Assam State Chief Himanta Biswa Sarma has called upon the minority Muslim community to "practice small family size" to reduce poverty and warned of conflicts concerning living spaces if "their population continued to explode".
"If the population explosion continues, one day even the Kamakhya temple land will be encroached upon. Even my house will be encroached upon", Sarma said while addressing the media in Guwahati on Thursday.
His remarks come amidst the backdrop of the eviction of 200 squatters, mostly immigrant Muslims, drawing criticism from some opposition politicians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims in certain parts of Assam are considered illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the state government. Immigrant Muslims comprise around 31 percent of the state's 30.2 million people.
According to the 2011 census, Assam's population ratio is 61.47 percent Hindu and 34.22 percent Muslim. The BJP has been expressing concerns about the rising share of the Muslim population, which was about 31% in 2001. It was just 28% in 1991.
The state chief, who has just completed his first month in office, urged the minority-based political party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and All Assam Minority Students' Union to work on population control. Sarma said a population policy was already in the works and the government would implement it soon.
The fertility rate, or the number of children born per woman, is 4.36 for Muslims compared to 2.59 for Hindus. This means that for every 1,000 women, Muslim women have 1.7 times more children.
In 2019, the state cabinet, headed by Sarbananda Sonowal, adopted a two-child norm for government jobs. The measures were supposed to become effective from January 2021.
Sarma's remarks were quickly met with criticism from the opposition, who view the move as being in line with India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party's "anti-Muslim approach".
Taking to Twitter, another minority-based political party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief Asaduddin Owaisi slammed Sarma.
"This is Hindutva-speak for blaming the poor and marginalised". "Your govt should worry about skewed sex ratio due to barbaric practice of sex-selective abortions. It's projected that even in 2036 Assam's sex ratio will still be seriously skewed in favour of men. There's a clear need to fight against underlying sexist cultural ideas", Owaisi said.
— Asaduddin Owaisi (@asadowaisi) June 10, 2021
Assam shares a rough 160-mile border with Bangladesh and has been entangled in decades of agitation over the continued presence of "illegal immigrants" from India's neighbour.
In a bid to identify and deport the immigrant Muslims from Assam, an organisation called Assam Public Works filed a petition before the Supreme Court of India in 2013. The petition expedited the process of building the National Register of Citizens (NRC), where citizenship would be granted to those with proper documentation. However, more than 1.9 million people, including over 100,000 Hindus were left out of the last draft, published in August 2019. The final NRC will be published by the Registrar General of India.