Bloodshed ahead?

A demographic dust-up in India has set the subcontinental political class alight. What Westerners call “diversity” is the wedge issue.

The controversy exploded, appropriately enough, on World Population Day, July 11. That was when Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), released a draft Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill.

The draft legislation “proposes denying government jobs, promotions, subsidies and the right to contest local elections to anyone who has more than two children.” It also includes inducements such as cash incentives for sterilization and other perks for those on the two-child track.

This does not sit well with many.

To better understand matters, some background may help. India, shortly to be the world’s most populous country, is extremely diverse, with myriad ethnicities, 21 official languages, relentless religious tension and a multi-tiered caste system that locks in one’s lot in life. It is thus a breeding ground for social conflict.

Few in India believe that “diversity is our strength.” Look no further than the 1947 partition (still an open wound) when it was decided that Hindus and Muslims would be better off in separate countries. Resulting religious violence and the uprooting of millions claimed an estimated two million lives. India was partitioned into Muslim Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), and predominantly Hindu India, which is today 15 percent Muslim and 80 percent Hindu. Hindus and Muslims in India don’t get along very well. Nor do certain castes. It doesn’t take much for these simmering tensions to erupt into violence.

UP is India’s most populous state at 220 million, of whom 20 percent are Muslim. However, India’s and UP’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a Hindu Nationalist Party, unabashedly Hindu-first. Muslims and the BJP don’t like each other – at all.

UP’s ambitious Chief Minister has been roundly criticized for his handling (or mishandling) of the Covid crisis and is looking to reboot his pre-pandemic popularity. With UP state elections coming next year, he wants to soften his image and show that he is after all not divisive, but rather a progressive pro-development sort. The draft UP Population Bill is intended to do just that.

How? By introducing a two-child policy, he can sell it to the public as a “progressive” initiative to facilitate economic development. At the same time, however, he will be doubling down on not-so-progressive religious and class tensions by targeting minorities (primarily Muslims and the poor). This will play well with the pro-development set, but also reinforce caste and religious discrimination. Clever.

Surprise, surprise: the draft legislation has ignited a firestorm. If enacted, it would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the state’s Muslims and the poor. According to influential Indian blogger Shireen Jeejeebhoy, writing in India Development Review:

“Imposing drastic disincentives on those with more than two children clearly targets the most disadvantaged—the poor, the malnourished, the poorly educated, and those at greatest risk of maternal, infant, and child mortality. Denying them schooling benefits, rations, employment opportunities, and more ensures that they remain most disadvantaged.”

UP has one of India’s highest total fertility rates (TFRs), though it is dropping. In 1993, the TFR was 4.82. By 2017, it had declined to 2.7 and is projected to hit 2.1 by 2025. In addition, in 2015 a government think tank found that UP had one of the country’s most skewed sex ratios: 87.9 females for every 100 males. (The normal ratio is 105 to 100.) This suggests that the practice of sex-selective abortion is alive and well.  The imposition of a two-child rule would only encourage that, as sons are expected to care for their parents in old age. 

Also, Chief Minister Adityanath’s proposal flies in the face of India’s stated National Population Policy, announced in 2000, that “affirms the commitment of government towards voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens.…”

But none of this seems to bother the Chief Minister.

For one thing, his proposal is not a new idea. In 2018, 125 MPs asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mandate a national two-child policy.  The Indian Supreme Court weighed in against that, saying that such a policy could bring about a “civil war-like situation.” Nonetheless, legislation to control population along the lines of the Chief Minister Adityanath’s proposal is routinely introduced at the state and federal levels.

Though India’s overall fertility rates for both Hindus and Muslims are dropping, it is still true that the average Muslim family has 20 percent more children than a Hindu family. These differential birth rates sufficiently concern Hindus enough to frequently propel BJP to victory at the polls. Hindu-Muslim antagonism and caste warfare are political constants in the world’s largest democracy.

Adityanath’s proposed two-child legislation is a social engineering project claiming to be pro-development, while incidentally harassing Muslims and the poor. It is his way of “softening his image” ahead of the elections, and it seems to be working.

Advice for too-clever Indian politicians: Be careful what you wish for. Politics in India is often blood sport. Penalizing people because they have children will certainly enflame tensions in an already volatile society. You are playing with fire. Remember what the Indian Supreme Court said about a “civil war-like situation.”    

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