Muslims offer prayers. (SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images) 

Numbers Of Demography, Stories Of Destiny

What exactly is happening in eastern India and Bangladesh where the share of Hindu population is declining on both sides of the border?

It is known that the proportion of Hindus in Bangladesh has declined precipitously from 22 per cent to 10 per cent between 1951 and 2011. Presumably, this is because a large number of Hindus of Bangladesh have migrated to India in this period. This should have led to an increase in the proportion of Hindus in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh. On the contrary, we find the proportion of Hindus declining on the Indian side too.

So, what is happening?

The demographic interaction between Bangladesh and India is much more complex than merely the migration of Hindus from there to here. In addition to Hindus, Muslims of Bangladesh also enter India in large numbers, and the number of Muslim immigrants is much higher than the Hindu immigrants. This partly explains the rising proportion of Muslims and a corresponding decline in the proportion of Hindus on the Indian side.

Demographic growth (or decline) is caused by not only migration (and conversion) but also by differences in fertility and mortality. Both in India and Bangladesh, Hindus have a lower fertility and higher mortality than the Muslims. And, both in India and Bangladesh, a large part of the decline in the proportion of Hindus seems to be related to their relatively lower fertility.

To understand the phenomenon, let us look at the declining share of the Hindus and their fertility, mortality, and migration numbers as compared to those of Muslims.

Declining Share Of Hindus In Bangladesh

In 1901, Hindus formed a full one-third of the population of the area that now constitutes Bangladesh. Their share declined to around 28 per cent in 1941 on the eve of Partition. After Partition, in 1951, Hindus still formed 22 per cent of the population of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. This was unlike West Pakistan, from where almost all of the Hindus and Sikhs were eliminated, by being killed, converted or expelled at the time of Partition. The differing response in the East and West of Pakistan was partly because of the presence and efforts of Mahatma Gandhi in the former region.

Share of Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh.

Though Gandhi was able to avert complete elimination of Hindus in East Pakistan at the time of Partition, his efforts resulted only in delaying and stretching out that denouement. The expulsion (besides killings and conversions) of Hindus from Bangladesh continued in the decades following Partition. The share of Hindus in the population kept declining from decade to decade. The decline was very sharp up to the Bangladesh Census of 1974. It seems as if the processes unleashed by Partition continued unabated for those three decades. Decline during the four decades since then has been less precipitous; nevertheless, the share of Hindus has come down from 13.5 per cent in 1974 to 8.5 per cent in 2011.

Impact On The Neighbouring Indian States

The changing share of Muslims and Hindus (including Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and other religions and persuasions) in the states of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura bordering Bangladesh have been presented in the article. The changes in these three states are different from each other, but in none of them does one see a continuing rise in the share of Hindus corresponding to their continuing decline in Bangladesh.

These three states, as also Meghalaya and Mizoram, share long borders with Bangladesh (see, map 1), but the issues concerning Meghalaya and Mizoram are somewhat different. So, for now, let us look at the changing share of Hindus and Muslims in the three states of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura in some detail.

Map 1


The trend-lines of the changing share of Muslims and Hindus in Assam show almost no impact of Partition and consequent expulsion of Hindus from Bangladesh. The share of Muslims in the state has been rising and correspondingly that of Hindus has been declining continuously since 1901. The only impact of Partition that can be seen in this secular trend of Muslim rise and Hindu decline in Assam is in the near stability of the Muslim share at around 25 per cent between 1941 and 1971, though the share of Hindus declined from 74.3 per cent to 72.8 per cent in this period also. After 1971, the share of Muslims has been rising sharply; it has risen from 24.6 per cent in 1971 to 34.2 per cent in 2011.

Share of Muslims and Hindus in Assam.

It is widely known and acknowledged that this rise in the share of Muslims in Assam is largely a consequence of the immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh. The process started at the turn of the twentieth century, when the area that now forms Bangladesh was a part of India; and it has continued even after the establishment of an international border between Assam and Bangladesh. From the demographic data, it looks as if the country was never divided. As we see below, within Assam, Muslim fertility far outstrips that of Hindus.

West Bengal

In West Bengal, the share of Muslims had remained steady at around 30 per cent for the entire pre-Independence period, from 1901 to 1941. Partition led to a decline in Muslim share by about 10 percentage points, because of the movement of Hindus from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and a smaller movement of Muslims out of West Bengal. But immediately after 1951, the share of Muslims began to rise. That rise has become sharper after 1971. In the process, the effect of Partition on the share of Muslims in the state has been largely neutralised; of the 10 percentage points that the Muslims lost in their share at the time of Partition, they have regained nearly 8 percentage points.

