|All Drawings by Karen Haydock|
Hindus should give up family planning so that their population does not go down … The population of minorities, especially Muslims, had been rising at such a fast pace that it would be 25 to 30 percent of the total population in 50 years. It would be suicidal for Hindus if they did not raise their population.
– VHP President Ashok Singhal, December 2004
Population growth is one of the factors contributing to global warming … Developing countries, especially those with rapid population growth, promise to worsen this problem [of man-made global warming] as they too develop, using the model of wasteful, energy-intensive Western economies … Stabilizing population growth worldwide … [is a] vital component of slowing, and eventually stopping, global warming.
– “Population and Global Warming Factsheet”, US Sierra Club
In a world not characterised by leaders with a great sense of history, nor a great level of awareness, President George W Bush has nonetheless emerged as a figure sui generis. Recently, he unleashed a storm by announcing that the world faced a food crisis due to increasing consumption in India and China. Newspapers in India, generally distinguished in their fierce competition to further US interests in the Subcontinent (if not around the world), were surprisingly quick to denounce the idiocy of this statement. They pointed out, with data, that such rhetoric flew in the face of facts: that food consumption had not particularly increased in these countries; indeed, that Indian per-capita consumption had stagnated, if not declined, and that this was in any case not anywhere near US levels.
President Bush’s assumption is in line with a fiction referred to as Malthusianism, named after the 18th-century demographer Thomas Malthus who prognosticated a catastrophe as world population grew exponentially, outstripping food supply. He has since been proven wildly inaccurate, in part due to scientific advances. Today, however, the theory has been salvaged as neo-Malthusianism. What is of further surprise, not to mention worry, is that few commentators, whether in the media, in think tanks or in academia, have pointed out that the US president’s specious neo-Malthusian ‘logic’ influences the dominant thinking in an astonishing spectrum of areas. The issue goes further, as well. For instance, as much as pundits have professed concern with the issue of global warming, heaping praise on Nobel laureate Al Gore, no one has pointed out that Gore’s influential report on the issue is equally impacted by neo-Malthusian thinking – by ignoring how consumption by the rich is largely responsible for environmental problems, focusing instead on population growth in poor countries.
The politically correct opinion-makers of First World policymaking circles no longer talk about the ‘yellow peril’, to refer to anxieties over being inundated by Chinese labour. Likewise, phrases such as ‘population explosion’, or metaphors like the ‘population bomb’, have fallen by the wayside. Nevertheless, neo-Malthusian thinking continues to frame the other policy discourses. Neo-Malthusian underpinnings are also evident in some of the current security-related discussions on refugees. We only need to remember that as soon as elections were announced in the UK four years back, immigration suddenly became a prominent issue – and not just for the conservatives, but also for the New Labour party of Tony Blair. Both Italy and France have of late elected rightwing presidents on explicit anti-immigration platforms. At the same time, a sub-discipline of ‘strategic demography’ has emerged, which seeks to explore the growth of Islamist fundamentalism through what is known as the ‘youth-bulge theory’. This fanciful idea argues that population growth in Islamic countries, characterised by a high proportion of youths, inevitably leads to the growth of Islamist fundamentalism, spelling political danger both to democracy in these countries and to the so-called free world.
Such argumentation is, of course, full of holes. To start with, the untroubled use of the term ‘Islamist fundamentalism’ – as with the phrase ‘Hindu nationalism’ to describe Hindu fascist groups – indicates the reach and dominance of Western thinking, repeated unquestioningly by the literati in India and elsewhere. The word fundamentalism, after all, derives very specifically from the growth of Protestant fundamentalist groups in the United States, who wish to reach into the ‘fundamentals’ of their version of Christianity to guide their politics and everyday lives. There are enormous problems with the characterisation of, for instance, the Sangh Parivar as either Hindu fundamentalist or Hindu nationalist.
More to the point, this application of the biological metaphor to political and economic problems does not explain the rise to political dominance of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States – which has no youth bulge, nor indeed any significant population growth. But such matters of fact and logic rarely troubled demographic discourses in the past, and obviously do not today either. In other words, the argument about population growth remains compelling, and truly protean, purporting to explain just about every current evil. At the same time, partly due to the very reach of such doomsday demographic prognostications sourced in the West, coupled with similar modified anxieties today, the elites and the middle classes in much of the Third World remain convinced that the cause of social and economic problems in their individual countries is primarily, if not solely, population growth. This is despite the fact that population growth rates have come down dramatically throughout the world, and indeed not necessarily due to family-planning programmes.
