No minister, all is not well with India’s Muslims

A fact check of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s strange link between Muslim well being and ‘population growth’

Nirmala Sitharaman

Claim: In response to a query about perceptions of Muslim minorities in India at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) in the USA, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman denounced the claims of Muslims facing violence in the country, saying:

“India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, and that population is only growing in numbers. If there is a perception, or if there’s in reality, their lives are difficult or made difficult with the support of the state, which is what is implied in most of these write-ups, I would ask, will this happen in India in a sense, will the Muslim population be growing than what it was in 1947? You would find every strand of Muslims in India doing their business, their children are being educated, and the government provides fellowships.” 

Inviting people to come to India and see the ‘ground’ reality for themselves, the Union Finance Minister also said that Muslims of every strand in India are doing their business, their children are being educated, and the government is disbursing fellowships. Law and order, she further stated, was not an issue of the Union of India but that of the state and provincial governments. 

Busted: Socio-economic data and reports of unabated, unchecked violence against India’s marginalised Muslim minority sharply contradict the claim that a rise in the population after partition means the religious minority is as secure as the rest of Indians and faces no persecution and discrimination.

In her speech, the Finance Minister’s seems to be saying broadly that:

(i) There is no violence or discrimination against Muslims in India.

(ii) A growth in population from independence is evidence for the above, i.e., there is no violence against Muslims in India. 

(iii) Muslims can do business, get an education, and get government scholarships without hurdles. 

It takes no genius in the social sciences to conclude that it may not be necessary to have a steep fall in numbers or even a full-blown genocide to substantiate the claims that a minority suffers from unchecked violence. Lack of political representation over decades declining to a zero over the past nine years, the absence (denial) of education and other basic rights including health services combined with socially and politically sanctioned entrenched prejudice –that in the same period of the past nine years has taken the form of unchecked calls for both social ostracism and economic boycott– are some clear manifestations of a systemic exclusion and denial. There is sufficient data to assert that the minister’s claims on India being a safe haven for minorities are based on a combination of a coloured ideological gaze and as dangerous, a manipulation of statistical data.

Do the Finance Minister’s claims hold ground? In order to have a closer look at what she said, let’s look at what the data tells us. 

Claim #1: There is no violence against Muslims in India. 

Busted: Observers note a sharp increase in violence against Muslims since the BJP government came to power. Data substantiates these claims, revealing a clear pattern showing that many hate crime incidents have occurred mainly in BJP-ruled states. The past four years have witnessed a large number of upheavals and stories of violence and discrimination against minorities. From the police brutality and state-led prosecution of people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2020, to the north-east Delhi violence of 2020, to the very recent Ram Navmi incidents of violence (2022, 2023), Muslims in India face the threat of continued violence. 

CJP keeps track of hate crimes and violence against religious minorities and marginalized caste groups in India, presenting a map that tallies such violence across the country. Termed the Nafrat ka Naqsha, this map reveals 37 reported counts of hate speech since January 2023. Several elected representatives of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its members or ministers have been proponents of these speeches. Ms Sitharaman hails from the same political party. 

CJP’s constantly updated map also shows that around 31 instances of communal violence, including lynching by vigilante groups, have been reported in the past three months. Law-enforcement agencies in these states have even provided immunity to the assailants in some cases by refusing to register FIRs against them, filing criminal claims against victims, and even colluding with offenders to escape prosecution. Put together, these facts reveal a deliberate denial of constitutional protection (Articles 14, 15,16 and 21) for the Muslim minorities and a pervasive immunity for both perpetrators and law enforcement personnel who collude. This callous abdication of the law by state and non-state actors continues even as the Muslim minorities (and others like Christians, Dalits, Adivasis) face violence. These facts point to a harsh reality far at odds with Nirmala Sitharaman’s response at the PIIE. 

Claim #2: A growth in the population of Muslims means that Muslims don’t face violence or discrimination in India. 

