Myths about Muslims, overheard

At some point in the evening, in a lull after dinner, someone asked a question about the direction in which the country was heading.

Mark you, everyone was everyone’s friend, with decades of camaraderie and shared memories, so there was no immediate danger of homicide or blunt force trauma. However, within minutes the temperature, pressure and gravity around the dining table were noticeably different. Battle lines were drawn and everyone had fixed their bayonets, ready to charge.

The host, choosing his words carefully, said, “Narendra Modi is the most effective, efficient and goal-driven manager I have ever seen in my entire life. He has a clear vision for the country and the last ten years are a testament to the sweeping changes he has brought about through his focus and discipline.”

Infrastructure was mentioned, including super-highways and gleaming new airports, the end of corruption at the higher levels, the rise in India’s global stature as a superpower, and the restoration of national pride. The reclamation of Kashmir, “taking back of what’s ours”, the firm handling of Muslims, and the reversal of years of alleged inequities against Hindus by Muslims were brought up.

Matching heat for heat, the other side argued that India’s culture of secularism and acceptance of diversity was being replaced by permission to hate, a climate of fear among the media, intolerance of open speech and criticism, and the demonisation of Muslims.

No gain without some pain, came the response. If a Muslim or two was unfortunately killed in a WhatsApp lynching, or a colony or two had been bulldozed, let us remember that deep change is neither quick nor easy. Mistakes will be made.

Neither side was ready to yield an inch, as in all such discussions these days.

Several factual assertions that were made about Muslims—most of them common tropes and none particularly original—felt indigestible to me.  I have selected three “facts” that I thought deserved closer scrutiny—

1. Muslims will soon overtake Hindus. After Independence, the argument went, they were only three per cent of the population, now they’re closer to 40 per cent in some places, with an average of around 24 per cent.

2. Muslims proliferate because they have large families and procreate rapidly. This is why they will rapidly become the dominant community.

3. Hindu girls are being forcibly married off to Muslim men in Kerala and shipped off to the Middle East. I was told to see The Kerala Story, a movie that explained what was going on.

I present below the most elementary of fact-checks of these “facts”.

STATEMENT: Only three per cent of the country was Muslim after Independence, now they’re close to 40 per cent. Nope. No one knows how many Muslims there were in India at Independence because the first national census only happened four years later. According to the 1951 census, however, the number of Muslims in India was not three per cent, as claimed around the dinner table, but 9.8 per cent. Hindus made up 84.1 per cent of the country.

How had those numbers changed around the 2011 census, the latest one available? Hindus made up almost 80 per cent of India (79.8 per cent, to be exact). Muslims have registered a modest increase to 14.23 per cent, up from 9.8. In brief, the share of the Muslim population grew by 4.4 per cent, while that of Hindus dropped by 4.3 per cent over 60 years.  I leave it to you to decide if that should be interpreted as a sign of Islamic creep and takeover.

STATEMENT: Muslims have large families and proliferate rapidly. Across India, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), or the average number of children per woman, has been dropping since 1951. Across all regions and sectors, it dipped below the replacement rate of 2.1 by 2021.

Among Hindus, TFR dropped from 3.3 to 1.9 between 1992 and 2019, and among Muslims from 4.4 to 2.4 in the same period. In other words, both Hindus and Muslims have smaller families today than 60 years ago, with Muslims having a slight edge. I leave it to you to decide if a 0.5 difference in the fertility rate is a sign that Muslims are going to overrun India.

Another study in 2018 found that in districts where Muslim fertility was high, so was Hindu fertility. Conversely, where one was low, so was the other, suggesting that religion had nothing to do with it.

STATEMENT: 32,000 Hindu girls were forcibly married off to Muslims and forced to join ISIS. This fact gained prominence from the trailer of The Kerala Story, which claimed that “love jihad” was forcibly turning thousands of Hindu women 

Muslim. In 2018, the Supreme Court directed the National Investigation Agency to probe the love jihad aspect of a case. The NIA found no evidence that any forcible conversion had occurred.

Meanwhile, the 11 Indian states that had enacted laws by 2021 to nullify interfaith marriages done solely for religious conversion have yet to report a single case. The US Department of State too has countered, stating that they had counted only 66 Indian-origin fighters in ISIS, not 32,000. 

The Kerala High Court looked into the matter. Shortly afterwards, the filmmaker quietly revised the movie’s trailer, replacing 32,000 with—3.

You can reach C Y Gopinath at
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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