Although the population argument is seen to lend itself to a variety of prejudiced political projects across the world, the 20th century has also witnessed ‘communalisation of demography’ in the Subcontinent. In India, this has helped propel the discursive power of the communal myths (and outright lies) that surround the population question – or what some have termed ‘saffron demography’, an idea that carried particular weight in the election in Gujarat soon after the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage. Ethnic nationalism, combined with various fundamentalisms, gives saffron demography a particularly vicious punch. Of course, the communalisation of the population question is not unique to India. Present within Southasia (and many parts of the rest of the world), it seeks to legitimise offensive policies against minorities in order to build political consensus across newly created political majorities, fixed around ascribed identities that are all too often manufactured. Such a proposition is useful not just in manufacturing these majorities, but also in instilling fear, which is seen to bear political dividends.
There is an offensive slogan currently in use in North India, which is a play on a popular population control slogan of yesteryear – Hum do hamare do; woh paanch, unke pachees, which crudely translates as ‘We [Hindus] are two and have two children; they [Muslims] are five and have 25 children’. The suggestion is simple and beguilingly appealing, but also deeply flawed. The reference is, of course, to the fact that Hindus are not allowed by civil law to have more than one wife, while Muslims in India can have four. What this does not reveal is that data clearly shows that unlawful bigamous or polygamous marriages are more prevalent among Hindus than among Muslims. For example, as per the available data, the percentage incidence of what are called polygynous marriages (in which a man has more than one wife) is 5.8 among Hindus, while it is 5.73 among Muslims. What this also overlooks is that, assuming a situation of relatively equal males and females, a Muslim man with four wives would actually contribute less to population growth than if each of the wives were to be married to different men. Another oversight is that Muslims, like Hindus, are not a monolithic, homogenous community. Muslims in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, indeed in South India in general, typically have smaller families than Hindus in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in North India. Clearly, then, religion is not the main issue at play.
In response to a recent series of articles in the Indian press attempting to debunk myths about high Muslim population growth rates, this writer received a barrage of vehemently critical letters. Some suggested a change of name and conversion to Islam; others argued that he was an enemy both of Hindus and of India in general, and that he should go to Pakistan. Some others offered some bizarre facts to ‘refute’ what was being said. There was a long letter, enclosing two papers presented at international conferences for non-resident Indians, arguing that Muslims seek, through population growth, to overrun Europe. The correspondent was a retired inspector-general of police, a member of what seems to be a front organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) named the Patriotic Front. What is remarkable among these people is that facts are relatively unimportant; they are useful only if they further prejudice.
The urge to silence critics is, of course, understandable among supporters of the Sangh Parivar. Like all fascist groups, they operate by creating fear, sometimes through violence, sometimes through the threat of violence. But how does this explain the rest of the equally strident, if equally irrational, respondents? What gives saffron demography such widespread appeal? One way or another, there are clearly some very complex factors at work.
Saffron demography suffers from serious methodological and empirical problems. It is based on at least two false assumptions. First, that there exists a uniform and homogenous Muslim community, as well as an equally undifferentiated Hindu community in India. Second, an ahistorical refusal to consider population trends among these supposedly homogenised communities over a period of time. That is, that over the 1990s the rate of decline in the population growth rate among Muslims was sharper than among Hindus. Thus, for instance, the National Family Health Survey indicates that the total fertility rate (TFR) for Hindus declined from 3.2 to 2.78 between 1993-94 and 1998-99, a difference of 0.52. Among Muslims, it declined from 4.41 to 3.59, a decline of 0.82. Among Muslims, with a high standard of living, the percentage decline in the TFR was in fact much sharper than among Hindus over the same period.
Neither do the saffron demographers have the time to study differentials in the determinants. For instance, in India today, differentials in household economies between Hindus and Muslims may explain demographic behaviour better than any faith-based proclivity. Indeed, there is also data to indicate that the use of contraception by Muslim women increased faster during the 1990s than it did among Hindus. Again, between the two rounds of the NFHS data (1992-93 and 1988-89), the increase in contraceptive usage rates among Muslim women has been faster than among Hindu women (9.3 percent versus 7.6 percent).
