In India, a debate over population control turns explosive

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yogi Adityanath (C) is offered sweets after he was elected as Chief Minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, during the party lawmakers’ meeting in Lucknow, India March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

NEW DELHI – Yogi Adityanath, a star of India’s political right wing, stood before television cameras in his trademark saffron tunic and dramatically introduced a bill pushing for smaller families – two children at most.

In previous decades, this measure by the leader of the country’s most populous state might have been uncontroversial. Over the past month, it’s been explosive.

Supporters held a protest to demand even tougher population controls in Uttar Pradesh, a vast expanse of 220 million people. Demographers debated whether legislation was necessary, given that Indian birthrates are falling swiftly. Critics saw something deeply cynical: a veiled attempt to mobilize Hindu voters by tapping into an age-old trope about India’s Muslim population ballooning out of control.

As India barrels toward a pivotal election in Uttar Pradesh early next year, population bills introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have become a new flash point in the national debate, vividly illustrating how the issues of religion and identity, spoken or implied, form the most powerful undercurrent in the country’s politics.

BJP leaders in two states, Uttar Pradesh in the north and Assam in the far northeast, have formally proposed legislation that would bar those with more than two children from sought-after public sector jobs or benefits, such as government food rations. Similar proposals have been aired by other states’ leaders and at the national level in parliament.

Adityanath and other top party officials say they seek to improve life for all Indians by tackling a generally accepted problem. India will edge past China as the world’s most populous country sometime around 2027, according to United Nations projections.

“The new Uttar Pradesh population policy is for all and not just one community. It will inevitably ensure sustainable development with reduced inequality in income distribution,” Siddharth Nath Singh, spokesman for the Uttar Pradesh government and the BJP, said in an email. “Different demographics have different development levels, and the government will aim to create that balance in various regions of the state.”

But for many across India’s political spectrum, the initiatives, coming seven months before Uttar Pradesh’s state elections, seem an unmistakable nod to the concerns of a conservative Hindu political movement that seeks to establish India, following centuries of Muslim and British rule, as a Hindu state with a secure Hindu majority and distinctly Hindu character.

Since 2011, when official census figures emerged showing Hindus dipping to 80% of India’s population compared to 84% in 1951 – Muslims increased from 10% to 14.2% during that same period – the question of how to maintain “demographic balance” has gained urgency for the movement’s leaders. A 2016 national survey finding that Indian Muslim women had, on average, 2.6 children compared to 2.1 for Hindus provoked more concern.

Fears about Muslims overtaking Hindus “is an often-articulated Hindu nationalist trope that’s acquired a ferocity,” said Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University. “It’s not very different from the right wing, White American anxiety that Whites will become a demographic minority in the United States. In America, the issue is immigration. In India, the issue is fertility rates.”

Six years ago, as a member of parliament, Adityanath told supporters at a Hindu monastery that “the comparatively high fertility rate among Muslims will cause a dangerous demographic imbalance.” In 2018, Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the influential Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called for legislation to limit childbirths.

Demographic anxieties are now a staple of India’s right-wing social media, where a flood of shrill, exaggerated or false posts warn of Islam on the march. The Muslim population is expanding, the narrative goes, because of forced conversions of Hindus through marriage, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, and of course, higher fertility rates.

Last year, Adityanath introduced a law in Uttar Pradesh that he said would curb “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu nationalists who allege Muslim men are marrying and converting Hindu women as part of a campaign.

Invoking demographics can be a powerful wedge, even when it’s not articulated, said Mohan Guruswamy, a former BJP member and government adviser who quit the party in 1999.

“It’s code that everybody has internalized,” Guruswamy noted. “When they say, ‘Those people are breeding,’ who are they referring to? Muslims and lower castes.”

Demographers say Muslim families, who tend to occupy India’s lower socioeconomic strata, have fertility rates that are on par with groups such as Dalits, the lowest-ranked caste in India, formerly referred to as “untouchables.”

“To a great extent, the higher fertility among Muslims can be explained by lower levels of education among women and poor economic status,” said T.V. Sekher of the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai. “If we are able to meet the unmet need for contraception, the fertility rate will come down significantly.”

In the 1950s, the average Indian woman had six children. The rate has fallen dramatically to roughly 2.2 today, just above the level needed to maintain a level population, and the Indian government says a nationwide two-child policy is unnecessary.

Not so, argues Ashwini Upadhyay, a BJP lawyer and former party spokesman who drafted a population-control bill that has been circulating in the upper house of parliament since July. Upadhyay has crisscrossed northern India in recent weeks, holding a string of rallies for such measures as well as for national laws removing the special considerations in education and marriage that religious and ethnic minorities receive – all priorities for Hindu nationalist groups.

“Poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, air pollution, crime, 100 million homeless – the root cause of it all is the population explosion,” Upadhyay said. After the Uttar Pradesh bill becomes law, national population legislation will surely follow, he predicted confidently during a recent stop in his New Delhi office before heading to another rally. “The country is now ready for population control. There’s massive discussion on digital media, print media, and YouTube channels.”

These initiatives do not aim to stoke division and actually “will more benefit the Muslim community,” he maintained. “They will come swiftly into the middle class.” One of the events Upadhyay organized this month, a raucous rally in New Delhi, showed how the demographic issue can filter down to the Hindu nationalist grass roots and become a venomous force.

As Upadhyay spoke into a crackly microphone – flanked onstage by Hindu priests and a Bollywood actor – nearby streets began filling with thousands of demonstrators. Many were groups of young men hailing from across the northern Hindu heartland. Some came from as far as Kolkata, nearly a 24-hour train journey away.

Forty-year-old Hakumar Rawat said Pakistan had practically eliminated Hinduism while India had allowed Muslim communities to grow by converting children and constructing mosques with “black money” from overseas.

“They have five, six, 10 children,” said Rawat, a tattoo of the Sanskrit symbol for “Om” visible on his neck. “They are playing the long game.”

Nearby, Gaitanjali Mohapatra jabbed a finger at a placard listing the Hindu right’s grievances. “The biggest issue is population,” the social worker said. “It’s not helping that Bangladeshis and Rohingya keep crossing the border into Bengal and Assam.”

The atmosphere thickened with humidity and rage as noon approached. Upadhyay departed the stage, but men waving enormous Indian flags and leading rolling chants of “Glory to Lord Ram!” whipped the upscale plaza into a barely contained frenzy. A protester climbed onto a barricade and began live-streaming the scene on Facebook, telling his followers the rally was a warning to Muslims plotting Ghazwa-e-Hind, a prophesied holy war to conquer India.

Moments later, the crowd heaved with a new slogan: “When we cut down Muslims, they’ll cry Ram, Ram!” (That chant resulted in the arrest of six men, including Upadhyay, for “promoting enmity” between religious groups. Upadhyay denied any direct involvement and was released on bail.)

Straining to speak over the increasingly agitated crowd, a college student named Divyam Sinha said he had taken a two-hour train ride to meet other young nationalists who want an India where they can live “securely and happily.”

Muslims “are on a mission to capture this country,” Sinha said. “So if Mr. Yogi Adityanath comes and says he’ll do something about it, it’s a great achievement.”

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