Books Review

CONFRONTING SAFFRON DEMOGRAPHY – RELIGION, FERTILITY AND WOMEN’S STATUS IN INDIA

By Patricia Jeffery & Roger Jeffery, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006, ISBN: 81-88789-40-2 Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

A standard theme in Hindutva discourse is the allegation of Muslims being engaged in a well-planned ‘conspiracy’ to rapidly multiply in order to convert India into a Muslim-majority country. Muslims, Hindtuva ideologues claim, are fanatically opposed to family planning, and this is said to be legitimised by Islam itself. Hence, Hindutva leaders insist, Hindus must produce as many children as they can in order to stave off the alleged looming Muslim population explosion.

This book brilliantly succeeds in forcefully debunking this baseless Hindutva myth. Drawing on intensive fieldwork conducted by the authors in Bijnor, a district in western Uttar Pradesh, the book discusses population dynamics at the local level to show that the notion of an alleged Muslim ‘conspiracy’ to overwhelm India by rapidly multiplying is completely false and unsubstantiated.

The ideology of Hindutva, or Brahminical Hindu fascism, is based on an unrelenting hatred of Muslims and other non-Hindus. In Hindutva discourse, the authors tell us, Muslims are described in crude essentialised terms. Muslim men are charactersied as uncontrollably lascivious, obsessed with sex, irredeemably polygamous and cruel oppressors of their womenfolk, who are portrayed as hapless baby-producing machines for their men, passive actors in an alleged plot to reduce Hindus into a minority. Muslims are portrayed as blind followers of fanatic mullahs who are said to be vociferously opposed to family planning. Muslim men are then contrasted with Hindu men, who are described as supposedly chivalrous, monogamous, faithful to their wives and devoted sons of ‘Mother India’.

In the first section of the book, the authors incisively critique Hindutva discourse about Muslim domestic politics and fertility behaviour. While they admit that the overall Muslim fertility rate is marginally higher than that of the Hindus, they insist that it is not that different to back the claim that Muslims would reduce the Hindus to a minority any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, they point out, the all-India Muslim average fertility rate of 3.6 (in 1998-99) is well below what is possible for populations where no form of birth control is used. They argue that the difference in fertility rates between Muslims and Hindus is decreasing over the years, suggesting that Muslims’ use of contraceptive methods has increased faster in the past decade than in the case of Hindus. Hence, they argue, the decline in Muslim fertility rates will probably be greater than that of the Hindus in the foreseeable future.

The existing difference in fertility rates between Hindus and Muslims, the authors argue, is not because of an alleged Muslim ‘plot’ to swamp India or because of a supposed Islamic abhorrence of family planning. Rather, it owes essentially to various social and economic factors, as well as the fact of Muslims being a marginalized, excluded minority, victims of various forms of discrimination, at the hands of both the state as well as of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu-dominated wider society. Comparing fertility rates across states, they point out that Muslim fertility rates in southern India are lower than Hindu fertility rates in north India. This can be accounted for by the fact of greater access to education and health services in the south. In other words, the authors contend, the marginally higher all-India Muslim fertility rate owes largely to the fact that, as compared to ‘upper’ caste Hindus, Muslims are considerably poorer and have less access to proper education and health services. In this, they are no different from other similarly placed groups, such as the Dalits, who, too, have higher overall fertility rates than ‘upper’ caste Hindus.

As for the claim that the higher Muslim fertility rate owes to a supposed inherent Islamic ban on family planning, the authors note the diversity of opinion that has always existed among the ulama or Islamic clerics on the issue. While some ulama have completely ruled out birth control, others have supported and sanctioned various forms of family planning. In countries such as Indonesia, Iran and Bangladesh, numerous ulama have been in the forefront of government family planning campaigns. Hence, the fact that Muslims do resort to various forms of birth control means that they do not see any inherent barrier to it in their way of understanding Islam. As the authors insist, ‘Indian Muslims’ fertility behaviour cannot be attributed to a supposedly universal and timeless Islamic condemnation of contraception in general’. ‘In any case’, they add, ‘if Muslim religious leaders in India condemn contraception, we must ask how far their audiences take this into consideration in their own fertility behaviour’ (p.30).

The second section of the book focuses on population dynamics in rural Bijnor, a district that has a Muslim population of over 40%. Despite their large numbers, the authors write, Muslims are a marginalized community in the district, considerably poorer and with less access to education and adequate health services than Hindus, particularly the ‘upper’ castes. In a sense they are even more marginalized than the Dalits, who, besides having access to reserved government jobs and special development schemes, have the local parliamentary seat reserved for a member of their community, despite Muslims being the single largest community in the district.