This communalisation of demography has a fairly long history. As early as 1909, U N Mukherji, who would go on to co-found the Punjab Hindu Maha Sabha, wrote a book entitled Hindus: A dying race, which influenced many subsequent publications by the Sabha, the parent organisation of the RSS. This work met with widespread demand, being reprinted many times, and helping to create and reinforce Hindu communalism. It had a special appeal to upper-caste Hindu communalists, who were anxious to create a monolithic Hindu community in the face of calls for separate representation emanating from both Muslims and the Dalits.
Whipping up anxiety about Muslims would certainly be one way to weld together hugely diverse, and often antagonistic, castes into one community, erasing the structural divisions in caste society. Indeed, historian Pradip Kumar Dutta notes that “for Hindu communalism, [A Dying Race] had a more direct resonance as Hindu communalism was now preoccupied with numbers … the possibility of low castes declassifying themselves as Hindus was a motivating anxiety behind the origins of Hindu communalism.” Deeply riddled with inaccuracies, wild conjecture and baseless prediction, Mukherji’s book nevertheless provided, in Dutta’s words, “demographic common sense functioning as a trope for extinction.” Also, fundamentally, Hindu communalists believed – and continue to believe – that India was defined ‘culturally’ as a Hindu nation, just as Muslim communalists believed, and believe, in the purity of an Islamic Pakistan.
The second chief of the RSS, M S Golwalkar, was equally a believer in the two-nation theory. He was also a great admirer of Adolf Hitler’s large-scale experiments with racial purification. Like Hitler, Golwalkar defined a nation as a nation of blood, of primordial ties embedded in an ancient culture. Golwalkar argued that only those whose religion emanated from within India could be Indian citizens, thus marking Christians, Muslims, Parsees, Jews and others as outsiders. In 1947, in his book We, or Our Nationhood Redefined, Golwalkar wrote: “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races, the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
By evoking demographic fears in this way, Hindu and Muslim communalists alike subscribed to colonial definitions of Indian society. The censuses of the period also contributed to this process, as each community defined itself, and attempted to inflate numbers. We must remember, however, that this discourse emerged in an embattled political space – as colonialism was being contested, as political classes were being formed, as the working class was congealing, and as early feminist ideas were gaining ground. None of these, of course, figure in the communalist discourse.
The full boat
There was yet another flame stoking these fears among Hindu communalists early in the 20th century: resentment towards social reform. Emblematic here was the tragic figure of the Hindu widow. Forbidden remarriage among the upper castes, the figure of the Hindu widow was simultaneously held responsible for the dying of the ‘Hindu race’, and for being alluring to virile Muslim men – a danger within the sacred heart of the Hindu household, waiting to be profaned. Fitting neatly into this gendered anxiety was the communalisation of the issue of ‘abduction’ of Hindu women, a popular rumour prior to the Gujarat carnage in 2002. Historian Tanika Sarkar notes that “there is a dark sexual obsession about the allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and over-fertile Muslim female ones.” Thus patriarchy, ‘nationhood’ and violence against women were all embedded in the public discourse surrounding population, inscribing on the bodies of reproductive-age women not only male anxieties about the future but also the politics of genocide.
The slogan Hum do, hamare do; Woh paanch, unke pachees helped Narendra Modi, ostensibly the leader of the bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002, gain a resounding electoral victory in the ensuing elections. By engendering fear and anxiety about the future, saffron demography accomplishes something insidious: it evokes complicity in morally offensive policies.
All fundamentalisms carve their writs on the bodies of women, defined as either our women or their women. Thus, the same features described above also characterise fundamentalist demographies of other hues – Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Sinhala. Among Islamist fundamentalists, what is occurring today, including in India, is the evocation of a glorious and pure ‘Islamic’ past, purported to be uncorrupted and pristine, along with the reinvention of ‘tradition’. For example, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is opposed to contraception as it would, its members claim, lead to ‘unrestrained female sexuality’, weakening the moral fabric of Islamic society. The group also sees family planning as a Judeo-Christian plot to emasculate the Muslim world, even as its members point with alarm to events in Bosnia and Palestine. To go back to the example of George W Bush’s rhetoric at the beginning of this article, such ideas receive sustenance when strategic and defence policies in, for instance, the United States explicitly make the argument that population growth in Third World countries in general, and West Asia in particular, is a serious security issue.
