In the run-up to the release of his new book The Population Myth in February, SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, was uncertain what he would be branded first: anti-national or anti-Islam?
According to Quraishi, his book debunks wrong notions surrounding Islam and family planning. At the same time, it busts what he calls the myth that Muslims will one day outgrow Hindus in India’s population.
Quraishi is relieved that he has been called neither so far. How could he be? His book, The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India, is rooted in data and facts. Years of hard work has culminated in the book.
As this reporter visits him in his Gurugram residence, carrying the 301-page book, Quraishi said in a light mood, “You are holding the best book out in town recently. I am surprised as I was expecting some kind of hostility. But nothing like that has happened so far. Nobody has challenged me… In fact, it has received a warm welcome.”
The book draws a lot of statistics from the four National Family Health Surveys (NFHS). His acquaintances are keeping him updated on the discussions his book has generated in different quarters.
“Someone told me there is a discussion going on in some quarters to counter my book. This might be from those who have peddled a wrong narrative for 70 years that Islam is against family planning. This kind of uninformed narrative built a public perception, and even Muslims started believing that family planning is un-Islamic,” said the 73-year-old, who looks back at his Indian Administrative Service (IAS) career with a lot of pride.
In an hour-long interaction with News18.com, Quraishi, who has also written a book on elections and democracy, among other subjects, shines light on what he calls myths surrounding Islam and family planning, the problems on the path towards an effective population policy and possible solutions.
An idea is born
In the acknowledgement section of his book, Quraishi has detailed what led him to writing it. Over 25 years ago, in 1994, the United Nation’s Population Fund India approached him to pen a strategy paper on family planning among Muslims in the country. Back then, he was a joint secretary in the youth affairs and sports ministry. He, too, was under the impression that Islam prohibited family planning.
“I was not an expert on this subject, but they insisted. I had no experience on population study, nor was I an expert on Islam. (But) I gave in and agreed on one condition — that I will not take money, except Rs 1, which was also foregone after the paper came out (in 1995),” he says.
While in London to be with his daughter after the paper’s release, he got a call from a doctor to meet a group of people who sought an interaction. He went ahead and met them. The new book mentions that episode.
“The very first sentence to come from them was: ‘Mr Quraishi, family planning is a western conspiracy against Islam. They hire through UN agencies mercenaries like you to write such papers’,” he said.
“I told them that I understand the complex relation between the West and Islam, but they have to know that I am a good Muslim. I will not do anything to embarrass the community and followers of the faith. Besides, I have not taken any money from any one,” he adds.
His friends, Quraishi says, were wary of that assignment (the strategy paper) and kept warning him of consequences. “While I was writing that, my friends were warning me: ‘kahin (authors) Tasleema Nasreen aur Salman Rushdie wala haal na ho jaye’. They warned of a possible Muslim backlash,” he says.
While researching for the paper, Quraishi says he found out that Islam did not forbid family planning. On the contrary, it was very supportive of it. He says he was pleasantly surprised. And that’s where the idea of his new book could be traced back to.
In the book, he stresses that in no way family planning can be a western conspiracy against Islam.
“Our numbers are not a threat to the United States of America (USA). They can pose a threat here to BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) leaders, as it (the Muslim population) would conjure up the image of a Muslim vote bank in their mind — which will not hold true for the USA,” he said.
“…if there was any (western) conspiracy, then Americans would have been producing more children while e exhorting us to produce less. That is not happening. Actually, Americans have even gone below the replacement rate.”
Replacement level fertility is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, according to a paper on the website of the National Library of Medicine. Replacement level fertility can be taken as requiring an average of 2.1 children per woman, it says.
Quraishi’s book challenges another notion: that of the perceived Muslim vote bank. “This is what they fear: if Muslims have more children, the Muslim vote bank will expand. I think if there is any community that is not a vote bank, then it is the Muslims…Just look at the share of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and West Bengal. Even at 19 per cent, 16.8 per cent, 26.56 per cent and 30 per cent (of the population), respectively, there is 0 per cent possibility of a Muslim chief minister.”
A ‘misinformed’ debate
The country is reticent about its population policy due to the hangover of the Sanjay Gandhi days of forced sterilisation in 1976, says Quraishi. In the absence of healthy participation by lawmakers and committed social and religious workers in the debate, misinformed discussions begin, he adds. One such area is the “Hindu and Muslim rate of growth” and the fear of “takeover by Muslims putting Hindus in danger”, according to his book.