Contrary to Hindutva propaganda, the authors say, family dynamics among Hindus and Muslims of similar economic background in Bijnor are remarkably similar. Muslim women are not characterized by any additional or unique form of oppression or seclusion that Hindu women are free from. In fact, the authors add, Muslim girls may be less ‘at risk’ as compared with their Hindu sisters, because of various factors, including the common Muslim practice of marriage to close relatives living in the vicinity of the girls’ natal home, less dowry demands and pressures, a much lower degree of ‘daughter aversion’ and considerably lower incidence of female foeticide because of the Qur’anic abhorrence of the practice, which has now assumed alarming proportions among many Hindus in large parts of the country. On the issue of Muslim polygamy, which Hindutva and even ‘secular’ feminists regularly invoke, the authors write that in Bijnor Muslims are as unlikely to be polygamous as Hindus are. In this regard they refer to a survey that found that at the all-India level polygamy is less prevalent among Muslims than among Hindus, despite the fact that, legally speaking, Hindus, unlike Muslims, cannot enter into polygamous unions. In any case, the authors add, Islam does not encourage polygamy but only permits it, and that too under very stringent circumstances. Further, they argue, the supposed link that is often established between polygamy and higher fertility rates is fallacious. Because of economic and other constraints, women in polygamous marriages are likely to have less, not more, children than those in monogamous marriages.

On the issue of Muslim Personal Law, which Hindutva and even many ‘secular’ ideologues insist is uniquely unfair to women, the authors offer an interesting alternate perspective. They write that despite the heated controversy that Hindutva groups in Bijnor and elsewhere provoked in the wake of the Shah Bano judgment and the passing of the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights in Divorce) Act, which they branded as an instance of ‘Muslim appeasement’, there is no evidence to suggest that differences in personal laws between Hindus and Muslims work, at the ground-level, to uniquely privilege Muslim men or uniquely oppress Muslim women. This is because in rural Bijnor customary law is still practiced and the lived realities of Hindu and Muslim women have little to do with formal law or theology as such. This, in turn, raises the complex question of the efficacy of law and legal change in protecting women’s rights.

If at the domestic level Muslim women are not more or uniquely oppressed as compared to their Hindu sisters, they do suffer an additional form of discrimination—as Muslims—the authors argue. In recent decades, Bijnor, as in many other parts of India, has witnessed a considerable upsurge of the Hindu Right. This has led to a growing communalization of everyday life as well as of the state apparatus itself. Communal violence and often violence instigated by agencies of the state have taken a heavy toll of Muslim lives and property. It has also led to a growing ghettoisation of Muslims and their mounting economic and educational marginalisation. This has obviously had a crucial impact on the conditions of Muslim women. Due to what the authors term as ‘institutionalised discrimination’, government schools, health centers and development programmes are much less likely to be located in or to cater to Muslim-dominated areas than Hindu, particularly ‘upper’ caste, localities. Government schools are characterized by a distinct Hindu ethos, and the syllabus is replete with Hindu images and stories as well as distinctly anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic statements and claims. School teachers, mostly ‘upper’ caste Hindus, are less likely to make a regular appearance in schools located in Muslim (and Dalit) localities, and are also likely to favour students of their own communities over Muslims. All this naturally dampens the enthusiasm of many Muslim families to send their children, particularly girls, to government schools. Many Muslims feel that it is pointless educating their children beyond a certain level because, owing to discrimination, they will not be able to acquire jobs in the public or private sector. To add to this are regular cases that the authors refer to of Muslim school girls being harassed sexually as well as communally by Hindu youth, which naturally causes many Muslim families to prefer to keep their daughters at home or else to send them to madrasas, where they are taught Islamic disciplines but little else.

It is thus not because of any lack of enthusiasm for educating their daughters, as is routinely alleged in the Indian press and by Hindutva ideologues, but because of ‘institutional’ discrimination as well as pervasive Muslim poverty, which the state has done little or nothing to address, that Muslim girls are characterized by a considerably lower level of educational attainment than Hindu girls of similar economic background. Since lower fertility rates are linked to increased women’s educational attainment levels, the marginally higher level of Muslim fertility is understandable, and cannot, the authors insist, be accounted for by any alleged inherent Muslim opposition to family planning or to any supposed conscious effort to convert India into a Muslim-majority country.

