The census data on the population of religious groups was bound to set the cat among the pigeons and it did. The one that made most headlines was the increase in proportion of Muslims in the overall population, especially when neatly set off against a decline in the proportion of Hindus.
Over the decade 2001-2011, the number of Muslims in India grew to 172.2 million, or just over 14% of the population, an increase in share by 0.8 percentage points. Hindus grew to 966.3 million, just shy of 80% of the total but a decline in share of 0.7 percentage points. This is a fact that could be seized upon by the likes of VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi, who famously called on Hindu women to have four children each to counter the rise of Muslims.
Successive governments’ views on how the data could be used or misused are illustrated by the fact that it was ready as far back as early 2014. The UPA sat on these figures, not wishing to put them out before the general elections; the NDA came out with these numbers 15 months after it took office.
The release comes at a sensitive point in time: Elections in Bihar, a state with a track record of religious discord, are a few months away. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has ascribed political motives to recent minor communal clashes, and the emergence of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in the state has set the dovecotes aflutter.
A dispassionate assessment of data shows that the proportion of Muslims in Bihar has risen by slightly less than it has nationally, at roughly 0.4 percentage points. The religion figures are, or should be, beside the point.
For the average Indian, interested in how effectively his country has managed the problem of a burgeoning population, this should also bring cheer. The decadal growth rate of every major religious group has dropped sharply, likely reflective of better levels of education, among other factors.
The decline in growth among Muslims is fairly sharp, to 24.6% from 29.5%. Overall, the rate of population growth in India came down in the decade to 17.7% from 21.34% in the previous ten years.
There are other takeaways, not all of them so cheery. A sharp spurt in the population of Muslims in Assam has underscored worries of illegal migration from Bangladesh. Smaller groups such as Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Jains, whose proportion in the population has either shrunk or not changed, run the risk of becoming forgotten minorities as Muslim numbers grow.