to adopt family planning norms and most Muslim women have a larger fertility period since they get married at a much younger age compared to Hindu women’.
The Wikipedia revelation of other surveys is also relevant in this context. It quotes a survey by one K C Zacharia in Kerala in 1983 where it was found that on an average the number of children born to a Muslim woman was 4.1 whereas in the case of Hindu women it was 2.9. It said that ‘religious customs and marriage practice were cited as some of the reasons behind high birth rate among Muslim women’.
In yet another survey according to Paul Kurtz, says Wikipedia, ‘Muslims in India are much more resistant to modern contraception than Hindus’. Another revelation comes from the National Family and Health Survey conducted in 1998-’99. It said that Indian Muslim couples ‘consider a substantially higher number of children as ideal for a family compared to Hindu couples in India’. The same survey pointed out that the percentage of couples actively using family planning measures was more than 49 per cent among Hindus against 37 per cent among Muslims. Yet another survey confined to Lucknow district in 1996 revealed that 34 per cent of Muslim women believed that family planning ‘went against dictates of their religion though none of the Hindu women surveyed believed that religion was a barrier against family planning’.
The Muslim population in India has risen from 10 per cent in 1991 to 13 per cent in 2001 despite the difference between literacy rate among the two groups is just six percentage points (65.1 and 59.1), and — by the Sachchar Committee’s own estimate — it will reach 18 per cent by end of the 21st century.
The prevalence of religious considerations in opposing small family norms could merge into political demands as happens in many cases among all communities. The divisive politics that the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties have adopted as a vote catcher, insulates religious groups like Muslims and other minorities from exposure to national trends, however, desirable those trends are. Where religious exclusivism is the culprit public policies that tend to congeal such exclusivism and promote identity politics based on minoritism, hopes of ethnic or religious groups donning increasingly a national character recede. That is what the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties are promoting. They give recognition to madrasa schools teaching — an exclusivist philosophy and culture with no or little exposure to the pluralistic traditions of the country.
The teaching in these institutions is infused by religion and its world view of determinism. This denies right from the start a critical view of history or society and produces brainwashed adolescents. Is it therefore any surprise that in recent days most of the suspects detained by security agencies in India as well as abroad from among Muslim groups are accepting violence as a divine command to them despite their high educational levels — the group nabbed in Bangalore has engineers, doctors, academics etc, among them.
The Congress and other so-called secularists have always used public funds to support orthodox clerics on a mass scale. Separate educational institutions, separate marriage laws and separate social practices even where they breach universal human rights tend to create divisions and perpetuate them. The pity is that in Assam, where this separatism and deliberate attempts to bolster one community’s political clout through raising numbers even with illegal immigration besides ignoring small family norms, a chief minister is shying from calling spade a spade.
Balbir Punj is a BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member.