The Misleading Ruse of Population Control: Case of Assam and Uttar Pradesh

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The proposed bill on population control with its stated objectives is an eyewash. The real motive behind these measures seems more ideological and political.

NEHA DABHADE | Clarion India

THE Uttar Pradesh State government is mulling over introducing a bill titled the “Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021”. The Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission has released a draft of the proposed population control Bill and asked for suggestions from the civil society to improve the draft. The proposed Bill promotes a two-child policy, violation of which would result in debarment from contesting local body elections, applying to government jobs or receiving any government subsidy. Uttar Pradesh is the second state after Assam which is contemplating on such a law.

The stated objective of the proposed Bill is “that the provision of the basic necessities of human life including affordable food, safe drinking water, decent housing, access to quality education, economic/livelihood opportunities, power/ electricity for domestic consumption, and a secure living is accessible to all citizen”. In addition, it states, “it’s necessary to control, stabilise the population of the State for promotion of sustainable development with more equitable distribution”. But can this Bill achieve these desired objectives? Is population explosion even the menace that it is made out to be? Are the stated objectives the real motive behind the Bill? What is the politics guiding this policy?

Despite the arguments of the governments of UP and Assam, statistics tells a different tale of the trend in population in India which are cited by experts to debunk the theory of population explosion. NFHS-5 data indicates that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) and annual population growth rate, which are used to quantify population growth, are declining. While the desired value for TFR is 2.1, which is the replacement level of fertility, India’s TFR was 2.2 in 2016, with as many as 18 states and five union territories having a TFR of 2.1 or less in that year. They predict that India’s population would start declining in 2021, if trend holds.

In the context of Assam particularly, according to the National Family Health Survey – 5 (NFHS) 2019-2020, Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Assam is 1.9, which is less than the national average of 2.2. Data from the NFHS-5 shows that 77% of currently married women and 63% of men aged 15-49 in Assam want no more children, are already sterilised or have a spouse who is already sterilised. This shows that even without a coercive population policy, men and women want smaller families.

Evidence reveals that religion is not an important factor in determining family size. Socioeconomic status, poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities among women account for fertility differentials across the country. The wanted fertility rate among all religions is less than the replacement TFR of 2.1: 1.7 among Hindus, 2.0 among Muslims, 1.7 among Christians, and 1.4 among Sikhs. The TFR among Muslim women in Kerala (TFR = 1.86) and Tamil Nadu (TFR=1.74) is lower than the TFR among Hindu women in Bihar (3.29) and Uttar Pradesh (2.67) (Population Foundation of India Reports, 2021)

Muslim adoption of family planning has been commendably high in the last three decades — faster than Hindus. As a result, the fertility differential between Hindus and Muslims, which was more than one child (1.1 to be precise), has come down to 0.48 (Quraishi, 2021). Experts on population believe that in order to bring population in control, focus should be on women’s education, ensure access to family planning services and overall development.

Different authors in this debate have painstakingly pointed out that any attempts at coercive measures of population control in the past have proved to be counter-productive. The examples oft cited are China’s ‘one child policy’ which had to be rolled back and in fact resulted in a push to two children policy. Second is the example of India’s unsuccessful brush with population control during the emergency (1975-1977), which was hugely infamous.

If the population in India is stabilising and if most of the couples are indeed having only two children, then why are these policies introduced? Is population explosion a novel phenomenon? Why this sudden concern over population growth? The answer lies in the deep-rooted obsession of Hindutva with population control of the Muslims. While Assam CM, Himanta Biswa Sarma stated that such a policy is imperative for “development of the minority” and thus focus is on Muslims, UP CM, Yogi Adityanath hasn’t directly named the Muslims or any particular community. But the proposed bill when read along with some of the statements of the BJP leaders, lifts the smokescreen.

Sakshi Maharaj, BJP MP from Unnao, had said in 2015, “The concept of four wives and forty children just won’t work in India but it is high time that every Hindu woman must produce at least four children to protect the Hindu religion(Ali, 2015). Another BJP MLA Surendra Singh said, “Hindus should have at least five children. Two for the man, two for the woman and one surplus. Giving birth to a child is ‘prasad’ (gift) from God. India can become strong, when Hindus are strong. When Hindu is weak, India is weak..” (Economic Times, 2018)

The RSS, the ideological fount of the ruling BJP has always perceived rising population of the Muslims and Christians as a threat to the dominance of Hindutva. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of RSS had said that “there is no law that stops Hindus from producing more children”. In fact, in one of its Akhil Bhartiya Karyakari Mandal in Ranchi in 2015, it passed a resolution asking the government to “reformulate” the population policy to check “demographic imbalance” (Bhardwaj, 2015). It is noteworthy that while BJP and RSS leaders were exhorting Hindus to produce four or five children from public platform, Assam CM or Yogi Adityanath did not raise any objections on such statements or condemn them. Their silence points towards their support to such statements.

Not only the above statements but other policies of the ruling regime cumulatively give away the blueprint of the regime to deal with the “Muslim question”. The strategy so to say is multi-pronged. Fuelling the myth of all Muslims being polygamous and producing multiple children is an old trope of Hindutva. The hysteria that Muslims will overtake Hindu population and become majority community too is nothing new though it can be easily debunked with statistics.

