Decline in fertility rates keeps India’s religious makeup unchanged

Migration, conversion have relatively small impact on India’s overall religious composition, Pew Research Center study says

Despite growing at uneven rates every major religion in India saw its numbers rise as India’s population more than tripled in the six decades following the 1947 Partition, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

India’s Muslim population has grown somewhat faster than other religious groups because of fertility differences, says the Washington based think tank that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends.

But due in part to declining and converging fertility patterns, there have been only modest changes in the country’s overall religious makeup.

Read: Indian media more accurate and fair than US media: Pew survey (January 12, 2018)

Migration is one of three main mechanisms, along with fertility and conversion, that cause religious groups to shrink or expand, it says in a media release.

But since the 1950s, migration has had only a modest impact on India’s religious composition, it says noting more than 99% of people who live in India were also born in India.

Migrants leaving India outnumber immigrants three-to-one, and religious minorities are more likely than Hindus to leave.

Religious switching, or conversion – when an individual leaves one religion for another or stops affiliating with any religion – also appears to have had a relatively small impact on India’s overall composition, with 98% of Indian adults still identifying with the religion in which they were raised.

Pew Center’s statistical analysis of census and survey data shows that fertility has been by far the biggest driver of the modest amount of religious change in the decades since Partition.

Read: Muslim women made more educational gains than Muslim men globally: Pew study (December 27, 2016)

The Center’s demographic analysis of data from India’s census and other sources is designed to complement a major new public opinion survey, “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” published in June 2021.

From 361 million people in 1951, when India conducted its first census as an independent nation, the country’s population has grown to more than 1.2 billion in 2011.

As of 2020, India is gaining roughly one million inhabitants each month, putting it on course to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2030.

Though religious groups grew at uneven rates between 1951 and 2011, every major religion in India saw its numbers rise, according to  the Center’s analysis.

For example, Hindus increased from 304 million to 966 million, Muslims grew from 35 million to 172 million, and the number of Indians who say they are Christian rose from 8 million to 28 million.

The 3% of Indians who identify with religions other than Hinduism, Islam or Christianity have grown to represent tens of millions of people in the decades since independence.

Sikhs, India’s fourth-largest religious group, have increased from 7 million adherents in 1951 to nearly 21 million in 2011, while remaining a consistent share of India’s population (just under 2%).

Buddhists and Jains show a similar pattern – their numbers have doubled or tripled over the decades, while their shares have held steady, both under 1%.

In percentage terms, India’s six largest religious groups have remained relatively stable since Partition. The greatest shift has been a modest rise in the share of Muslims, accompanied by a corresponding decline in the share of Hindus.

Between 1951 and 2011, Muslims grew by 4.4 percentage points to 14.2% of the population, while Hindus declined by 4.3 points to 79.8%.

Christians have made up between 2% and 3% of India’s population in every census since 1951. Although there are concerns that Christians may be undercounted, it is difficult to determine the extent of such an undercount and how it may be changing over time, the study says.

Growth rates have declined for all of India’s major religious groups, but the slowdown has been more pronounced among religious minorities, who outpaced Hindus in earlier decades, it says.

Read: Hindus are the most educated religious group in the US, study reveals (December 16, 2016)

Between 1951 and 1961, the Muslim population expanded by 32.7%, 11 percentage points more than India’s overall rate of 21.6%. But this gap has narrowed. From 2001 to 2011, the difference in growth between Muslims (24.7%) and Indians overall (17.7%) was 7 percentage points.

India’s Christian population grew at the slowest pace of the three largest groups in the most recent census decade – gaining 15.7% between 2001 and 2011, a far lower growth rate than the one recorded in the decade following Partition (29.0%).

India’s fertility rate has been declining rapidly in recent decades. Today, the average Indian woman is expected to have 2.2 children in her lifetime, a fertility rate that is higher than rates in many economically advanced countries like the United States (1.6) but much lower than India’s in 1992 (3.4) or 1950 (5.9).

Every religious group in the country has seen its fertility fall, including the majority Hindu population and Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain minority groups.

Among Indian Muslims, for example, the total fertility rate has declined dramatically, from 4.4 children per woman in 1992 to 2.6 children in 2015, the most recent year for which religion data is available from India’s National Family Health Survey.

Muslims still have the highest fertility rate among India’s major religious groups, followed by Hindus at 2.1. Jains have the lowest fertility rate (1.2).

The general pattern is largely the same as it was in 1992, when Muslims had the highest fertility rate at 4.4, followed by Hindus at 3.3. But the gaps in childbearing between India’s religious groups are generally much smaller than they used to be.

Read: Key findings about the religious composition of India (September 21, 2021)

For example, while Muslim women were expected to have an average of 1.1 more children than Hindu women in 1992, the gap had shrunk to 0.5 by 2015, the study notes..

Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, the study is part of a larger effort by Pew Research Center to understand religious change and its impact on societies around the world.


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