Busted: There is no theoretical or statistical basis to establish a link between figures of rising population growth and discrimination or violence faced by a social category or group. A lack of social security and increased economic deprivation levels are accepted basis or factors for groups and communities to have more children, seen as a source of support for them.  Besides, denial of representation that amounts to denial of access includes denial of health care and education for the thrice oppressed sections within Minorities, the Women. Both factors, Muslims are a group that face high levels of poverty as a whole and Muslim Women are denied access to education and health schemes in particular, both factors that also contribute to population figures.

Research shows that about 25 percent of people forced to beg for a living are Muslims. Among all groups, Muslims are the least upwardly mobile social group. Even the dwindling number of available government benefits for Muslims rarely reach the targeted group for several reasons, including awareness and lack of government outreach measures and difficulty in procuring identification documents required to avail of government benefits. Political representation is an accepted factor in ensuring deeper democratic access of groups and communities. Representation of Muslims during the rule of Ms Sitharaman’s party, the BJP has dwindled to naught. Of the 303 Lok Sabha and 92 Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament that the party boasts of claiming undisputed majority, there is not a single Muslim. Of the over 1,000 MLAS (elected officials in state assemblies) belonging to the BJP, there is no Muslim.

Claim #3: Can Muslims really do business with ease in India?

Busted: Muslims from all economic groups face hurdles in earning a living due to rising violence and discrimination. From businesses to small-scale vendors and daily wagers, consistent communal violence, socio-economic marginalisation, and even campaigns for an economic boycott of Muslims make it challenging to earn a day’s wage in India. It is noted by scholars of communal violence, such as Paul Brass, that riots against Muslims are particularly orchestrated to target shops and businesses, along with other factors. This phenomenon that goes back decades has arguably reached a peak recently.

Claim #4: India’s Muslims can afford education and government fellowships.  

Busted: The present Union Government’s own actions belie this statement. It is Ms. Sitharaman’s government (Ms Smriti Irani, Minority Affairs Minister) which scrapped the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF). These scholarships were instituted post 2006, after the Union of India, finally accepted the Justice Sachar Committee Report, Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, a document fortuitously still available on the website of the Minorities Affairs Ministry. On qualifying a National Eligibility Test, MANF was a research fellowship to selected students from India’s religious minorities. The union government also drastically cut down the budget for minorities by 38 percent for the fiscal year 2023-2024, in addition to a stark 50 percent cut for special schemes for minority students. Even before Ms Sitharaman’s statement, the Indian State (read Union Government) has reversed baby steps that were a much delayed acknowledgement of institutional discrimination against Muslim minorities in India.

Besides, several developmental indexes reveal that Muslims have the lowest education enrolment rates amongst all religious groups and face educational marginalization, according to several reports. They also have the highest dropout rates- especially from primary to middle school. According to the All India Survey of Higher Education 2020-2021 (AISHE), the total enrollment percentage of Muslims in higher education is 4.6 percent of the total population enrolled. In contrast, the religious minority consists of about 14 percent of the total population of India. In addition, Muslim students face discrimination by the state and school administration. In 2022, young Muslim school girls were prevented from attending school in the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka, after a government order issued a notice banning the hijab in schools, which forced hundreds of Muslim girls to drop out

Where does Nirmala Sitharaman’s misrepresentation of statistical data lead us?

 The Finance Minister’s carefree and cynical  usage of statistics is misleading in many ways. First, as emphasised above, the claim that the supposed rise in a group’s population indicates the well-being of minority populations is itself fallacious. There is  no correlation between the two. Muslims in India, today, are among the most targeted religious minorities that also lag behind in almost every socio-economic index. Their representation in the Indian Parliament is at an all time low in proportion to their population that is 14 %.. In fact, Sitharaman’s own party, by mid-2022 the BJP, has been noted to give zero representation, in terms of seats in the parliament, to Muslims. Apart from the fact that the BJP has simply no Muslim political representative as stated above, the declining representation of Muslims is systemic as revealed by these figures: In Indian Parliament, the political representation overall, of Muslims came down by half from 49 in 1980 to 27 in 2017. (In 2009, it was at 30). Going by the population of Muslims which is at 14 % of the Indian population, they should have at least 77 MPs but the numbers today, in 2023 are 27.