However, this time round, the ruling regime is institutionalizing state control over Muslims and taking concrete steps towards authoritarianism- policies pervading all aspects of the lives of its citizens. These laws are akin to the laws in Nazi Germany, apartheid laws in South Africa and recently laws in China to ethnically cleanse the Uighur Muslim population. In Nazi Germany, the Jews were subjected to an array of anti-Semitic laws including the ones which barred marriages between the Jews and the non-Jews and also forced sterilization of the “non- Aryan” population including the Roma. China’s forced birth control policies are aimed at cutting the population of the Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority, in southern Xinjiang by up to a third over the next 20 years (BBC News, 2020)

Similarly, in South Africa, in 1974, the peak of apartheid, the government initiated family planning policy which though didn’t name any particular community but clearly emerged from the fears of the regime of the rising population of the Blacks in the country (Kaufman, 1997).  There are some frightful parallels between these examples and India. Though in Nazi Germany, it was blatantly declared that Jews were not citizens of Germany according to the Nuremburg laws and thus practiced very little constraint in pretending to not be racial or targeting any particular community, in apartheid south Africa, imminent population explosion was cited as the danger but the underlying motives were more genocidal- controlling the births of the “others”.

Thus, the steps proposed by Assam and UP are not isolated in the given context of xenophobia and wanting to establish greater political control lives of those considered “outsiders” or second-class citizens as perceived by the ruling dispensation of the country. Authoritarian regimes before this have treaded similar path to perpetuate repression and state control.

What is sought to be achieved through these legislations if not the lofty objectives given in the proposed Bills? In Uttar Pradesh it’s no co-incidence that the Bill comes on the heels of the impending state elections sometime soon next year. The Bill once again in the public imagination reiterates the myth that Muslims are multiplying at a rapid pace and are a threat to the Hindus in the state. This can prove to an effective tool in the hand of the regime to polarise the society and keep the communal cauldron boiling, yielding some electoral dividends. But this is just the short-term gain and not the primary objective. The main objective is the complete repression and control of the Muslims in the most sophisticated institutionalized manner.

The ‘Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020’ and the accompanying false narrative of Muslim men manipulating Hindu women was another just step towards institutionalising the repression of the Muslims. Also, the unfortunate parallel between this law and the Nuremburg laws are unmistakable. This ordinance gave the state and the non-state actors in UP a free hand to target the Muslim community and arbitrarily invade the privacy of its own citizens, tearing apart marriages and families of consenting adults. The state role during the Delhi riots in 2019 where the government targeted anti- CAA protestors and Muslims in particular has already been vastly documented.

Assam, which carried out the exercise of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) aimed at identifying Bangladeshi migrants but in effect targeting the Bengali Muslims, too has been institutionalizing state control against Muslims. Both, narratives and legislations are attempting to efface the history and culture of Muslims in Assam by trying to delegitimize it by terming it “Miya” culture.

Recently, the refusal of construction of the museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis in Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra stirred controversy as to how the ruling regime understands Assamese culture in narrow and exclusionary terms. In another move, the Assam government introduced a Bill in 2020 to convert the State-run madrasas into general educational institutes, thus stopping state funds to Madrassas. The regime has sought to alter the very identity of the Muslims in the state and linked the same to the citizenship, resulting in statelessness and hardships.

Probably the most important but neglected aspect of the bills is the gender aspect. The bills like the ideology it emanates from, robs women of agency and ignores the disastrous effects it will have on women. According to the Population Foundation of India, as per NFHS 4, while UP’s sex ratio for the overall population is 995, the sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years is 903 girls for every 1000 boys. The data clearly indicates an alarming trend in sex selective practices in the state. Stringent population control measures can potentially lead to an increase in these practices and unsafe abortions given the strong son-preference in India, as has been witnessed in a few states in the past. Instead, UP should prioritise addressing the high unmet need for family planning in the state (18.1% as per NFHS 4), which is much higher than the national average of 13%.  Thus, sex selection and female foeticide are the obvious outcomes of population control measures alongside higher possibilities of desertion of wives or divorces.

Women, in the ideological framework of Hindutva are passive objects with little or no agency who are either perceived as so weak and gullible that they can be manipulated by Muslim men to marry them or chattels who have no control over their own bodies and produce children when demanded by the politicians. Either way, women are not considered as beings with equal rights and capable of making decisions for themselves and their families. It then doesn’t come as a surprise that Yogi Adityanath doesn’t feel women are capable of being left alone. He (infamously) had said in the past, “Considering the importance and honour of women…our scriptures have always spoken about giving her protection….As energy can go waste and cause damage if left free and uncontrolled, women power also does not require freedom, but protection.. Father protects women power in childhood; husband does during her youth, and her son protects her when she gets old” (Indian Express, 2017).

UP’s record of rapes and crimes against women doesn’t inspire much confidence and maybe points into the direction of how women’s safety and empowerment are more of pressing concerns than population control. As a signatory to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, India was among the first nations to endorse a human rights approach and emphasise that a small family norm can be achieved through ensuring gender equality, empowering women, and improving education. These commitments are but forgotten and replaced by the political agenda of population control.

The proposed bill on population control with its stated objectives is an eyewash. The real motive behind these measures seems more ideological and political. Despite the documented pitfalls of these measures, the regimes are persisting with these policies with a view to consolidate its bid on legitimately institutionalising repression and control over the Muslims. Earlier, narratives were used as a tool to create public imagery about threats from the Muslim community and the so-called weakening of the Hindu majority community.

But with these proposed measures, the biases and discrimination are entrenched and nurtured through systematic structures. Newer legal tools are invented to restrain the fundamental rights of the citizens in an increasingly authoritarian state which is targeting its vulnerable. Hopefully, behind the smokescreen, the citizens will able to see this policy for what it is, essentially another step towards undermining and hallowing constitutional democracy with all pervading authoritarianism. 

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Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India.

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