DifferenTakes #48: India's Saffron Demography: So Dangerous, Yet So Appealing Print E-mail

DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.

We are pleased to send you our latest issue, "India's Saffron Demography: So Dangerous, Yet So Appealing" by Mohan Rao.  This issue analyzes how Hindu fundamentalists in India have whipped up hatred and violence against the Muslim community through spurious claims that Muslims are out-breeding Hindus.  It points to the dangerous intersections between demographic alarmism and fundamentalist movements.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

* Also in pdf form HERE
* Also check our new color pamphlet: "10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation" at: http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt

Come to the CLPP Annual Conference!

From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom

March 30 to April 1, 2007
Hampshire College, Amherst, MA
Register Online at: http://clpp.hampshire.edu


 India’s Saffron Demography: So Dangerous, Yet So Appealing

By Mohan Rao
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College • No. 48 • Spring 2007

In the early 1990s, the slogan Hum Do, Hamare Do; Woh Paanch Unke Pachees, meaning “We are two and have two; they are five and have twenty-five,” became particularly strident in India. It played on the Government of India’s slogan calling for a small family, “We are two and we have two.” But it added something noxious to it: it implied that we, Hindus, are two and have two children, while they, Muslims, are five and have twenty-five children.

The arguments were simple, but deeply flawed. For example, the slogan meant that Hindus are not allowed by law to have more than one wife, while Muslims can have four.1 What it did not consider was data that clearly revealed that polygamous marriages are significantly more common among Hindus than among Muslims. Moreover, Muslims, like Hindus, are not a monolithic and homogeneous community: Muslims in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, indeed in South India generally, have smaller families than even Hindus in states like Uttar Pradesh in North India. Clearly, then, religion was not the real issue.

The slogan emerged in a period when the so-called Hindu communalist parties ­ the Sangh Parivar, or family ­ were trying to obtain political power. They mounted a fierce campaign, filled with bloodshed, around the issue of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which they claimed had been built on the precise site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. Eminent historians as well as Indian courts revealed there was no basis to these claims, but the fundamentalists asserted it was not a matter of fact or law, but of faith. The campaign against the mosque bore fruit: in complete violation of all laws and commitments made to the Supreme Court of India, the Sangh Parivar demolished the mosque on December 6, 1992, a day the then President of India called a “black day for India.” It led to appalling conflagrations across the country.

The “Hindu” parties were now on the upswing.2 They are of course essentially not Hindu but political parties utilizing religious signs, symbols and metaphors. Religion in India, as in many parts of the world, including the U.S., can serve political purposes. Deploying demographic fears of Muslims outnumbering Hindus to build their constituency was a part of their larger campaign to build a theocratic state, a Hindu Rashtra, mirroring Pakistan, a state they hate but cannot help wanting to desperately emulate.

The RSS or the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh is the shadowy head of this group of right-wing Hindu organizations collectively called the Sangh Parivar. The RSS is a male, largely upper-caste, cadre-based organization involved in ideological work and behind-the-scenes politics. Its parliamentary wing is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), presently in the opposition, which headed a coalition government from 1998-2004. The Prime Minister at that time, Mr.Vajpayee, is a RSS member, as is the then second-in-command, Mr.Advani. Indeed most leaders in the BJP come from RSS ranks. The Sangh family also comprises the more militant, lumpen Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that has played a large role in violence against Muslims and Christians, along with another organization named the Bajrang Dal. The Sangh Parivar also has organizations working among women, students, tribals, and workers and ­ extremely important for fund-raising ­ organizations known as the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) and the Hindu Sevak Sangh (HSS) in the U.S. and U.K. Upper caste professional Hindus in these countries, searching for identity, myths and symbols of a glorious past, are massive funders of fascist organizations in India.3

As someone long involved in population issues in India, I wrote a series of articles and a pamphlet challenging Hindu fundamentalist demography. What took me aback ­ and frightened me, which was the purpose ­ was the response. I received letters asking me to convert to Islam, to change my name. The more frequent one argued that I was an enemy of India and of Hindus. I also had postcards ­ many of them, so clearly it was not just one mad person ­ telling me that should my wife go to Pakistan, the writer hoped she would be raped and converted to Islam. I received a long letter from a retired Inspector General of Police, who is with a front organization of the RSS named the Patriotic Front, enclosing two papers presented at international conferences, arguing that Muslims seek to overrun Europe which would soon be called Arabistan.4

Saffron Demography is the term Patricia and Roger Jeffery give to the Sangh Parivar’s demographic myths and lies: saffron is the color that the Sangh claims represents Hindus.5 What gives Saffron Demography such widespread appeal? Some of the complex factors at work are explored in the next section.

