Earlier this evening I received a distasteful forwarded message on a family watsapp group. Distasteful for a liberal. Bone-chilling for an Islamophobe.
This is a message that I believe finds some degree of validation in a majority of Indian minds. I maybe wrong.
Apologies for starting the blog with a random forward, but do read it, large swaths of India’s population are.
Large chunks of votes may sway, in fact they already do, basis this one line of thought. Over the past few years, fear-mongering on this line of thought has only gotten stronger in Indian politics.
Translations for all lines follow them. See you on the other side.
My earliest recollection of being in awe of a social reformer – Jyotirao Phule – unfortunately was not through my History textbooks – the Maharashtra State Board history textbooks hardly told any interesting stories (except for the Standard IV textbook on Shivaji, which I loved) – they were so thin that one could literally memorise them from cover to cover.
As a matter of fact, I did. I distinctly recall having memorised the entire History and Geography textbooks every year up to Standard X, without breaking into a sweat. I used to find it funny that most of my batch-mates would waste time in going to tuitions and buy the much thicker Navneet/Vikas Exercise books which had answers to all possible questions asked from each chapter, when they could have just rote-learned the whole textbook.
Well, today I can’t memorise a mobile number, even if my life depended on it, but back in the late ’90s, I could memorise a History chapter – a good 5-6 pages – in a matter of a couple of hours.
I would never own up to it then though. There were terms coined by students within our batch – terms like ratt-maaru (rote-learner), parroter, coined to disparage the high-scorers who rote-learned.
I for some reason, had managed to escape that scrutiny among my batch-mates. Maybe it was because I had leveraged the ability to memorise at a very short notice, at other avenues (apart from acing exams) too. Avenues which required the ability to restate all that was by-hearted. I was the default elocutionist to represent our school right since I was in Standard V, for all the inter-school elocution competitions. Sometimes my speech would be written by my father, at others by my teachers, and on occasions by myself – to be precise, from Std VIII onwards I had to write them by myself – by then my father and my teachers had lost interest in my participation in the elocution competitions, and by then I was kind of addicted to winning them.
This aura of invincibility that I had built around myself would get completely exposed in a few science and maths related inter-school olympiads/competitions. But their results would be dismissed as nothing but rare aberrations. The students who did exceedingly well in the Maths and Science Olympiads ideally should have been the ones who should have ruled the roost in our school academics. And I should have been a part of the also-rans club. In hindsight, that would have served me well on two counts.
- It would have spared me the inflated-ego-syndrome that dogged me for a few years even after I passed out of school.
- More importantly, my parents/my friends’ parents/my friends would not have expected me to pursue science and take up engineering after my XII exams (as a matter of fact, I performed very badly in my XII Board exams too, but that was for a completely different reason – more on it in some other rambling). Maybe it would have allowed me to take up Arts and study literature/history/politics. Who knows where that would have landed me?
The above digression’s intent was to point out that academic curricula for a lot of Indian State Boards were not up to the mark in the days when I passed out of school. Maybe they have improved over the years.
I do not even know what drew me to the social reformer Jyotirao Phule but when I read about him in my Marathi Language textbooks, everything that he did, the change that he brought about in the society, seemed very cool. Heroic.
I remember having pictured myself doing something heroic to bring about social change, much like I had pictured myself (and even enacted myself doing – with a foot-long wooden ruler in hand, in front of the long mirror on the steel Godrej cupboard/almirah) hitting 315 runs of the last 10 overs in a One Day International match for India, after the rest of the team (9 batsmen) had all been dismissed for a paltry score in the first 40 overs.
As I grew older (engineering days) and realised how averse my extended family in general was to Muslims, I would often joke at dinner tables, “Just watch. I will fall in love with and marry a Muslim.” And they would shudder. It was fun getting under their skin. Maybe that was the wannabe-Jyotirao Phule in me talking.
I did fall madly in love with and wanted to marry a Christian girl who had Pakistani origins a few years later (more than a decade ago), but wanting to be like Jyotirao was hardly the reason I wanted that. Love doesn’t work that way, one surely doesn’t fall in love to satisfy one’s misplaced sense of self-righteousness. After a brief period of some attachment, that girl was wise enough to avoid me like the plague (avoid one like Herpes Zoster Opthalmicus should also hold – my father contracted it yesterday, and on the advise of the doctor usage of antiseptic liquid, handwash and hand sanitiser in my house has multiplied many a times today). In hindsight, she did the right thing. I behaved like an extremely needy person around her. Sometimes I wonder – Would I would have continued to be like that if I had been with her for a longer period? Does the way we are with the people in our lives, change with time?
