Mumbai, India – Across northern and central India, a campaign advocating for a population control law is gaining momentum.
The movement ostensibly seeks to raise awareness over the need to restrain India’s population of 1.34 billion, second only to China’s 1.39 billion.
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But its subtext reflects a core belief of right-wing Hindu organisations: that Muslims are trying to “overtake” Hindus.
The campaign, underpinned by Islamophobia, is being promoted in the real and online worlds.
Facebook posts spread the conspiracy theory that the number of India’s Muslims – currently about 200 million – will at some point surpass the 966 million-strong Hindu population, as WhatsApp groups share messages stirring fear and hatred.
And offline, public meetings are being held, blaming Muslims for India’s population explosion.
The Jansankhya Samadhan Foundation (or Population Resolution Foundation) NGO, for instance, is travelling across northern India, gathering support for a two-day march to New Delhi, planned for October.
“If we don’t bring in a law now, India will see a civil war very soon,” said Chaudhary, the head the NGO, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
There is a sense of paranoia that the Muslim population is increasing, which is driving the revival of the population agenda.
The Jansankhya Samadhan Foundation supports a two-child norm, with punishment including jail terms for offenders.
Chaudhary claims the group has held 150,000 protests and meetings across nearly half of India’s 725 administrative districts, runs more than 400 WhatsApp groups, and is connected with 100,000 people.
“When we travel across the country, 95 percent of the people say that Muslims are driving India’s population explosion. Hindus tell me, ‘there is no point in telling us to control the population, you should tell the Muslims.’ The thing is, this is the fact.”
Chaudhary’s meetings have been attended by a government minister, Giriraj Singh, and leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary volunteer organisation understood to be the ideological parent of the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party.
Last year, Singh said that “only one community” was responsible for India’s population explosion, referring to Muslims.
Chaudhary insisted that his organisation is non-political.
“Initially, we tried to advocate this with the [Muslim] community. But we were reportedly told by them that for religious reasons, the community will never accept such a law,” he said.
After the October march, his team intends to travel to southern Indian states to mobilise support for a population control bill.
Dr Al Sharada, director of Population First, a Mumbai-based NGO that works on health and population issues, slammed these calls as dangerous and unadvisable.
“Calling for such a law is an entitled, privileged position and is always aimed at the poor and the disenfranchised,” she told Al Jazeera.
In another example of the online success of the movement, Amit Pandey, a 36-year-old pharmaceutical trader from Lucknow, has amassed over 30,000 followers in just two months on his Facebook page, Jansankhya Niyantran Kanoon (Population Control Law).
He sets aside an hour a day to work on his “cause”, calling on people to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP party, and ask him to legislate population control.
His efforts, he claims, have seen 150,000 letters being sent to Modi on the issue.
Pandey has long believed that Muslims are conspiring against the country.
“In Muslims, there is no humanity. Each of them is a jihadi in his or her own way. With a growing population, they will become huge vote banks and their votes will start mattering more than Hindu votes,” he told Al Jazeera.
He posts several times every day, often misinformation. His page is replete with photos, gifs and videos – one featuring a right-wing Hindu activist recommending a modern-day crusade against Muslims in Europe, another calling Muslims “Arabic slaves”.
He thinks government data indicating a slowing Muslim population growth rate is fake and manipulated.
“The government does not want to tell citizens the real extent of the problem,” he said, dismissing news reports of hate crimes against Muslims as a “fake narrative set by the media”.
His experiences with Muslims, he said, have shown him that they can’t be trusted.
“They don’t think of themselves as Indians; they don’t have the right intentions. Each Muslim thinks of how to defeat Hindus and wage a Ghazwa-e-Hind (Holy War against India),” he said, referring to a term used by Pakistan-based armed groups to justify attacks.
“Every day, I do small meetings of 20 to 30 people and convince them of the urgent need to bring the law in,” he said. “Days after I made this page, national leaders started speaking of such a law,” he says, referring to a statement in May by popular Yoga guru Yoga Ramdev, that the government should deny voting rights to a third child.
Another group on Facebook, Ab Ek hi Maang – Jansankhya Niyantra Kanoon (A single aim – The Population Control Law) boasts more than 14,000 followers. In the northern city of Kanpur, a Facebook page entitled Jansankhya Niyantran Kanoon (Population Control Law) has over 9,400 followers.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp groups run by supporters of the BJP, are awash with xenophobic messages about Muslims, while pitching a population control law as the solution.
A large section of the Indian right-wing has long held a belief that Muslims have conspired to accelerate their population, in a bid to overtake the country’s Hindus.
Led by the RSS, organisations affiliated with the BJP such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have stoked fears around the country’s Muslim population, asked for curbs on Muslim population growth, and pushed for Hindus to produce more children.
The RSS has previously claimed that European nations, including Germany and France, are on their way to becoming “Islamic states” as a result of fast-growing Muslim communities.
The last Indian census, held in 2011, showed that Hindus comprise 79.8 percent of the population while Muslims make up less than a fifth, at 14.2 percent.
The proportion of Hindus relative to the country’s population declined by 0.7 percent, according to that census, while the proportion of Muslims grew by 0.8 percent.
Islam was also the country’s fastest-growing religion between 2001 and 2011 with a growth rate of 24.6 percent while the Hindu growth rate was 16.8 percent in the same period.
Hindu nationalists have used these figures to buttress their argument.
Experts, however, say the data is incomplete and misleading.
“Data also show that the Muslim fertility rate has come down more than the Hindu fertility rate. Despite this, there is a sense of paranoia that the Muslim population is increasing, which is driving the revival of the population [control] agenda,” said Sharada of Population First.
Sharada pointed to recently released government data showing a sharp decline in India’s population growth.
MP calls for ‘religious balance’ to be maintained
In July, a BJP member of parliament, Rakesh Sinha, proposed a private member’s bill – the Population Regulation Bill, 2019 – in the Indian Parliament.
It is yet to be discussed in parliament and the government could reject it, but the move represents growing support for legislating population control.
Sinha told Al Jazeera that India’s growing population has made the country restive and, while he stopped short at outrightly blaming Muslims, he advocated for “religious balance”.
“There are three repercussions [of population growth] – regional imbalance within the country, where some regions have higher population than others; resource shortage and thereby, lack of equitable distribution and lastly, the religious balance that needs to be maintained,” he said.
“We are a multi-faith, multi-caste people so there should be total harmony between all these faiths.”
When asked to elaborate on the cause of “religious imbalance”, Sinha said he was busy and could not answer any further queries.
In May, another BJP leader, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, filed public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court, asking for a similar law, alleging that the population size was the “root cause of all crimes” in India.
Sharada, meanwhile, advised viewing the issue from an economic perspective.
“There is a flawed understanding that our problems emanate from a scarcity of resources,” she told Al Jazeera, “whereas they emanate from a flawed distribution of resources.”