Virulent Identities, Virulent Masculinities
Saffron Demography suffers from serious methodological, philosophical and empirical problems. It is based on assumptions ­ that there exists a uniform and homogeneous Muslim community and an equally undifferentiated Hindu community in India ­ which are blatantly false. It is also supremely ahistorical: it does not look at trends of population over time among these homogenized communities; neither does it consider that in India today household economies differ between Hindus and Muslims and that these can have profound demographic consequences. Data also indicates that the use of contraception by Muslim women increased faster in the 1990s than among Hindus.6 I can cite any number of other facts ­ all these only bring in responses that I should change my religion, or worse.

This communalization of demography has a long history. As early as 1909 U.N. Mukherji wrote a book entitled Hindus: A Dying Race, which went on to influence many tracts and publications by the Hindu Maha Sabha, the parent organization of the RSS. This book seemed to meet a widespread demand, going in to many reprints, feeding into Hindu communalism and helping create it. It had a special appeal to Hindu communalists at this time who were anxious to create a monolithic Hindu community in the face of demands for separate representation emanating from both Muslims and lower castes. Whipping up anxiety about Muslims would be one way to weld together hugely diverse, and often antagonistic, castes into one community, erasing the structural divisions in caste society. Indeed it has been noted that “for Hindu communalism, it [A Dying Race] had a more direct resonance as Hindu communalism was now preoccupied with numbers… the possibility of low castes declassifying themselves as Hindus was a motivating anxiety behind the origins of Hindu communalism.” Deeply riddled with inaccuracies, wild flights of prediction of the future with utterly no basis, the book nevertheless provided “demographic common sense functioning as a trope for extinction.”7

Fundamentally, the Hindu communalists believed ­ and continue to believe ­ that a nation is defined “culturally” as a Hindu nation, just as Muslim communalists believed in the purity of an Islamic Pakistan.8 So neatly did the communalists of both religions, by evoking demographic fears, subscribe to colonial definitions of Indian society! The Censuses of the period also contributed. We must, however, remember that this discourse emerged in an embattled political space, as colonialism was contested, new political forces were emerging, the working class was congealing, and early feminist ideas were gaining ground. None of these of course configure in the communalist/fundamentalist discourse.

There was yet another flame stoking these fears among Hindu communalists resentful of social reform. Emblematic here was the tragic figure of the Hindu widow. Forbidden remarriage among the upper castes, she was at once responsible for the dying of the “Hindu race” and an allurement for virile Muslim men, a danger within the sacred heart of the Hindu household, waiting to be profaned. Fitting neatly into this gendered anxiety was the communalization of the issue of “abduction” of Hindu women. Indeed, this too was prominent in the form of epidemics of rumors before the genocidal carnage in 2002
in the western state of Gujarat where over 2000 Muslims were brutally killed, and hundreds of Muslim women gang-raped, in riots aided and abetted by the BJP state government. Thus the embedding of patriarchy, “nationhood,” and violence against women in discourses on numbers, inscribing on women’s reproductive bodies atavistic anxieties about the future and the politics of genocide.

Recently, we have had leaders from the Sangh Parivar opposing family planning among Hindus, claiming there is a “demographic war.” The leader of the VHP enjoined Hindus not to accept family planning as their numbers were going down as those of Muslims were increasing. At a public meeting attended by thousands, and in the presence of the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, the leader of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the RSS claimed that the Muslim population was increasing at a rapid pace, and that this, combined with infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh, portended doom for India. Claiming that this “demographic war” was being waged across the world, he attributed the break up of the Soviet Union to such “demographic imbalance.” 9

The same groups have also opposed access to abortion, arguing that a disproportionate number of Hindu women utilize abortion facilities.10 In addition, we have had a huge and unedifying controversy erupting recently when the Census Commissioner announced the religion-wise data from the 2001 Census, failing to add that these could not be compared to previous figures since the 1991 Census had not been conducted in Kashmir, a Muslim majority state. The Hindu Right created an uproar about “them” outnumbering “us” in our own country, with a lot of help from the national media. This was despite clarifications issued by the Census Commissioner and figures showing that the decline of the Muslim population growth rate was substantial and indeed sharper than among Hindus.