Back in school, I was hardly a rebel. I did not really have an independent opinion on things. I visited the temple when my parents asked me to, I would not go down to play if they asked me not to, I would not copy in exams because the teachers and my parents asked me not to (and because I didn’t need to, to top the exams). I would religiously touch the feet of the white Saraswati Godesses’ statue in the foyer of our school every time I passed it, at times even when I had gone to meet a teacher in the staff room and didn’t really need to pass the statue.
When the Godhra-Gujarat communal riots happened in Gujarat in early 2002, I didn’t really think much about them – this is despite the fact that my grandmother, my paternal aunts, most of my father’s extended family was staying in Gujarat. I do not even recall reading about the riots – the newspaper (we subscribed to a Gujarati newspaper – Mumbai Samachar till the time I left home for engineering) to me was about the Sports page and the supplements with comic strips/fictional stories.
Sometime after the riots though, during a discussion among elders at a wedding, I do remember being a mute spectator to a discussion on how ‘The Muslim population in the country is growing at an alarming rate.’ I was not in possession of a questioning/critical mind back then – It didn’t strike me that I should ask my father – “Aren’t you the 9th/10th child of your father – his fourth child from his second wife?” It didn’t strike me that I should ask my mother, “Aren’t you five siblings (not counting the ones that died young)?”
‘Muslims have more children than the rest’ – that was the accepted notion in my head. In my years of engineering in Nagpur, I even had a batch-mate (in the same discipline and a good friend back then), who would often lament about the speedily growing Muslim population, and I would just nod – uncomfortable about being a part of a narrow-minded discussion, but also certain that it was based on facts. Even today, this is a popular sentiment, even among the more educated Indians.
A lot of liberals I know too silently acknowledge that the Muslim population in India definitely grows much faster than the population of other religious communities. They just believe/pretend to believe that it is not a cause of concern (I too believe it is not but that’s irrelevant to this post).
Here is where I replicate a long paragraph from one of my favourite books in recent times – Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnuld. I do not have any copyrights over this book and am replicating a few paragraphs just to break a myth.
It is a longish read, but do go through it.
At the end of my opening lecture in my 1998 course on global health, most students headed for the coffee machine but one remained behind. I saw her wander slowly toward the front of the room with tears in her eyes. Then, when she understood that I had noticed her, she stopped, flipped her face away, and looked out of the window. She was obviously moved. I expected her to share with me a sad personal problem that was going to impede her participation in the course. Before I could say anything comforting she turned around, gained control over her emotions, and in a steady voice said something completely unexpected: “My family is from Iran. What you just said about the fast improvements in health and education in Iran was the first positive thing I’ve heard anyone from Sweden ever say about the Iranian people.” My student said this to me in perfect Swedish with a clear Stockholm accent: she had obviously lived in Sweden her whole life. I was stunned. All I had done was to briefly show UN data for Iran on the increase in life expectancy and decrease in babies per woman. I had mentioned too that it was quite an achievement—actually the fastest drop ever, from more than six babies per woman in 1984 down to fewer than three babies per woman just 15 years later.
It was one of several little-known examples I had shown of fast changes in middle-income countries in the 1990s. “That can’t be true,” I said.
“It is. You said that the fast fall in the number of babies per woman in Iran is a reflection of improvements in health and education, especially for Iranian women. You also rightly said that most young Iranians now have modern values about family size and use contraception. I have never heard anyone in Sweden say anything even close to that. Even highly educated Swedes seem completely unaware of the changes that have taken place. The improvements. The modernity. They think Iran is on the same level as Afghanistan.” The fastest drop in babies per woman in world history went completely unreported in the free Western media. Iran—home in the 1990s to the biggest condom factory in the world, and boasting a compulsory pre-marriage sex education course for both brides and grooms—has a highly educated population with excellent access to an advanced public health-care system. Couples use contraception to achieve small families and have access to infertility clinics if they struggle to conceive. At least that was the case when I visited such a clinic in Tehran in 1990, hosted by the enthusiastic Professor Malek-Afzali, who designed Iran’s family planning miracle. How many people in the West would guess that women in Iran today decide to have fewer babies than women in either the United States or Sweden? Do we Westerners love free speech so much that it makes us blind to any progress in a country whose regime does not share our love? It is, at least, clear that a free media is no guarantee that the world’s fastest cultural changes will be reported. Almost every religious tradition has rules about sex, so it is easy to understand why so many people assume that women in some religions give birth to more children. But the link between religion and the number of babies per woman is often overstated. There is, though, a strong link between income and number of babies per woman. Back in 1960 this didn’t seem so obvious. In 1960, there were 40 countries where women had fewer than 3.5 babies on average, and they were all Christian-majority countries, except Japan. It appeared that to have few babies, you had either to be Christian or Japanese. (A bit more reflection even at this stage would have suggested some problems with this line of thought: in many Christian-majority countries, like Mexico and Ethiopia, women also had big families.) How does it look today? In the bubble graphs on the next page, I have divided the world into three groups based on religion: Christian, Muslim, or other. I have then shown babies per woman and income for each group. As usual the size of the bubble reflects the size of the population. Look how Christian populations are spread out on all income levels. Look how the Christian populations on Level 1 have many more babies. Now look at the
other two graphs. The pattern is very similar: regardless of religion, women have more children if they live in extreme poverty on Level 1.
