In Kerala, the prospects of a temple-church alliance will make sense if we have to change the nature of the political discourse where Muslim power and demography is changing dramatically, threatening both Hindus and Christians.
India’s “secular” media and demographers like to play chicken with religious affiliations data. And so it needed a “communal” demographer from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), Jatinder Bajaj, to point out a huge demographic bulge in Kerala’s Muslim population in the 0-6 age group, both in terms of share of live births per 100 population and in terms of rising shares in the 0-6 age group.
According to 2015 data, Bajaj points out that Muslim live births per 100 is 41.45 per cent compared to the Hindu rate of 42.87 per cent, indicating that despite being only half the Hindu population, Muslim birth rates are nearly the same.
Bajaj says that data “for the last several years show that the share of Muslims in the total live births recorded in the state has been rising rapidly at least since 2008. In that year, of all live births in the state, 36.3 per cent belonged to Muslim families. That proportion has been steadily rising and has reached 41.5 per cent in 2015. Meanwhile, the share of Hindu families in the total live births has declined from 45.0 to 42.9 per cent and of Christian families from 17.6 to 15.5 per cent.”
This should cause concern among all demographers, but given the heads-in-the-sand approach of the media and “secular” parties who remain in denial, it is possible that the only people who will raise a ruckus over this will be Hindutva groups. The problem is they will do more damage to the cause by shrieking “love jihad” and demanding that Hindu women must now produce three or four children each to catch up with rapid changes in Muslim demography. As I will suggest later, this is the time for cool analysis and strategic thinking, not emotional blowouts.
But first it is necessary to identify states that are most vulnerable to this demographic shift, before we get into what Hindus need to do. The states most at risk of a sharp tilt towards Muslim demography are Kerala, West Bengal and Assam, with the last-named state showing huge spurts in the Muslim share of the population between 2001 and 2011, from 30.9 per cent to 34.22 per cent.
In Kerala, the Muslim share between the two census periods rose from 24.7 per cent to 26.6 per cent, and in West Bengal from 25.2 per cent to 27 per cent.
In theory, both Assam and West Bengal should be considered more vulnerable, for they border Muslim-dominated Bangladesh which has a history of steady ethnic cleansing of Hindus and attracting illegal Muslim migrants despite protestations of mild secularism under Sheikh Hasina.
But Kerala presents the most interesting shift, for it neither has borders with Muslim majority states, nor the low levels of development or literacy that correlates to high birth rates.
The cause for concern, especially for Hindus, should be this: if the high proportion of live births among Muslims and the rapid bulge in the 0-6 age groups is any guide, we should expect another period of explosive demographic growth between the 2021 and 2031 censuses, as the spike in births today could translate into a large proportion of Muslims entering the marriage and child-bearing age in that period.
Clearly, at the very least, demographers need to understand the reasons for this bulge in a highly-literate and prosperous population of Muslims. Prima facie one cannot rule out the possibility that the Gulf boom, the Wahhabisation/Salafisation of Kerala’s Muslim politics (read here and here), and other social and religious factors have contributed to this shift. There is ample evidence that the huge surge in Malayali Muslim jobs in the Gulf over the last 40 years is correlated to what is happening in Kerala today.
This creeping change needs to be analysed maturely by Hindus who are concerned about this threat to their majority status in Kerala, which could end as early as the 2031 or 2041 census if nothing is done about it.
Cool-heading thinking will tell us that the remedies may not lie in emotional responses by fringe groups, but in making long-term strategic shifts in Hindu social and gender attitudes.
The first thing that should be on the agenda of Hindu groups is an increase in the social content of activism and propaganda. Rather than focus on beef politics and lynching the odd cow smuggler or two, the main message of Hindutva groups should be to aggressively pursue social integration, with Dalit upliftment, and not anti-Muslim sentiment, becoming the core focus. Faced with the BJP’s recent successes in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, the “secular communalists” are already plotting to aggravate tensions between caste Hindus and Dalits; the response to this cannot be the odd creation of a Bhim app or naming schemes after Ambedkar. It should be more robust, and include stronger social integration messages and Dalit empowerment. Demographically here is another point: the birth rates among Dalits are higher than that of upper caste Hindu groups.
If serious social cohesion is not attempted even when faced with this existential threat in many states, the splintering of Hindu society will continue, and adverse demographic change will become inevitable.
Second, it is unthinkable that some Hindu leaders should be calling for Hindu women to be producing more children. That can only be an individual choice. It is unfortunate that some people should be seeking to compromise women’s reproductive rights by making the womb the battleground for demographic warfare.
The Hindu response should, in fact, be the opposite. It should speed up the de-patriarchalisation of Hindu society, and enable women to enter all fields of religious, social and economic endeavour, including by bringing in more women to run temples, training them as priests, and by formally de-emphasising all rites and rituals that discriminate against women. A stable and strong Hindu society needs women to be equal partners, and not reduced to baby-producing machines or subjected to handicaps based on biology.
The third response should be a more formal adoption of conversion technologies, including the creation of what I would call “Hinduism Lite” strategies. Hinduism is too high in its current metaphysics to attract those at the bottom end of the pyramid, whose concerns are about basic livelihoods and survival. To think that they are going to be Vedanta scholars or interested in Sanskrit is foolish. Hindus needs to create the equivalent of mass religious activities that focus on economic upliftment combined with the learning of mild Hindu religious rituals intended to glue all Hindus together.
At the doctrinal level, one can’t avoid a degree of Abrahamisation of Hinduism in the process, since some elements of Hindu beliefs and ritual have to be formalised and made universal. It is stupid to talk of Hinduism as a way of life, which allows for an anything-goes approach where no Hindu can connect with another on any common terms. Diversity cannot be allowed to become an invitation to disunity. That way lies disaster. It should be interesting that Hindu diversity is always used by secularists to divide Hindus. One has to see through their gameplan.
Last, Hindus must shed their antagonism to Muslims and focus on what they need to do internally to protect their interests, both demographic and economic. This is easier said that done in a place like Kerala, where, despite a theoretically majority, Hindus are the most disempowered lot.
Here I would like to suggest something radical: in Kerala, it makes sense for Hindu political parties to have a tactical alliance with the church, though this strategy won’t work elsewhere, where Hindu groups are in serious competition with evangelical groups, and both see each other as threats.
What should unite temple and church in Kerala is that Christians face the same demographics challenges as Hindus is losing population share to Muslims.
In the 2011 census, the share of Hindu and Christian children per 100 population was almost the same – at 8.93 and 8.91 per cent respectively. The Muslim share was a huge 5.45 per cent ahead at 14.38 per cent.
In Kerala, the prospects of a temple-church alliance will make sense if we have to change the nature of the political discourse in a state where Muslim power and demography is changing dramatically, threatening both Hindu and Christian.
Most important, Hindus must support Muslim women’s empowerment and participation in economic benefits. Ultimately, it is the emancipated Muslim woman who holds the key to communal amity by refusing to offer her womb for a demographic battle in which the clerics tell people what to do, what to believe, and why to avoid yoga or Onam as anti-Islamic practices.