Share of Muslims and Hindus in West Bengal.

Some of the Hindus who left Bangladesh in the decades after Partition must have come to West Bengal, but many more Muslims seem to have entered the districts along the long border that the state shares with Bangladesh. As we shall see later, the Muslim share in the state has also been increasing because of higher fertility amongst Muslims.


Of these three states bordering Bangladesh, it is only in Tripura that we can see a visible impact of the Hindu immigration on their share. The most significant change occurred during 1961-71, when the Hindu share rose from 79 per cent to 92 per cent and that of Muslims declined from 20.1 per cent to 6.7 per cent. This was obviously the impact of a large influx of Hindus (and also Buddhists) from Chittagong region of Bangladesh.

Share of Muslims and Hindus in Tripura.

The impact on the share of Hindus is large in Tripura compared to say West Bengal and Assam, because of the much smaller population of the state. Between 1961 and 1971, the number of Hindus (and Buddhists, etc) in Tripura rose by only 5.3 lakh. This included both the natural growth during the decade and immigration. This number caused a rise of 13 percentage points in the proportion of Hindus in the state.

After the precipitous decline of 1961-1971, the share of Muslims in Tripura has been rising as in the neighbouring states.

It is obvious that the expulsion of Hindus from Bangladesh is not leading to any rise in their share on the Indian side, except for the episodic rise observed in Tripura in a particular decade.

This brings us back to the original question: Why? What is happening to the Hindus?

Factors Of Hindu Decline In Bangladesh

As we mentioned at the beginning, there are at least three factors that have an impact on the share of a community in a population. These are: fertility, mortality and migration. According to the data available from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Hindus there have significantly lower fertility and higher mortality than the Muslims. The figures for 2015 are displayed in the graph above. Muslims in Bangladesh have an advantage over the Hindus of three per thousand in the birth rate and of minus 0.9 per thousand in the death rate.

Lower fertility of Hindus is often explained on the basis of higher acceptance of birth control measures among them and other socio-cultural factors. Higher mortality of Hindus is probably related to their conditions of poverty and distress.

Community wise data on migration outside the country is not available. But various studies indicate that the out-migration from Bangladesh to India (and to some extent to other countries) of Hindus and Muslims is comparable and is of the order of five per thousand of the population on an average. Some studies claim that the Hindu out-migration is higher by about one per thousand and others suggest that Muslim out-migration is higher by the same number. In addition to the on-going out-migration of both Hindus and Muslims at about the same level, there is also some episodic out-migration of Hindus related to particular instances of rioting, famine, etc.

It is believed that the major contributor to the lower growth of Hindus in Bangladesh and the consequent decline in their share comes from the large difference in their fertility and mortality. Migration plays a relatively minor role, because that phenomenon nearly equally affects both the Hindus and Muslims of Bangladesh.

This, perhaps, is the reason why declining share of Hindus in Bangladesh does not get reflected in a rising share of Hindus on the Indian side.

Fertility Differentials On The Indian Side

Fertility differentials on the Indian side.

The graph above gives several fertility indicators for Hindus and Muslims in the states of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura derived from the data of Census 2011. On all these parameters, the fertility of Muslims seems distinctly higher than that of Hindus. We have seen above that a large part of the precipitous decline in the share of Hindus in Bangladesh can be attributed to the difference in the fertility of the two communities. Would persisting fertility differentials in the bordering Indian states lead to similarly precipitous rise in the share of Muslims here?

It is well known that the share of Hindus in the population of Bangladesh has been declining precipitously since Partition. It is generally assumed that this decline is caused by the Hindus being forced to migrate to India. However, there is no corresponding rise in the share of Hindus on the Indian side, and more so in the states bordering Bangladesh. The data indicates that the out-migration of Hindus from Bangladesh is matched by the out-migration of Muslims; the number of Hindus migrating out of Bangladesh per thousand of their population is almost similar to the number of Muslims migrating out per thousand of their population. This, of course, means that the absolute number of Muslims leaving Bangladesh is much higher than the Hindus. This explains why the share of Hindus on the Indian side does not rise in spite of their expulsion from Bangladesh.

Since the proportion of Hindus and Muslims leaving Bangladesh is largely similar, the decline of the Hindu share there is explained by other factors, namely their considerably lower fertility and higher mortality as compared to Muslims. Similar Hindu-Muslim differentials in fertility prevail on the Indian side also. This gives rise to an even more intriguing possibility. If the Hindu-Muslim differentials in fertility and mortality have led to such a sharp decline in the Hindu share in Bangladesh, would similar differentials on the Indian side lead, in time, to a similarly precipitous decline in the Hindu share here?