Today, Muslim women have on average 3.1 children. Christian women have 2.7. There is no major difference between the birth rates of the great world religions. In almost every bedroom, across continents, cultures, and religions—in the United States, Iran, Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, Italy, China, Indonesia, India, Colombia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Libya, you name it—couples are whispering into each other’s ears their dreams for their future happy families.
Exaggerated claims that people from this religion or that religion have bigger families are one example of how people tend to claim that certain values or behaviors are culture-specific, unchanging and unchangeable. THESE CLAIMS ARE NOT TRUE. VALUES CHANGE ALL THE TIME.
In the above extract from Factfulness, the authors have proved, with data, that across religions, number of babies per woman are a function of the income group.
L1, L2, L3 and L4 on the X axis indicate the increasing GDP per capita. The Y axis indicates the number of children per woman. The size of the bubble indicates the size of the population.
One may ask, why then did the population not drop earlier? Why did we jump from 1 billion to 7+ billion? I revert to Factfulness again.
When a population is not growing over a long period of time, and the population curve is flat, this must mean that each generation of new parents is the same size as the previous one. For thousands of years up to 1800 the population curve was almost flat. Have you heard people say that humans used to live in balance with nature? Well, yes, there was a balance. But let’s avoid the rose-tinted glasses. Until 1800, women gave birth to six children on average. So the population should have increased with each generation. Instead, it stayed more or less stable. Remember the child skeletons in the graveyards of the past? On average four out of six children died before becoming parents themselves, leaving just two surviving children to parent the next generation. There was a balance. It wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature. It was utterly brutal and tragic. Today, humanity is once again reaching a balance. The number of parents is no longer increasing. But this balance is dramatically different from the old balance. The new balance is nice: the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies. For the first time in human history, we live in balance. The population grew from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000 because humanity went through a transition from one balance to another during the twentieth century, a unique period of human history when two parents on average produced more than two children who survived to become parents themselves in the next generation.
That period of imbalance is the reason why today the two youngest generations are larger than the others. That period of imbalance is the reason behind the fill-up. But the new balance is already achieved: the annual number of births is no longer increasing. If extreme poverty keeps falling, and sex education and contraception keep spreading, then the world population will keep growing fast, but only until the inevitable fill-up is completed.
That should settle it. It did for me.
Regarding the watsapp forward, and the Muslim population growth in India – only two data points in it are correct. The Hindu/Muslim population % in 1951 and 2011. Rest all is fear-mongering.
Earlier this evening, I got in touch with a school friend after a long time. She is pregnant, and expecting her baby in September. Last I had spoken to her, around 10-12 months back (maybe more), she was divorced and had just started dating someone. Over the course of a year, they have married and are going to have a child. When I told her about asking a common school friend for advice (the common school friend has two children, can you believe it!? Two itself seems so much now, no?), she replied saying that her husband had a kid when he was 22 (long back), so he has some experience. Her husband is an intelligent, well-placed fellow with a dual citizenship in England and Australia.
This revelation poses a threat to another population/babies related myth that is prevalent among the single unmarried, non-procreating oldies – the wise/intelligent ones have their kids late or don’t have them altogether, while the dimwits are all overpopulating the world by having children in their 20’s. The things we tell ourselves. 😀 Fortunately, there is no Factfulness discourse to bust this myth.
Just when I had decided to take up this topic tonight, a friend of mine who lives in Surat shared this interesting assignment that his niece aced in her school.
The assignment is about ascribing geographies (states) within India to groups with different ethnicities. Interestingly, among a host of regional ethnicities, there is one religious community that has been highlighted. My friend’s niece ascribed that community to Pakistan. It was the community of Muslims. She got an A1 in her assignment.
Maybe the academic curriculum of State Boards is as broken as it was. Maybe, now it has even gotten a little dangerous.
PS: @Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Ronnuld and the Factfulness team – sorry for indulging in a copyright violation here.
@Others: Click on the below link and grab a copy of Factfulness. Today!
*Day 284 — If India’s general elections for 2019 are held on the exact same dates as that in 2014, there are 284 more days/opportunities for the incumbent and the opposition to put political dead cats on the table. I have borrowed this interesting thought from an article written by Shivam Vij, I read a couple of days before I started The Political Commentator.