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Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics!

Dr Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, an Indian Civil Servant (Retired) who had served as the 17th Chief Election Commissioner of India from July 30, 2010 to June 10, 2012, planned to publish a book 25 years ago. However, he continued to receive new statistics, which needed to be analysed in this publication. Hence, he thought that he had no other option, but to postpone his plan. Finally, Dr Quraishi published the book, titled ‘The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India’, in 2021. His readers can easily realise that The Population Myth is the outcome of many years of hard work, as it reveals how the Right-Wing spin to Population Data has given rise to myths about the Muslim rate of growth, often used to stoke majoritarian fears of a demographic skew.

This particular issue has become an important, as well as sensitive, one in contemporary Indian Politics. The politics of Extremist Hinduism is fatally using the issue of Muslim population growth to intimidate majority of the Hindus in the South Asian Nation. Simultaneously, the issue has been the subject of positive discussions in recent times. Quite a number of official documents, available in Public Domain, establish the fact that the rate of population growth among Muslims, like other religious communities, is constantly declining. In fact, the rate is gradually approaching the Replacement Rate!

According to the author, the rate of population growth is not related to a particular religion, but to other factors, such as Education, Economic Development, Employment, and Women’s Empowerment. In every aspect, Muslims are the most communally backward in India. Hence, if one raises question about the population growth rate of this community, then the Independent Indian State would have to take the responsibility for not being able to provide a section of the population with basic education. Dr Quraishi has discussed all these issues in his book, and placed arguments nicely. However, there is nothing new in his publication. It is important to remember Nobel Laureate Indian Economist and Philosopher Amartya Sen’s crucial observation: One should repeat a statement as long as the situation remains the same. The way Dr Quraishi has tried to bring the statistics within the reach of the common man is commendable. There are many issues that cannot be explained… however, well-narrated statistics often make the situation clear…

The most important part of this publication is where the author mentions Guidelines from the encyclopaedias of Islam, one after another. Dr Quraishi has made a serious attempt to find whether the Islam really imposed a ban on birth control! He has also discussed various Islamic scholars’ interpretations of birth control in his book. Those, who mix Politics with Religion, may not accept the author’s arguments; however, his explanation could change the thought process of the common man. Dr Quraishi has shown that there are quite a few gray areas, and religious prohibitions against birth control. However, there are also some clear and positive conceptions about birth control among the minority community. There is a rare honesty in reflecting the views of majority in a complex society in writings, and this attempt is admirable.

S Y Quraishi

Unfortunately, Dr Quraishi has stepped into a seemingly familiar trap, too! He has tried his best to break the common myth that Polygamy among Muslims is the reason for the increasing rate of their population growth. The author has also made an attempt to prove that Polygamy is not a universal practice among the followers of Islam. This argument is undoubtedly important. Interestingly, an issue comes to one’s mind from a very simple common sense. Women give birth to children. As they have only one husband, the number of marriages of their husbands is an insignificant issue. What is important is the number of times a woman becomes mother in her lifetime. People should realise this simple thing, else, they will become victims of Population Data explained in a different manner by the Right-Wing politicians!

The demographic ratio has indeed changed, with clear increase in the percentage of Muslims in India from 9.8 in 1951 to 14.2 in 2011. There is a corresponding decline in the Hindu ratio from 84% to 79.8% during the same period. Muslims have indeed the lowest level (45.3%) of family planning practice, but Hindus have the second-lowest level among all communities, with a practice prevalence of 54.4%.

The Muslims are, however, taking to family planning fast… in fact, faster than the Hindus. This is why the family planning gap between the two communities is narrowing, despite many Muslims believing that Islam is against the concept of family planning. There is no evidence of organised resistance to family planning among the Muslims.

The exact Islamic position in the light of the Quran and Hadith:
The book argues that the Holy Quran has nowhere prohibited family planning. There are only interpretations, both for and against the concept. Nor are there any traditions of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) opposing it. The interpretations by Islamic jurists seem to conclude that though sterilisation is not permitted, family planning by means of birth-spacing methods is not only allowed, but encouraged.

For example, the mandate of the Quran for compulsory breastfeeding of children for two years has been interpreted as a measure to ensure gaps between births in the interest of the health of both mother and the child. There are numerous verses of the Quran and citations from the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) which emphasise proper conditions as requisite for the upbringing of children, possible only when the number of children is small. These verses stress quality over quantity, an extremely progressive idea. Even in India, several Ulamas (scholars) have interpreted Islamic injunctions as being supportive of family planning other than through the means of sterilisation.

Family planning in major Islamic countries
The book describes family planning programmes being actively pursued as a development priority in several Islamic countries, including the most conservative ones, such as Iran, Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh, in spite of the fact that there are no political compulsions to do so, unlike in India. This obviously indicates that these countries, despite their powerful clergies, did not find Islam antagonistic to the concept.

What about the Muslim birth rate being the highest?
The allegations from the Right-Wing have been that the Muslims have been multiplying fast as an organised conspiracy. One may admit that the Muslim birth rate is the highest in India, and the demography has changed in the last 70 years. While 84% Hindus has come down to 79.8%, Muslims have gone up from 9.8% to 14%. However, Muslims are catching up fast with family planning and they will not overtake Hindus in birth rate. After 60 years, there was 4.2% increase in the Muslim population; the projection is that in 2100, Muslims are all set to become 18% of the total Indian population. There is no question of Muslims overtaking. Professor Dinesh Singh, the former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, studied the data and stressed that they could never overtake the Hindus.

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