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India as an Ostrich

September 13, 2004

In a seminal study published in 1995, the historian Simon Schama underlined the enormous contribution of landscape in the evolution of the national spirit. 'So many of our modern concerns-empire, nation, freedom, enterprise and dictatorship,' wrote Schama, 'have invoked topography to give their ruling ideas a natural form.'

Schama's study centred on Europe and North America but his observations ring a bell in India too. After Independence, to honour the symbiosis between nature and nationhood, we proclaimed the peacock as the national bird.

The peacock is at one level an imperial bird with a majestic plumage. At the same time it blends fierce territoriality with brave aggression against predators. It combines courage with a sense of community. In short, it doesn't correspond to our national character or, at least, the character that is emerging.

India would have been better off adopting the ostrich. That bird is, like India, very big, even ungainly. It is unique in that its eyeballs are bigger than its brain. Consequently, it is incapable of fully comprehending its own environment. And, , hoping the threat will somehow disappear.

In the wake of the Census Commissioner's contentious religious demography report, the Indian establishment has conducted itself in true ostrich style. Confronted by disconcerting statistics, it has chosen to combine embarrassment and funk. Like a good ostrich, it has tried to simultaneously bury its head in the sand and run away from a problem it wanted to conceal.

To take comfort in the self-serving belief that the Muslim population has grown by only 29.3 percent rather than 36 percent, as was initially hinted, in the period 1991-2001 is absolutely grotesque. Statistical jugglery may indicate that the decennial growth rate for Muslims has fallen by 3.6 percent, which is higher than the Hindu decline of 2.8 percent, but the fact remains that Muslims are growing at a 9.3 percent higher rate than Hindus. The lower growth rate means that the community was multiplying even faster in the Eighties.

That is small comfort to those concerned with both economic development and social harmony. In 1961, the total Muslim population was 10.69 percent and in 1971 it rose to 11.20 percent. In 2001, it has climbed to 13.44 percent. More to the point, among those who are six years of age and below, the proportion of Muslims is 18.70 percent -- which would indicate that the Muslim growth rate will be much higher in the coming decades.

Actually, you don't even need the Census Commissioner to certify the increase. Whether in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai, the growth of the Muslim population is all pervasive and visible.

Whether this high Muslim growth is a result of poverty and social backwardness or caused by other factors is for policy-makers to ascertain. However, it is an act of deceit to believe that the problem does not exist.

Worse, it is dishonest to take comfort from the fact that there was no enumeration in Assam in 1981 and in Jammu and Kashmir in 1991. It is quite clear that had political turmoil not prevented the enumeration in these two states, the rise in Muslim population for the 1991-2001 would have exceeded 30 percent. The Muslim growth rate in Assam for 1991-2001 was, for example, a staggering 29.30 percent compared to a Hindu growth rate of 14.95 percent.

Going by the new standards of statistical spin, we may as well arrange to exclude Bihar and the other black holes of India from our per capita income calculations. The findings will certainly be more heartening. The question is: will they be more authentic?

The disaggregated data punctures the smugness of those who imagined they had narrowly foiled a mammoth communal conspiracy. The Census clearly indicates that the Muslim population has been growing abnormally in the districts bordering Nepal and Bangladesh.

In the border-belt districts of Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda, Birbhum and Murshidabad in West Bengal, the Muslim population grew from 39.89 percent in 1951 to 52.50 percent in 2001. In 1951, only Murshidabad was a Muslim-majority district. Today, Malda has joined the list and by 2011, Uttar Dinajpur too may become Muslim majority. Indeed, the percentage of Muslims in West Bengal has grown steadily from 19.46 percent in 1951 to 25.20 percent in 2001. Between 1991 and 2001, the Hindu population of West Bengal grew by 14.18 percent; the Muslim growth was 25.91 percent.

It is the same story in Assam. In the 11 districts that comprise the former composite border districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nagaon, the Muslim population has grown from 32.42 percent in 1951 to 40.37 percent in 2001. In Assam as a whole, the Muslim population rose from 24.68 percent in 1951 to 30.90 percent in 2001. There are now six districts in Assam that are Muslim majority. In 1951, there were none!

What has been taking place in eastern India is a long-term demographic transformation fuelled by both high fertility among Muslims and unchecked illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Instead of imbibing the profound consequences of this shift, our decision-makers seem more preoccupied with the fact that it is the BJP that is getting apoplectic -- a classic case of shooting the messenger.

For some time, Indian intelligence agencies have been alerting successive governments of the dangers posed by the strategic demographic shift in favour of Muslims in the border districts. It is estimated, for example, that as many as 5,000 Muslim youth from Assam and the North-eastern states have received arms training in camps set up by the ISI in Bangladesh. In addition, the wave of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh that has virtually destroyed the legacy of the liberation struggle is beginning to be felt across the border. Yet, both the Centre and the state governments choose to be wilfully blind to the dangers inherent in the rise of another Muslim separatist movement embracing eastern India.

Perhaps the ostrich-like Indian establishment is right in insisting that Kashmir and Assam be excluded from the purview of calculations. At this rate these states won't be a part of a future India. Then we can all gloat that the problem isn't going to become alarming for another 247 years and gracefully retire to our ostrich farms.

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Swapan Dasgupta

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