Indian Muslims hardly practise polygamy but they are willing to die for it, says S Y Quraishi, whose just published book, The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India, on the issue of population and family planning among Muslims is the subject of discussion these days in the country.
Quraishi, who has served as India’s 17th Chief Election Commissioner, says Muslims should not make polygamy an issue. “Let there be a ban across communities. There is no harm in it,” he said in an interview to Clarion India. But what about the Muslim leadership, especially Ulema, who are very sensitive about it? Quraishi says their objection is understandable. “They say what is permissible in Islam should not be taken away by the government. The courts and the government can’t interpret the Quran,” Quraishi said, but added since Muslims don’t practise polygamy there is no point being all worked up about it.
Polygamy and population are highly politicised issues in India where right-wing politicians stoke majoritarian fears by claiming that Muslims are growing more children with intention to overtake the country. They also claim that Muslims don’t practise family planning and keep four wives. But Quraishi challenges such claims. “Show me a single Muslim with four wives… In fact Muslims are the least polygamous community in India.”
He quotes the Status of Women in India report of 1975, the only study on this so far. He says it shows that all communities in India are polygamous. “Interestingly, the least polygamous were the Muslims. I studied the census from 1930 to 1961 and found that in every census, Muslims were the least polygamous, followed by the Hindus,” he says, adding tribal communities have 16% polygamy, Hindus 5.8% and Muslims 5.7%.
Quraishi’s book Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India, is an eye-opener. He has investigated the subject from various angles. He talks with facts and figures and also refers to the Quran and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) to bust myths that have been created around the subject. He says nowhere in the Quran family planning is prohibited. “In fact the Quran is totally supportive of the concept. My conclusion is that Islam is the pioneer of the concept of family planning. It is a marvel that 1,400 years ago when there was no population pressure anywhere in the world Islam talked of quality of upbringing, the importance of health and children.”
Quraishi is a known public figure, who has been speaking and writing on various issues. He commands respect for his balanced views on issues of public concerns. The subject that he has dealt with in his book is political. But he has tried to be objective in his analysis.
He says the subject came to him “accidentally” 25 years ago when the country director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approached him to write a strategy paper for family planning among Muslims.
The paper that he wrote was an “eye-opener” for him and therefore he decided to develop it into a book. He says this project was a learning experience for him. When he began in 1995, he had a vague idea about the subject. He only knew that Muslims had a bit of resistance to family planning. But as he studied various government reports and surveys, he realised that facts don’t support the myths that have been created about Muslims.
When he started in 1995, the first National Family Health Survey (NFHS) had been released. After that, till the time he finished the book, three more NFHSs came. “Fortunately, every new data strengthens my hypothesis,” about population and family planning, he says.
Quraishi’s Population Myth, according to him, is four-in-one kind of a book. Part one of it is written as a demographer, which talks only of statistics: how the population grows across communities and across States. Part two is written as an Islamic scholar quoting from the Quran and Hadiths.
Third part is written as “an administrator, which I was. I used to implement various government programmes like national population policy.” And finally, he says, he has dealt the subject as “a communicator, which I claim to be because my Ph.D is in communication, social marketing to be precise. How social issues need to be communicated to audience.”
Has he been challenged by anyone for making bold statements that go against certain deep-rooted perceptions? His reply was in the negative. He says he has received lots of appreciation from every corner. “I have spoken on the subject at various places. At one of the places, it was Muslim audience, and I was a bit worried. But the audience overwhelmingly supported me,” he said.
What about the allegations of the Hindu right-wing? He says the claims made by the Right about the Muslims have no basis. Data don’t support them. “They are rash and false” he opines.
Quraishi says, “We need to talk about it (the facts) more; to discuss it more; and to disseminate it more.”
The right-wing needs to be replied with facts and figures. “Mine is not the first book. There are two to three demographers who have written about it. All the authors are non-Muslims, they are Hindus,” Quraishi says.
Any counter to his argument? So far, none, he says. But he has received “lots of hate messages…they are very general. They are from illiterate trolls who have not read my book.”
Quraishi is used to such trolls. “It’s not new. It happens all the time for every Muslim… typically like reminding him who made me the CEC.”
But nobody has challenged the content of the book. “Let people read the book, and come up with counter-argument, if any. I will be very happy to be educated,” he said.
Shaheen Nazar is the executive editor of Clarion India. With over 30 years of experience in journalism he also teaches at India Today Media Institute at New Delhi.