India as a Ostrich
In this article published on Rediff in 2004, prominent political commentator Swapan Dasgupta points out to a profound change occuring in Indian landscape, a fact that has been ignored by the political and intellectual establishment of this nation out of respect for the notion of political correctness. But how long will the political establishment continue with its Ostrich like attitude of burying its heads in Sand everytime this problem arises?
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.
On the situation in West Bengal and Assam by continuous illegal migration happening from the Bangladesh. This point was made in 2004. 8 years have passed, and it took riots in the district of Kokrajhar for our intellectuals to wake up and see the grim reality.
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.
Will such streams of radicalism stemming in from illegal migration and demographic boom herald in a new seperatist movement in the Eastern regions of India? We have the example of Pakistan in front of us; lets just hope that history doesn’t repeat itself. As for the ostrich like establishment of India, it can continue to gloat over the fact that “all is well”.
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