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The Controversy Over a New Population Study From India 

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A working paper from an independent body that gives economic advice to the Indian government has published controversial findings that critics say could sow communal discord between Hindus and Muslims during the ongoing parliamentary elections.

The paper, titled “Share of religious minorities: A cross-country analysis,” was published on May 7 by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM). It found that between 1950 and 2015, India’s Hindu population declined by 7.82%, while the Muslim population increased by 43.15% at the same time. Currently, Hindus make up nearly 80% of India’s 1.4 billion population, while Muslims make up 14%, according to Pew Research Center data from 2021.

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The EAC-PM paper also found that the share of other religious minorities like Christians and Buddhists (but excluding Parsis and Jains) rose by up to 6.58% in the 65-year timeframe.

Authored by experts Shamika Ravi, Abraham Jose, and Apurv Kumar Mishra, the paper aimed to look at how religious composition has evolved across the globe over the past several decades. Using population data from 167 countries, it concluded that there was a dip in the majority religious population not only across India but also notably in Europe. Within South Asia—in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives—it found that the share of the majority religious denomination had decreased in four countries and increased in five.

The study also stated that it was “agnostic to the underlying causes of such demographic change,” concluding that “minorities are not just protected but thriving in India”—an observation that stands in stark contrast to concerns raised over India’s religious freedom in recent years by international human rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Many Indian news outlets have reported the study’s findings verbatim: “Study Shows India’s Hindu Population Shrank By 7.8%, Busts 3 Liberal Lies,” stated one report by News18. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have also been quick to link its claims to the Congress Party, which ruled over India for nearly 50 years following its independence from British rule in 1947, by accusing the opposition of appeasing minorities. “Share of Hindus shrunk 7.8% between 1950 and 2015. The Muslim population grew by 43%. This is what decades of Congress rule did to us. Left to them, there would be no country for Hindus,” Amit Malviya, a prominent BJP member, posted on X. Other BJP members and ministers have also raised concerns about the Muslim community in India allegedly increasing its population to “alter” the demography of India.

In response to the study, the Population Foundation of India (PFI), an independent think tank working on population trends, released a statement on Friday, May 10, calling the EAC-PM findings misleading and alarmist, adding that it was “deeply concerned about the recent media reports that are misreporting the findings…to spread alarm regarding the growth of the Muslim population.” 

PFI pointed to the findings from the last nationwide Census in India, conducted in 2011, which found that the decadal growth rate for Muslims had declined over the past three decades, decreasing from 32.9% in 1981-1991 to 24.6% in 2001-2011. In contrast, the growth rate for Hindus fell from 22.7% to 16.8% over the same period​​.

“Such interpretations are not only inaccurate but also misleading and baseless,” the PFI said of the EAC-PM report.

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As India wraps up the third phase of a grueling six-week election, the timing of the study’s publication has raised eyebrows among critics and demographic experts at a time when the BJP is seen to be openly campaigning on anti-Muslim rhetoric. During a public rally on April 21, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Muslims as "infiltrators” and “those who have more children.” On another occasion, he warned that the opposition would redistribute the property, land, and gold belonging to Hindus among Muslims. 

Referring to these instances, the Independent Panel for Monitoring Indian Elections, made up of international experts from India, Europe, and Bangladesh to monitor India’s elections, said that senior BJP leaders were “systematically seeking votes in the name of religion” and “often inciting hate against minorities” in an election bulletin published last month.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com