HBS' Call To Assam's Muslims To Practise Family Planning: Why Critics Brandishing Stats Are Hiding More Truths Than They Reveal

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jun 26, 2021 08:48 AM
HBS' Call To Assam's Muslims To Practise Family Planning: Why Critics Brandishing Stats Are Hiding More Truths Than They Reveal 
Map of Assam. (Representative image)
Snapshot
  • The fertility rate of Assam’s Hindus is much lower than the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 and lower than the fertility rate of Assam's Muslims.

    Even amongst the latter, the fertility rate of Bangladesh-origin Muslims is greater than that of those indigenous to Assam.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics. This is an oft-quoted phrase of unknown origin to describe the use of statistics to buttress weak arguments. And this phrase perhaps best describes this piece published recently in a leading English newspaper to discredit Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s appeal to Muslims of the state to have fewer children.

It must be underlined here that by Muslims, what chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma actually meant was Bangladesh-origin Bengal-speaking Muslims, many of whom practise polygamy and have many children.

Sarma was well-justified (read this) in asking the Bangladesh-origin Muslims of his state to have fewer children. The propensity among many men of this community to practise polygamy is well-known. There is then a consequent pressure on land and scarce resources of the state, apart from the backwardness of the community itself.

In what was at best a weak and callow attempt to discredit the chief minister, the writer of the newspaper article (the newspaper also ran an editorial titled ‘Numbers Tell The Story’ in its June 12, 2021 edition based on the article) cherry-picked statistics. Quoting government data, the primary argument advanced by the article--and one that was used in its headline as well--was that Assam’s Muslims recorded the sharpest decline in fertility since 2005-06.

The statistics quoted were from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 conducted in 2019-20, NFHS-4 conducted in 2015-16 and NFHS-3 conducted in 2005-06. The fertility rate of Muslims in Assam in 2005-06 was 3.6, and it came down to 2.9 in 2015-16 and further fell to 2.4 in 2019-20. This decline of 1.2 (from 2005-06 to 2019-20) in fertility rate of Muslims was held up as evidence of Assam’s Muslims practising family planning. The figure was also erroneously compared to the much lesser decline of 0.4 in the fertility rate among the state’s Hindus to hint that chief minister Sarma should ask Hindus of the state to practise family planning.

The article was quoted, republished in many portals and websites, and links to it shared widely on social media to criticise the Assam chief minister and paint him as ‘communal’.

What the article glossed over was that though the fertility rate of Assam’s Muslims declined from 3.6 (in 2005-06) to 2.4 (in 2019-20), the fertility rate among Assam’s Hindus was 2 in 2005-06, 1.8 in 2015-16 and 1.6 in 2019-20. Thus, the fertility rate among Assam’s Muslims, who form around 40 per cent of the population of the state, is much higher than the fertility rate among the state’s Hindus.

Incidentally, the fertility rate of Assam’s Muslims is higher than the all India figures: 2.4 in NFHS-3, 2.2 in NFHS-4 and 1.9 in NFHS-5. Also, the fertility rate among Muslims in Assam is appreciably higher than the replacement-level fertility--the level at which the overall birth rate is just enough to keep population levels constant--which is pegged at 2.1.

The fertility level of Assam’s Hindus is much lower than the replacement fertility rate of 2.1, and this means that the overall percentage of Hindus will decline steadily while Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus in Assam. And that, as has been pointed out many times in the past, is a cause for concern. The Bangladesh-origin Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam, who form 70 per cent of the total number of Muslims in Assam, are socially and educationally backward; many among them are radicalised, and often are a law unto themselves in the few districts of the state where they Bangladesh-origin Muslims form an absolute majority.

A major shortcoming in the NFHS is that it clubs all Muslims of Assam as one homogenous lot when, in reality, there is a gulf of difference between Bangladesh-origin and indigenous Muslims of Assam. The indigenous Muslims of Assam (read this and this) are largely educated, socially and culturally-advanced, egalitarian and an inclusive lot whose cultural traditions are often similar to that of Assamese Hindus.