Martha Nussbaum has noted that the creation of virulent masculinities is perhaps a part of the project of nationalisms of the European variety. Emulating this project, other communities, other nations of blood and tribes, are also creating masculinities of the European sort. She notes that Israel and India are both seats of construction of this notion of virulent masculinities, both directed at Muslims, who are classified in colonial discourse as “martial races.” Those scoffed at as feminine or intellectual, not rational enough, set out to recreate themselves in colonial mirrors, creating a style of masculinity that is associated with the oppressor in the past, much as they recreate colonial definitions of history. This too is responsible for the horrors of Gujarat, as is the essentialism of numbers, as fundamentalists wreak murder and rape, “annihilating the female” both in themselves and in the Other.11

In 2002 the slogan Hum Do, Hamare Do; Woh Paanch, Unke Pachees helped the leader of the carnage in Gujarat, Mr. Naredra Modi of the BJP, win a shameful but resounding electoral victory. It also ties in with the trope of the alleged vegetarianism of Hindus along with the sexual rapacity of non-vegetarian Muslims. Sarkar notes that “there is a dark sexual obsession about the allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and over-fertile Muslim female ones.” Recounting the unspeakable horrors perpetrated on Muslim women and children in the Gujarat carnage, she offers the following explanations. In communal violence, rape is a sign of collective dishonoring of a community; the same patriarchy that views the female body as the symbol of lineage, of community, of nation ­ and of their purity ­ would besmirch an entire community as impure and polluted once “their” women are raped. There are also the calculated and politically charged rumors spread of Muslim men luring away Hindu girls, “a kind of penis envy and anxiety about emasculation that can only be overcome by violence.” And finally, the anxieties whipped up over generations about “Muslim fertility rates,” of their uncontrolled breeding and the dying of “the Hindu nation,” led to the brutal killing of children, the new blood of the “Muslim race.” 12

By engendering fear and anxiety about the future, what Saffron Demography successfully does is insidious: it evokes complicity in morally offensive and violent policies and practices among people who would otherwise be repelled by them.
Mohan Rao is Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic (Sage, 2004), and has edited Disinvesting in Health: The World Bank’s Health Prescription (Sage, 1999) and The Unheard Scream: Reproductive Health and Women’s Lives in India.

The Population and Development Program
CLPP • Hampshire College • Amherst • MA 01002
413.559.5506 • http://popdev.hampshire.edu
Opinions expressed in this publication are those of
the individual authors unless otherwise specified.


1. Personal laws in India are based on religion and this is a deeply problematic and contentious issue.
2. There are enormous problems with this characterization of the Sangh Parivar as Hindu fundamentalist or Hindu nationalist. In the first place they do not represent Hindus, and indeed seem to be deeply ashamed of Hinduism, wishing to transform it into a more “masculine” religion, like Christianity or Islam. There are of course no fundamentals in Hinduism. Their claim to be nationalistic is equally moot since they played an extremely marginal role, if at all, in India’s freedom struggle. Indeed the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, a good and proper Hindu, was a member of the Sangh Parivar as it then existed. However, this is how they are referred to, in especially the Western literature and media, and following this, in India.
3. South Asia Citizen’s Web and Sabrang Communication (2002), A Foreign Exchange of Hate, Mumbai. See also “Project Saffron Dollar,” www.stopfundinghate.org (SFH), (accessed on November 20, 2006).
4. He now regularly presents papers on Muslim demographic dangers to India at various fora, not all of them organized by the RSS. It is thus no surprise that police forces in India are known to be deeply communal.
5. Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery, Confronting Saffron Demography: Religion, Fertility and Women’s Status in India (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2006).
6. N. Krishnaji and K.S. James, “Religion and Fertility: A Comment,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XXXX, No.5, 2005.
7. Datta, Pradip Kumar, Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth Century Bengal, O.U.P., Delhi, 1999 pp. 18, 23.
8. The founder of the RSS, M.S.Golwalkar, was a great admirer of Hitler’s grand experiments with racial purification. Like Hitler, he defines a nation as a nation of blood, of primordial ties embedded in an ancient culture, in a fierce anti-Enlightenment discourse. He argued that only those whose religion emanated in India could be Indian citizens, thus marking Christians, Muslims, Parsees and Jews as “outsiders.” He wrote: “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races, the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how wellnigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by” (Golwalkar M.S. (1947), We, Or Our Nationhood Redefined, Bharat Publications, Nagpur).
9. See “VHP Supremo Asks Hindus to give up Family Planning,”http://www.newkerala.com/ (December 30, 2004); “VHP asks Hindus to Abandon Two Child Norm,” The Statesman, February 16, 2005; and Staff Correspondent, “RSS sees ‘demographic war,’” The Hindu, January 24, 2005, p. 5.
10. Mohan Rao, “Female Foeticide; Where Do We Go?” Issues in Medical Ethics, Vol. IX, No.4, October 2001.
11. Nussbaum, Martha, The Clash Within: Violence, Hope and India’s Future, Harvard University Press, (forthcoming, 2007).
12. Sarkar, Tanika, “Semiotics of Muslim Terror: Muslim Children and Women in Hindu Rashtra,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XXXVII, 2002, No.28, p. 2874.