So what is Narendra Modi angry about?

Mohan Guruswamy is Chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, India. He has over three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. He can be contacted at mohanguru[at]

Mohan Guruswamy

Mohan Guruswamy

Ham Paanch Hamare Pachis (we five, our twenty five), is a sneering reference to the supposed Muslim attitude to family planning, and was well used by Narendra Modi in his successful re-election campaign in 2003. It does seem that many Hindus find the higher Muslim population growth rate threatening. Because of higher birthrates, the percentage of Muslims in India has risen from about 9.91% in 1951 to 13.45% in 2001. The beleaguered feeling is a common condition of, both, the majority community and the minorities. And politicians will not be politicians if they do not play up the base fears of their constituencies. On the flip side we have Muslim and so-called secular political and intellectual leaders pretending that there would be nothing to be concerned about if the communal Hindu politician just let this be. As is often the case when there is some truth with both sides, the discourse has run aground.

Ham Paanch, refers to a Muslim husband and his four wives, as permitted by the Quran. It suggests that the incidence of polygamy is widely prevalent among Muslims and this contributes to their faster increase in numbers? A 1993 survey by Mallika B. Mistry of the well-regarded Gokhale Institute, Pune disproves this. The incidence of polygamy is lowest among Muslims (5.70%). Hindus are more polygamous (5.80%) as are Jains (6.72%), Buddhists (7.90%) and Adivasis (15.25%). So much for that!

Nonetheless the fact is that a Muslim man can have as many as four wives at any time. A Hindu man is constrained to just one wife, even if the criminality of his bigamy is somewhat mitigated by making it subject to the sanction of the first wife. Ask BJP MP Hema Malini? Quite clearly the State treats Hindu and Muslim men unequally. Worse it treats Hindu and Muslim women even more unequally. While the law may be an ass, it makes monkeys of all women. But that does not seem to be the issue at all. The fact that a Muslim’s family can legally be Ham Paanch, while the Hindu is restrained to Ham Do makes it seem that envy is more the issue here?

But there is a good bit of fact to support the paranoia inducing half of the slogan, Hamare Pachis, if it is meant to be more than just alliterative? According to the government’s National Family Health Survey, in 2000 the total fertility rate for Muslim women was 3.59, well ahead of the 2.78 for Hindu women. Further, the mean number of children ever borne (ages between 40-49 years) to Muslim women was 5.72; once again well ahead of the 4.34 for Hindu women.

The consequences of this are quite apparent. The Census of India, 1991 records that Hindus made up 82.63% of the population in 1981, while Muslims made up 11.36%. This changed to 82.0% and 12.12% respectively in 1991. The decadal growth rates for Hindus and Muslims between 1971-81 and 1981-91 were 24.14% and 30.69%, and 22.78% and 32.76% respectively. Consequently in the 2001 Census Muslims were 13.43% of India. Quite clearly the Hindu growth rate was falling while the Muslim growth rate was rising. Thus while the jeer Hamare Pachis might be much exaggerated, there is some basis, however irrational it may be, for the fear many Hindus feel about being swamped by Muslims. Given present trends it will take the Muslims many centuries to gain parity with Hindus. But it seems the RSS is thinking ahead for a thousand year Reich?

There are visible differences in the economic profiles of Hindus and Muslims. The India Human Development Report, 1990 reports that average household annual incomes of Hindus was Rs.25,713 while that of Muslims was Rs.22,807; making for per capita incomes of Rs.4,514 and Rs.3,678 respectively. But if we factor in the bigger unit size of the Muslim family the actual per capita income might even be much lower? While 19.3% of Hindu women worked, only 9.6% of Muslim women were employed. Hindus also individually owned more agricultural land, 4.6 acres against 3.6 acres. Consequently while 55.2 % of Hindus lived in kutcha houses, 65.9% of Muslims lived in similar accommodation. 43.2% of Hindu homes have electricity while only 30.0% of Muslim homes had it. Against the incidence of poverty trend, while 34.1% of Hindus used the PDS, only 21.8% of Muslims used it, suggesting a state bias against Muslims at the ground level. But bucking the trend is the fact that more Muslim households had toilets (26.7%) while Hindu homes had fewer (13.2%). Similarly more Muslim homes (78.1%) had protected water compared to Hindu households (71.1%) very clearly suggesting that despite the greater incidence of poverty Muslims generally had better attitudes to personal hygiene and care. This should put paid to widely held Hindu notions in this regard.Jama_Masjid,_Delhi,_watercolour,_1852

But the real surprise is in that the data available quite clearly suggests that while the higher birth rate among Muslims, long attributed to generally greater economic backwardness might have a religious cause also. Similarly placed Hindu and Muslim married women had very different live birth rates. For illiterate women it was 3.37 and 3.72; for women with primary school education it was 3.16 and 3.57; for women with secondary school education and above it was 2.33 and 2.71. The same trend held good at various income levels. For those with monthly family income up to Rs.500 it was 3.20 and 3.47; Rs.501-750 it was 3.28 and 3.74; Rs.751-1000 it was 3.07 and 3.56; Rs.1001-1500 it was 3.03 and 3.53; and above Rs.1500 it was 2.65 and 3.21.

This effectively debunks the widespread view that the economic condition of the Muslims is the main reason for larger families. Religion seems to be shaping notions about family size and the responsibility to bear children. The notions of an ideal family size elicited in the ORG survey very clearly suggest a wide cleavage between the two communities. While 33.4% of Hindus thought of two children as ideal, only 20.7% of Muslims thought so. When it came to three children Hindus again led the preference, 42.9% to 36.9%. The Muslim preference (42.9%) quite clearly was for four or more children, while it was much lower among Hindus (22.8%). This is despite the fact that Muslim infant and child mortality rates are as much as 15% better than those of Hindus. This flies against generally accepted logic that when mortality rates improve fertility rates decline.

Why is this so? In the book “The Causes of Demographic Change”, the authors Johan and Pat Caldwell, and PH Reddy observe that: “Muslims regard the family planning program as a creation of the Hindu state and, frequently asserting that sterilization is opposed to Quranic law, they say they adhere to the morality of the Book, rather than to changing political morality.” On the other hand Azizah Y. al-Hibri in “Family Planning and Islamic Jurisprudence” states that the majority of Islamic scholars are agreed that the Book permits a Muslim family to practice family planning including abortion. The respected Islamic scholar Abu Hamid in “Ihya, Ulum al-Din” reasons, “Despite the prophetic exhortation to multiply, it is nevertheless permissible for a Muslim to remain single. The effect of remaining single on multiplying is no different than the effect of practicing al-azl. Since one is permitted, it follows that the other, without more, is also permitted.”

This clear stream of reasoning has eluded the ulema in India and even Pakistan, which is not only extremely conservative but also highly politicized and not given to allow the flock more ijtihad or the formulation of independent judgment and interpretation. The results are seen in the incidence of contraception prevalence in other Islamic countries. In Bangladesh it rose from 7% in 1975 to 61% in 2009. In Iran it rose from 37% in 1974 to 73% in 1997. It is now more than 65% in Turkey. But its only 18% in Pakistan. In India its just 33.8%, but this masks a wide diversity. In Bihar its just 9.1% and as high as 58% in Gujarat. In fact in Gujarat the prevalence of contraception among Hindus (59.8%) and Muslims is about the same.  So what is Narendra Modi angry about?