The fertility rate among indigenous Muslims of Assam, or Assamese Muslims, mirrors that of Assamese Hindus. Assamese Muslims do not practise polygamy, and follow the two-child norm (many families even have one child).

If one were to discount the population of Assamese Muslims (30 per cent) from the overall population of Muslims in Assam, then considering the low fertility rate among Assamese Muslims, the fertility rate of Bangladesh-origin Muslims would actually be higher than the 2.4 figure in NFHS-5.

Demographers say that the fertility rate among Bangladesh-origin Muslims is actually appreciably higher than the 2.4 figure in NFHS-5. It would be in the range of 2.6 or even more; much higher than the fertility rate of 1.6 among Assam’s Hindus.

Many say that even that figure may be flawed. That’s because many Bangladesh-origin Bengali-speaking Muslims have been known to respond in a misleading manner to surveys and often give out false statistics. For instance, in the 1991 census, Bangladesh-origin Muslims declared their mother-tongue as Assamese. That was part of a design to discredit the popular campaign in the state against large-scale and unrestricted illegal influx of Bangladeshis into Assam. By falsely declaring themselves as Assamese-speaking, the Bangladesh-origin, Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam reckoned that the entire anti-foreigners’ campaign in Assam would stand discredited since the census would not show any sharp decline in the number of Assamese-speaking people as was being projected by the leaders of the anti-foreigners’ agitation.

Thus, the 1991 census revealed that 57.81 per cent of the population of Assam were Assamese-speaking. This was a marginal decline of just about three percent from the 1971 census figure of 60.89 per cent (the 1981 census could not be conducted in Assam due to the Assam agitation at that time).

“In 1991, leaders of the Bengali-speaking Muslim community played a diabolic game and asked members of the community to declare their mother-tongue as Assamese. Once the census figures were out, they were quoted to discredit the Assam agitation. The census figures were quoted to debunk the contention that large-scale influx of Bangladeshis had changed Assam’s demography,” said Satyen Kalita, a former professor of political science at Assam University.

But in the 2001 census, most of these Bengali-speaking Muslims declared their mother tongue as Bengali. And thus, the percentage of Assamese-speaking people fell from 57.81 per cent in 1991 to 48.8 per cent in 2001. The percentage of Bengali-speaking people of Assam (and this included Bengali Hindus as well) rose from 21.67 per cent in 1991 to 27.54 per cent in 2001.

As per the 1971 census, the percentage of Assamese-speaking people in Assam was 60.89 per cent while Bengali-speakers accounted for 19.71 per cent of the population of the state. “They (the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Bangladesh-origin) declared their mother tongue as Bengali in the 2001 census since by that time the Assam agitation was long over and they were far more organised politically. They had also gained strength in many districts and no longer felt threatened,” said Kalita.

Given this propensity to conceal and fudge numbers, many in Assam feel that the fertility rate of Bangladesh-origin Bengali-speaking Muslims would be much higher than the suspected 2.6. “A huge number of women belonging to this community give birth at home and do not go to healthcare facilities. Thus, it will be easy for them to conceal births when it is convenient for them to do so,” said a senior health department officer.

But even if one were to discount all this, the fact remains that the fertility rate among Assam’s Muslims is much higher than that of Hindus. And since the fertility rate of Assam’s Hindus (1.6) is much below the replacement-level fertility rate (2.1), it means that Muslims (of Bangladesh origin) are set to outnumber Hindus in Assam within two and half decades. And this demographic change is clearly and understandably unacceptable to the Hindus of the state.

A decline in fertility rate among Bangladesh-origin Muslims of Assam from 3.6 in 2005-06 to 2.4 in 2019-20 is clearly not good enough. At the very least, the fertility rate among Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam has to come down to the replacement-level fertility rate of 2.1. And to restore the earlier demographic composition of Assam, the figure has to come down to even 1; this means one Bengali-speaking Muslim woman gives birth to only one child.

What Assam’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma left unsaid was that the fertility rate among Hindus of the state should increase to at least over 2. Which means one Hindu family should have at least two children, if not more. Only that can restore Assam’s demographic balance and pull the state away from the brink of the demographic disaster it is staring at now.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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