“I admit that the all-India birth rate of Muslims is the highest, but let’s not overlook the fact that the Hindus have the second highest,” he says, reading out figures from the book. The Muslim share in population has gone up from 9.8 per cent in 1951 to 14.2 per cent in 2011. Hindus, on other hand, have come down from 84 per cent of the population to 79.8 per cent in the same period.
But what is not discussed is that Muslims are adopting family planning in a big way, faster than the Hindus — which is why the gap in birth rates has been coming down, says Quraishi. In any case, the gap between Hindu and Muslim birth rate was never more than one child — which has now come down to 0.48.
Quraishi says he requested mathematician Professor Dinesh Singh, former Vice-Chancellor of the Delhi University, to create a mathematical model that would settle the controversy for good. The model shows Muslims can never overtake the Hindu population, he adds.
Population growth is linked to regional and socio-economic factors, and is not at all “religious”, according to his book. “There is nothing like a Hindu/Muslim rate of growth. If you see Bihar, a Hindu family may have five children as compared with a Muslim family in Tamil Nadu, which will have only two children,” he says.
Quraishi says that the demand for a two-child policy is “misinformed” and could be counterproductive.
“…do they (those pitching for it) know it will lead to rise in the cases of female foeticide? For those wanting to have a son will resort to such social evils,” he said.
“We’ve seen the Emergency days: the Sanjay Gandhi policy (of forced sterilisation) impacted the entire population. There was more backlash from Hindus than Muslims. A forced policy is counterproductive. And we have not recovered from it even now.
Off the radar?
“Population is an important subject and it should not have gone off the national radar. I was chairman of a committee formed by the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare in 2014 to see how committed politicians are towards the issue of family planning. The analysis of the period we studied (13th-16th Lok Sabha) showed that only 0.15 per cent of the questions were asked on family planning. This apathy must be shed,” said Quraishi.
He says NFHS has showed that India’s family planning is actually a success story with 24 states out of 29 having already reached the replacement level and below. “Only if we can handle Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we are there…,” he added.
Dealing with the situation
Quraishi further said that he is the first person in the world to do a PhD in social marketing, which considers segments, and not people, as audiences. It is a mistake not to identify resistant groups and address their apprehensions and concerns, he added.
It is strange that every policy or plan document pointed to the high birth rate among Muslims, but did not discuss a targeted way of dealing with the situation, Quraishi said.
“This can be viewed as an administrative flaw. We have not tapped the agencies that can help improve the acceptance of family planning in resistant groups. The madrasas, the ulamas (scholars), the imams (religious leaders), khutbas (occasion for preaching) and Urdu newspapers can go a long way in assisting the administrative machinery to propagate what Islam says about family planning.”
He recalls tapping this source effectively on a polio vaccination campaign in 1995. “I roped in the imams of Gurgaon district to launch a polio drive in Mewat area…The results were remarkable as Gurgaon district topped the country, attracting newspaper headlines and even editorials. The lesson was that if you approach them appropriately, they can be great allies in development initiatives.
Newspaper reports with headlines such as “Imams launch polio drive in Mewat” and “Imams to preach literacy and immunisation on Fridays” are a reflection of the results of positive engagement, he said. The success stories of Indonesia, Bangladesh and Iran point to the usefulness of involving the faith leaders as partners and allies in development programmes. Quraishi stressed on the need for a well-designed communication strategy for it to be effective.
The first Muslim CEC
Quraishi was the first Muslim to have been appointed the Chief Election Commissioner in 2010. “The Times of India ran the headline: The first Muslim CEC…I was annoyed. I saw myself as a blue-blooded IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer who got this post after hard work and performance, and here I was, a Muslim. But that was another time.”
The objective of the book, Quraishi said, is to create better harmony between communities by removing misconceptions and dispelling prevailing myths. “If I succeed even in a small measure in persuading both the communities to shed mutual suspicion and adopt family planning with equal fervour, I would consider this as my humble contribution to nation building”, he writes in the introduction of his book.
Most befittingly, he has dedicated the book “To the unity in diversity – India’s unique identity”, and donated all royalties to charity.