The rising, unchecked, and often state-endorsed violence against Muslim and Christian minorities has further presented a hurdle in the progress and development of the communities. 

Finally, do these claims of a rising Muslim population hold ground?

According to Pew Research Center, India’s population has tripled since independence due to a massive shift in life expectancy, living standards, and food production. Thereby, every religious group in India saw an increase in numbers post-Partition. While the growth rate of Muslims is higher than other groups, according to Pew’s findings, the ratio and proportion of religious groups in India have remained relatively stable, rubbishing claims of a supposed attempt to overthrow the Hindu population by Muslims.

As the former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India and author of the book titled ‘The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning, and Politics in India, S. Y. Quraishi, puts it, family planning measures rarely reach marginalised communities, which generally are forced to live in segregated localities, often low-income, vulnerable groups such as Muslims due to a lack of accessibility to health services. 

The fertility rate of Muslims has been declining sharply, faster than the Hindu community even, according to the National Family Health Survey – 5 (NFHS) conducted in 2022. The declining fertility rate in Muslims is a sharp 46 percent, and that in Hindus is 41 percent. Smaller families are becoming the norm in many Muslim households, according to the NFHS survey. The rising costs of quality education and private education can often act as a deterrent to Muslims from having more children. Due to economic strains, the government has often advocated, though not enforced, methods of contraception and family planning over the years.

The government of India has been notably infamous for having engaged in forced sterilization drives of poor Muslims several times in the past. Thereby, one can note that there has been considerable mythmaking related to apparent notions of population increase or population explosion of the Muslim community in the aftermath of partition. Such perceptions and rumours have often given rise to hate speech, paranoia about Muslims, and harmful stereotypes. According to an Oxfam India survey conducted in 2021, one-third of Muslims are subjected to prejudice when they try to avail of healthcare services in private and government-run health facilities across India. 

Is India’s Union Finance Minister, Ms Sitharaman’s highly publicised allusion to the growth of the Muslim population an isolated remark or part of pernicious anti-Minority propaganda?

Is there a strain of Islamophobia to be detected in the Union minister’s reference to the rising population? First, this statement is only the latest among high-level attempts to deny the targeted violence being allowed to occur without check, against religious minorities. Second, the political and social sanction behind this bald statement –emanating from the top of both the political and organisational hierarchy of the ruling party– can only embolden the hate-mongers among Ms Sitharaman’s party peers or the non-state actors and groups who add grist to this mill.. 

Dangerous too, as the statement can also potentially add fodder to existing tropes and fears about the mythical rise in Muslim population in relation to the numerical majority, the Hindu community. Hate speech against Muslims is replete with dangerous doses of falsified facts and selectively jumbled statistics that attest to “rising” Muslim populations and the supposed danger this demographic imbalance could pose to India’s Hindus.

Several BJP ministers and right-wing media houses often propagate this enduring right-wing rhetoric to evoke widespread, angered sentiments against Muslims. Acting ministers and politicians evoke the bogey of a return to ‘Muslim-ruled India’ the rising population will bring along with fears of a numerical and political transformation of Hindus into a minority. Propaganda by the Hindu Right, which began early in the 1970s, insisted that Muslims are anti-national as they don’t adopt contraceptive measures. Ms Sitharaman, through her statement on April 11, 2023 in her official capacity, has attempted an official stamp of approval on this pernicious hate-driven propaganda.

Fear Mongering about the return to ‘Mughal rule’ or Muslims overtaking Hindus numerically has been prevalent in the speeches of the supporters and members of the BJP and RSS. Mohan Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in an address in 2021, spoke about the rising population of India’s Muslims as well and called for a policy to balance the population. Nirmala Sitharaman seems to be evoking the self-same stereotype, with little regard to facts, to erase the stark reality of widespread social and economic exclusion and politically driven violence against minorities in India. 


1000s or hundreds of thousands, the Karnataka govt’s ill-motivated ‘Hijab ban’ has pushed Muslim girls out of school

(Source: Unlike Pakistan’s Minorities, Every Strand of the Muslim Community is doing Business in India, The Hindu.)


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