Last month, India’s Union Minister of State for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises and senior BJP leader Giriraj Singh chose to pontificate on the need for reproductive sterilisation in the Indian Union using the Hindi term nasbandi, thus bringing back the memory of the draconian sterilisation initiatives during the emergency regime of Indira Gandhi.
He used the term nasbandi for its rhyming effect with notebandi, the Hindi term for demonetisation.
In fact he said as such -- that demonetisation had to be followed up with sterilisation. In making his point, he evoked the idea of the “country.” He also said that all sections of society should adopt the practice of sterilisation.
It is fashionable in Delhi’s power circles to characterise this or that as a ‘national’ problem. The Indian Union is a federal union of extremely diverse and different ethno-linguistic nationalities, whose achievements and failings also differ
To be fair, he did not speak of forced sterilisation. He marked out “population explosion” as a problem and laid out his prescription to solve it. While he is free to suggest solutions, however outlandish, to a “population explosion” problem in the “country” -- there is another problem.
There is a population explosion problem in the country only if by country he means his homeland Bihar. The Indian Union does not have a “population explosion” problem. Let me explain what I mean.
It is fashionable in Delhi’s power circles to characterise this or that as a “national” problem. The Indian Union is a federal union of extremely diverse and different ethno-linguistic nationalities, whose achievements and failings also differ. Thus, all such cases of “national problem” need to be analysed carefully because, more often than not, characterisation of something as a “national problem” by such powerful people from the Delhi power circuit leads to “national” policies to provide “national” solutions.
And that affects a huge number of people, who people like Giriraj Kishore, don’t have in mind when he evokes the “national.” Probably because his idea of his “nation” stems from his backyard, which may be his “nation” but is not everybody else’s nation.
A total fertility rate less than 2.1 is generally considered to be a below replacement rate, which means, when TFR falls below that number and that is sustained, in future the population actually decreases. In areas with very high mortality, the replacement TFR rate can be somewhat higher.
West Bengal’s TFR is 1.64, which is among the lowest in the world -- same as Netherlands, Canada, and Denmark. The Dravidian homelands do not have a problem.
Tamil Nadu and Kerala are similar to West Bengal at around 1.7. Karnataka, and Maharashtra are around 1.8, comparable to Belgium, Finland, and Norway. All of these are better than the US and UK’s.
Thus, these states and most others, which comprise the whole of the Deccan peninsula and the East, do not have a “population explosion,” and thus do not share the “national problem.” If anything, they have the opposite problem.
So who is to be held responsible? Only six states in the Indian Union have TFRs of more than 2.34. They are -- Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar. All of them have Hindi as the primary official language. I mention that because the language ties them into a cultural sphere that is the source of the so-called “national problem.”
Thus Giriraj Singh’s “national” problem is a Hindi belt problem. Hence, if solutions are to be sought, it is to be sought by breaking it down to these political-cultural units and then identify what exactly about them is problematic.
It is useful to see why this problem becomes a “national problem” in BJP leader Giriraj Singh’s mind. The six problem states contributed to 60% of the seats won by BJP in 2014 while seat-wise, all the seats in these states (not only those won by the BJP) make up less than 37% of the total number of Lok Sabha seats.
This means that the problem states have an undue hold on the composition of the Union legislature.
Hence, it is not unnatural that this disproportionate hold on the Union government leads its functionaries to use the “idea of India” and “nation” to falsely generalise the problems and then devise ways for the non-problem states to pick up the bill when it comes to paying for the solution to such problems.
There is another aspect to this. Since no internal migration controls exist between the states of the Indian Union, the economic and social gains that come with a low TFR are denied to the low TFR states.
The high TFR states thus send across people to low TFR states, thus burdening low TFR states with the problem of high TFR states that Giriraj mischaracterised as a “national” one.
In fact, such is the scale of the problem that among the top 10 linguistic groups in the Indian Union, only Hindi speaking people’s population percentage as a proportion of the total population of the Indian Union has increased every decade for the last five decades.
Apart from the economic costs, this aspect, along with uncontrolled migration, has grave consequences for the distinct socio-cultural fabric of almost all non-Hindi states.
However, Giriraj Singh’s apparently sudden observations on “population explosion” have a more sinister dog-whistle element. Because, just two months before voicing his concerns about “population explosion,” the same Giriraj Singh suggested that Hindus should increase their population by having more children.
Thus, what he had in mind was a Muslim population growth issue that he chose to couch in terms of a “national problem.”
The false generalisation of Hindi belt problems as “national” problems goes beyond this specific episode. Take the example of Indo-Pak rivalry. It is not uniformly popular. There are anti-Pak Hindi films, but no one has heard of an anti-Pak Bhojpuri or Bangla film. There simply is no market.
More often than not, looking at things always from an Indian Union wide perspective often hides more than it reveals about the question at hand.
So, next time someone tells you about something national, ask him or her to break it down to the level of states and then make your own conclusions.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.