NEW DELHI • India's Hindus have dropped below 80 per cent of the population for the first time since independence and the media speculated that the previous government deliberately delayed the release of the data because it showed a rise in the Muslim population.
Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party, which swept to power last year, have expressed growing concern about the rising numbers of Muslims.
The census data shows Hindus fell to 79.8 per cent of the country's 1.2 billion people in 2011, from 80.5 per cent a decade earlier.
In contrast, the share of Muslims rose to 14.2 per cent from 13.4 per cent in 2001 - the only major religious group to record a rise.
India now has 966.3 million Hindus and 172.2 million Muslims. Christians stayed at 2.3 per cent of the population and Sikhs fell to 1.7 per cent from 1.9 per cent.
But despite the increase in the proportion of Muslims in the population, the group is growing at a slower pace than in previous decades, said The Hindu newspaper.
Also, its growth rate has slowed more sharply than that of the Hindu population. In the 2001-2011 period covered by the latest survey, the Muslim rate of growth was the lowest in India's history.
As a long-term trend, the communities' growth rates are converging, say demographers.
"This is completely along expected lines, and has been an ongoing process," demographer P. Arokiasamy, a professor at the International Institute of Population Sciences in Mumbai, told The Hindu. "With rising education and changing family expectations, declining fertility is an expected demographic phenomenon."
Hindu priest-turned-politician Sakshi Maharaj caused an uproar earlier this year when he said Hindu women should give birth to four children each to ensure their religion survives.
The Business Standard reported Mr Amitabh Kundu, senior fellow at Delhi Policy Group, as saying, however, that "the whole fear that Muslim populations will overtake Hindu population is nonsense. This is because fertility decline is taking place due to the impact of primary education".
In the first census, conducted after Britain carved India and Pakistan out of colonial India in 1947, Hindus accounted for 84.1 per cent of the Indian population.
Although population growth is slowing in all religious groups, India is still set to overtake China to become the world's most populous country by 2022, according to a United Nations forecast.
India's population grew by almost a fifth during the period between the last two censuses, straining supplies of land, food and water and bloating its underemployed, poorly skilled workforce. REUTERS