On this issue, one cannot miss the irony that President Bush, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sangh Parivar share so much in common. In recent years, we have had seen leaders from the latter opposing family planning among Hindus, claiming there to be a ‘demographic war’ afoot. The leader of the VHP quoted at the start of this piece, Ashok Singhal, enjoined Hindus not to accept family planning because their numbers were going down, while those of Muslims were increasing. At a large public meeting two years back, attended by thousands and in the presence of the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, the leader of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the RSS claimed that the Muslim population was increasing at a rapid pace, and that this, combined with infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh, portended doom for India. Claiming that this “demographic war” was being waged across the world, he attributed the break-up of the Soviet Union to a similar “demographic imbalance”. The same groups have also opposed access to abortion, arguing that a disproportionate number of Hindu women utilise abortion facilities.
A massive, and unedifying, controversy erupted when the Census Commissioner of India announced religion-wise data from the 2001 census, failing to add that these could not be compared to previous figures, since the 1991 census had not been conducted in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state. With a significant amount of assistance from the national media, the Hindu right then proceeded to create an uproar about ‘them’ out-numbering ‘us’ in ‘our own country’. This was despite clarifications issued by the census commissioner, and despite figures showing that the rate of decline of the Muslim growth rate in India was substantial and, indeed, sharper than among Hindus. While the Muslim population growth per decade declined during the 1990s by 3.3 percent, the Hindu population growth declined by 2.8 percent, although the Muslim growth rate does remain higher than that of Hindus.
The anxieties that underlie the irrational responses to the population issue stem from an atavistic fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the other’, and from the envisioning of citizenship in terms of blood and race alone. These ideas have always had a strange way of resurfacing in what are perceived by some as incomprehensibly apocalyptic times – when the world as we know it seems to stand threatened, or is changing too fast for our liking.
Thus, we witness the re-invention of tradition, the hatred of the ‘heartless immorality’ of modernity – indeed, hatred of the demands of the hitherto dispossessed, which are also fundamentally part of modernity. As the eminent German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has noted, the proportion of foreigners in Germany at the end of the 20th century – when vicious anti-immigrant ideologies came to the fore, often accompanied by brutal attacks on ‘foreigners’ – was well below that in pre-World War I Germany, when there had been little such xenophobia. Enzenberger notes.
It is of course no accident that the image of the life-boat recurs in the political discourse about immigration, usually in the form of the assertion, ‘The boat is full’. That this sentence is inaccurate is the least that can be said about it. A look around is enough to disprove it, as those who use it know. But they are not interested in its truthfulness; they like the fears it conjures up.
To conjure up these fears is the essentialism of numbers, all mixed into a potent brew with the urge for the authentic and unsullied, the politics of identity. What is frightening is that the atavistic appeals to blood, tribe and race seem to carry so much appeal, even when we know that, finally, there is no such thing as race. For instance, it is now clear that differences within so-called racial groups are far more significant than differences between racial groups. In a world in which historic revisionism is rampant, where new tribal wars are unleashed every day with the coining of a new and alarmingly aseptic phrase to describe it – ‘ethnic cleansing’ – it is urgent to retrace the links between neo-Malthusianism, eugenics, the Holocaust and today’s growth of fundamentalisms of all hues. It is an irony of history that victims of the Holocaust, in one of the first modern countries to be created on the basis of religion, are today perpetrating another one, supposedly in order to protect an exclusive ‘race’. Like saffron demography, by engendering fear and anxiety about the future, neo-Malthusianism successfully evokes complicity in morally offensive policies.
There is something tragic to be learned from the collapse of multi-national states such as the former Yugoslavia, coupled with the yearning for ethnically pure ‘nations of blood and ties’ that both caused and were a consequence of this collapse. Meanwhile, in Southasia, the horrible implications that this holds for huge sections of the population, ethnically cleansed into postcolonial states that have forgotten their anti-imperialist histories, is too recent to be erased from memory. As the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf observes, the rush for identities, to seek some fundamental allegiance, often religious, racial or ethnic, leads to murderous identities of blood. Responding to imagined primitive fears and anxieties, we seem to be heading towards what Maalouf describes as the age of ‘global tribes’, each tribe anxiously counting its numbers and its women, preparing for a genocide of the Other.
~ Mohan Rao is a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.