Based on interviews with a number of informants, the authors argue that the lack of enthusiasm for the government family planning programme among many Muslims in rural Bijnor can be attributed not to Islam as such but, rather, to the poor quality of service and contraceptive technologies offered under the programme and the ‘supercilious and disdainful manner of medical and paramedical staff’ (most of whom are urban ‘upper’ caste Hindus), especially with regard to Muslim, Dalit and poor Hindu villagers. Many Muslims feel that they are specially singled out by family planning workers, as they had been during the black days of the Emergency (1975-77), and regard the programme as a conspiracy to eradicate them. At the same time as they see family planning workers zealously targeting Muslims, they argue that government health services in Muslim-dominated areas are of much poorer quality than in Hindu, especially ‘upper’ caste, areas, thus lending further weight to their suspicions about the actual intentions of the family planning programme. They point out, and this the authors confirm, that “health workers rarely visit Muslim women in their homes and if they make forays into Muslim villages or neighbourhoods, they may be suspected of doing so only in order to ‘motivate’ people for family planning”.

The suspicion on the part of many Muslims in Bijnor of the government’s family planning programme has only been strengthened by the alarming rise of the Hindu Right in recent years, the communalization of the state machinery and the mounting wave of anti-Muslim violence in which often the agencies of the state have been deeply implicated. This has been further compounded by the family planning programme’s bias towards sterilization, despite the government’s announcement of a so-called ‘cafeteria’ approach in which people could select the method of family planning best suited to their needs. The focus on sterilization, as opposed to other methods, has been further enhanced by the fact that family planning workers are given additional financial and other incentives for each case of sterilization that they are able to conduct. Many Muslims believe that Islam forbids sterilization, and although they are amenable to other forms of family planning these are not made readily available to them. Yet, the authors point out, Muslim’s reactions to the family planning programme ‘cannot be largely (leave aside wholly) attributed to their understanding of Islamic doctrine’. In fact, they ‘approach fertility limitation in a similar fashion to that of most of the other groups […], with no generalized resistance to spacing methods of fertility limitation, but with an aversion to terminal methods and a mistrust of the government’s family planning programme’.

Since poverty and educational marginalisation lead to higher fertility rates, the marginally higher Muslim fertility rate is understandable, the authors contend, because Muslims, on the whole, are a largely economically marginalized community. In the face of the fiscal crisis of the Uttar Pradesh state since the last decade, with rapid privitisation and the neo-liberal policies that the Indian state has adopted under pressure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, subsidies and government spending on social services have been drastically cut. The devastating impact of ‘globalisation’, the authors write, has hit vulnerable and marginalised communities, including the Muslims, the most, leading to their further immiserisation and rendering them increasingly vulnerable to the ‘free-market’, which is heavily loaded against them. Thus, government infrastructural investment in Muslim areas in education and health care, already miniscule, has further declined, with obvious implications for Muslim fertility rates. The rapid privitisation of health and education has worked to the benefit mainly of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu elites, further enhancing the marginalisation of Muslims. As the authors put it, ‘It is ironic, therefore, that Muslims in general are blamed for their fertility and backwardness. The political and economic marginalisation of which they are more likely to be victims is a crucial element in their educational trajectories and in their reproductive health and contraceptive decision-making’ (p.22).

Muslim fertility behaviour, the authors conclude, cannot be understood in a sociological vacuum or by invoking theological arguments, as the Hindu Right does. There is, they insist, ‘absolutely no support for the Hindu Right contention that Muslims are inherently hostile to education or that their fertility levels reflect an intentional strategy to outbreed Hindus’. In fact, the authors argue, the onus of Muslim ‘backwardness’ and consequent higher fertility levels rests less with Muslims themselves than with their detractors. ‘Upper caste Hindus are precisely those most prone to voice the common wisdom about Muslims and the most readily mobilized by organizations of the Hindu Right’, they write. ‘Yet’, they add, ‘ironically, it is their own domination of local social and political processes that has been crucial in generating and sustaining systematic communal and gender biases in the education and health sectors. All in all, these imbalances demonstrate the profoundly communalized and gendered character of local society and the local state, and the significance of inequality, not simply of difference. Upper caste Hindus, then, are deeply implicated in the processes that disadvantage Muslim women—processes that have little to do with the ‘Islamic tradition’”. In other words, ‘the chains of causation and responsibility’, for higher Muslim fertility, ‘are not as the Hindu Right like to portray them’ (p.118).

This remarkable and path-breaking book is a brilliant and forceful rebuttal of pernicious Hindutva propaganda. The numerous repetitions in the text as well as the absence of direct quotations from interviews with local respondents may, therefore, be excused. The book deserves to be summarized and translated into local languages in order to reach a wider readership.

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