Across India, a campaign advocating for a population control law is gaining momentum. The movement ostensibly seeks to raise awareness over the need to restrain India's population of 1.34 billion, second only to China's 1.39 billion.
But look a bit deeper and it reflects the right-wing Hindutva belief that Muslims are trying to "overtake" Hindus. A conspiracy theory is being promoted that the number of India's Muslims - currently about 200 million - will at some point surpass the 966 million-strong Hindu population, and social media is being used to stir up fear and hatred. A large section of the Hindutva movement has long held a belief that Muslims have conspired to accelerate their population, in a bid to overtake the country's Hindus.
Amit Pandey, a pharmaceutical trader from Lucknow, has amassed over 30,000 followers in just two months on his Facebook page, Jansankhya Niyantran Kanoon (Population Control Law). He is calling on people to write to Prime Minister Modi of the BJP party, and ask him to legislate population control. His efforts, he claims, have seen 150,000 letters being sent to Modi on the issue. He posts several times every day, often misinformation. His page is replete with photos, gifs and videos - one featuring a right-wing Hindu activist recommending a modern-day crusade against Muslims in Europe, another calling Muslims "Arabic slaves". He thinks government data indicating a slowing Muslim population growth rate is fake and manipulated.
Another group on Facebook, Ab Ek hi Maang - Jansankhya Niyantra Kanoon (A single aim - The Population Control Law) boasts more than 14,000 followers. In the northern city of Kanpur, a Facebook page entitled Jansankhya Niyantran Kanoon (Population Control Law) has over 9,400 followers.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp groups run by supporters of the BJP, are awash with xenophobic messages about Muslims, while pitching a population control law as the solution.
Public meetings are being held, by the Jansankhya Samadhan Foundation (or Population Resolution Foundation) NGO, for instance, blaming Muslims for India's population explosion. It is endeavouring to gather support for a march on New Delhi in October.
"If we don't bring in a law now, India will see a civil war very soon," said Chaudhary, the head the NGO "When we travel across the country, 95 percent of the people say that Muslims are driving India's population explosion. Hindus tell me, 'there is no point in telling us to control the population, you should tell the Muslims.' The thing is, this is the fact."
Chaudhary's meetings have been attended by a government minister, Giriraj Singh, and leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation linked to the ruling BJP party. Last year, Singh said that "only one community" was responsible for India's population explosion, referring to Muslims. Led by the RSS, organisations affiliated with the BJP such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have stoked fears around the country's Muslim population, asked for curbs on Muslim population growth, and pushed for Hindus to produce more children. The RSS has previously claimed that European nations, including Germany and France, are on their way to becoming "Islamic states" as a result of fast-growing Muslim communities.
In July, a BJP member of parliament, Rakesh Sinha, proposed a private member's bill - the Population Regulation Bill, 2019 - in the Indian Parliament, a move representing growing support for legislating population control. In May, another BJP leader, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, filed public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court, asking for a similar law, alleging that the population size was the "root cause of all crimes" in India.
Sinha told Al Jazeera that India's growing population has made the country restive and, while he stopped short outright of blaming Muslims, he advocated for "religious balance".
"There are three repercussions [of population growth] - regional imbalance within the country, where some regions have higher population than others; resource shortage and thereby, lack of equitable distribution and lastly, the religious balance that needs to be maintained," he said. When asked to elaborate on the cause of "religious imbalance", Sinha said he was busy and could not answer any further queries.
The last Indian census, held in 2011, showed that Hindus comprise 79.8 percent of the population while Muslims make up less than a fifth, at 14.2 percent. The proportion of Hindus relative to the country's population declined by 0.7 percent, according to that census, while the proportion of Muslims grew by 0.8 percent. Hindu nationalists have used these figures to buttress their argument.
Yet experts, such as Dr Al Sharada, director of Population First, a Mumbai-based NGO that works on health and population issues says, "Data also show that the Muslim fertility rate has come down more than the Hindu fertility rate. Despite this, there is a sense of paranoia that the Muslim population is increasing, which is driving the revival of the population agenda," said Sharada. She explained, "Calling for such a law is an entitled, privileged position and is always aimed at the poor and the disenfranchised."
Sharada pointed to recently released government data showing a sharp decline in India's population growth. "There is a flawed understanding that our problems emanate from a scarcity of resources," she told Al Jazeera, "whereas they emanate from a flawed distribution of resources."