Is India’s overwhelming Hindu majority shrinking? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center echoes news reports based on leaked figures from the 2011 census. For the first time since independence in 1947, fewer than four in five Indians self-identifies as a Hindu.
Needless to say, the faintest suggestion of falling Hindu numbers—even if only in relative terms — touches a raw nerve with sections of the far Right. A VHP leader responded to the survey 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 and Christians be forcibly sterilised. Shiv Sena’s official newspaper Saamna, echoing founder Balasaheb Thackeray, called for Muslims to be disenfranchised.
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.
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.
In relative terms, however, these numbers suggest a gentle but steady decline compared to other faiths. In 1951, not long after the ravages of Partition, India was about 85% Hindu. By 2050 it will be 77 per cent Hindu. To put it differently, if you’re in your 40s today, your parents likely grew up in an India where one in eight people was Muslim or Christian. Your grandchildren will live in a country where that figure will be closer to one in five. This proportion of Hindus, coincidentally, is about the same as reflected in the 1881 census of undivided India. Throw in Pakistan and Bangladesh and, over a 170-year period to 2050, the Hindu population of the region is projected to shrink to 61 per cent of 2.17 billion people.
Bearing on fertility rate
Most of the change in India can be explained by a sharp projected uptick in the Muslim population thanks to higher fertility rates. The average Indian Muslim woman bears 3.2 children; the average Hindu has 2.5 children. Over the next 35 years, Muslims in India will swell to about 311 million, or more than 18 per cent of the population, up from their current 14 per cent share. The survey predicts that by 2050, India will house the world’s largest Muslim population, ahead of Indonesia and Pakistan.
Christian numbers are harder to pin down. Conrad Hackett, the demographer in charge of the Pew survey, says that though both Hindu nationalist and evangelical groups claim that Christianity is growing rapidly in India, “We have not found evidence of this in census or demographic survey data.” Pew estimates an approximately 10 per cent undercount of Christians in India on account of some Dalit Christians identifying as legally Hindu in order to qualify for reservations in government jobs and education.
But while Pew predicts that Christianity will grow rapidly in places like Africa over the coming decades, the Christian share of India’s population will remain more or less steady at 2.5 per cent or less of the population. Another organisation, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, says India’s Christian population is already 4.7 per cent, or about double Pew’s current estimate.
Islam biggest gainer
At a global level, the Hindu share of the world’s population will remain more or less unchanged at 15 per cent. Here again, the biggest gainer, in both absolute and relative terms, will be Islam. Pew estimates that the world’s Muslim population will rise from 1.6 billion people today to 2.8 billion people in 2050, or from 23 per cent to nearly 30 per cent of the world’s population.
To be sure, as with nearly all surveys, prognostications about the future ought to be taken with a grain of salt. If minority religion numbers are undercounted, then India’s Hindu majority may decline more rapidly than suggested. Though, by the same token, if they’re overstated then so are concerns about them.
Either way, India will need to find a way to talk about religious demographics as other nations do — mostly without fuss, rancour or wild policy suggestions. Over the coming decades, India’s changing religious demographics will likely upend politics as we know it, particularly in states with large Muslim populations such as West Bengal and Assam. It will affect everything from efforts toward a uniform civil code to the debate about religious conversions to assumptions about Indian secularism.
To understand what these changes mean, India’s public square needs to host a debate that reflects neither the apathy of the Left nor the shrillness of the extreme Right. This means talking about aggregate trends without losing sight of individual rights.
Only then can the country confidently come to terms with its changing demographic future.
The writer is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC