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The politics of Indian census data September 24, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

Indian governments spend enormous resources to collect data — including 12 billion and 22 billion rupees on decennial censuses in 2001 and 2011, respectively. Yet they appear reluctant to release it. The latest decennial census data on religion, for example, which were released on 25 August 2015, were collected almost half a decade ago in 2011.

 

During the past 15 years, governments of both national parties have on more than one occasion deferred to political expediency on the question of releasing demographic data disaggregated by communities. In the process governments have contributed to the politicisation of statistics. The troubled past of the census data on religion reveals systemic problems insofar as the statistical wing of the government is insufficiently insulated from politics.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that conducted the 2001 census did not release the religion data. The data were released after the 2004 elections by the United Progressive Alliance I (UPA-I).

The NDA’s reluctance can perhaps be explained by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist commitments. Given the relatively higher growth rate of the Muslim population, the increase in the population share of Muslims was inevitable. So, if the NDA had released the data it would have seemingly validated the Hindu right’s concerns about the Islamic demographic ‘threat’ and the BJP-led coalition government would have come under enormous pressure to suggest steps to address the ‘problem’. Later, when the UPA-I released the data, the BJP promptly published a collection of articles to expose the hypocrisy of secular parties that overlook the threat posed by the higher growth rate of Muslims.

More recently, weeks before the 2014 elections, the BJP attacked ‘anti-national’ UPA-II for ‘suppressing census figures [on religion]’ because it was ‘ashamed to admit its failure to take the Muslims out of deep poverty’. Yet the present BJP government failed to release the data until recently. The party seemed unsure about how it will be affected by the release of the data on religion ahead of elections in five major states with above national average Muslim population shares.

After the release of the data right wing ideologues have revived the debate about alleged ‘population jihad’ that is disturbing inter-community demographic balance. They have suggested that access to government welfare schemes should be made conditional upon family size and violation of two-child norm should be criminalised. Unsurprisingly, the media has unanimously questioned the release of data weeks ahead of assembly elections in the state of Bihar.

But it is not clear why the UPA-II did not release the 2011 census data on religion. The explanatory note to question eight of the 2011 Census Household Schedule clearly links the identification of scheduled castes to their religious affiliation. The latter is canvassed in question seven. This means that the caste and religion data have to be sorted simultaneously. Information about caste (and even tribe) from 2011 was available as early as 30 April 2013, a year ahead of the May 2014 parliamentary elections. Even the religion data were leaked selectively to the media in January 2015.

Since only stripped down excel tables on major religions were released in August 2015, the government cannot justify the delay by arguing that it needed additional time after April 2013 or January 2015 to prepare a detailed report on religion or sort data about non-major religions. The delay in releasing religion data is particularly inexplicable because the time required to publish the data should decrease with the increasing use of information technology in census operations. Incidentally, the religion data from the March 1971 census were released in October 1972.

The delay reflects two deeper problems: growing political interference in the government’s statistical machinery and, possibly, a deepening communal crisis. This interference is reflected in the politically-motivated timing of the release of various datasets and reports as well as the disregard of expert advice on the design of data collection exercises, such as in the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census.

Countries such as Lebanon, Pakistan and Nigeria have failed to conduct censuses regularly due to ethnic conflict and political instability. The hesitation to release data on religion may indicate a similar communal crisis is emerging in India. In some Indian states — such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and, until the 1980s, Punjab — the intensity of power struggles between communities has already affected the quality of government statistics.

The Hindu–Muslim statistical conflict in India began with the politicisation of religion and census during the colonial period. Muslims have feared the Hindu majority since the late 19th century; the Hindu fear of the fecund Muslim goes back to the first decade of the 20th century. The introduction of communal electorates in 1909 and the communal partition of Bengal in 1905 accentuated the political significance of demographic statistics. A number of influential pamphlets were published in the early-1900s, which continue to inspire propaganda in independent India. Interestingly, the same colonial census data that convinced Muslims that they were at the mercy of an unassailable Hindu majority, also convinced Hindus that they were a dwindling community soon to be eclipsed by Muslims.

In 1941, before the communal partition of British India, all communities inflated their headcounts in the undivided provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Eastern India also witnessed a struggle over the religious identity of tribes, who were seen as a swing community. After independence, Indian Punjab witnessed a protracted Hindu–Sikh power struggle disguised as a Punjabi–Hindi language conflict. The Kashmir Valley continues to be unprepared to accept any headcount that affects the Muslim majority status of Jammu and Kashmir or weakens the electoral dominance of Kashmiri Muslims in the state legislative assembly. Assamese (Hindus) have similar concerns regarding (Muslim) Bengalis. The ongoing debate on extending affirmative action — a quota system for public jobs, public university placings and elected assemblies — to scheduled caste Christians and Muslims is likely to further politicise the census.

Unfortunately, information technology and advanced statistical tools cannot resolve problems that have roots in a divisive political culture. Strengthening the autonomy of government’s statistical wing, though essential, is insufficient to address the problem. Other government bodies that contribute to transparency in the public sector, such as the Information Commission, need to be strengthened. The participation of non-governmental stakeholders needs to be encouraged both during data collection and dissemination. Unless these steps are taken community level data in India will continue to be amenable to politicisation, which ultimately cuts to the credibility of the government data in general.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

First published on East Asia Forum, 18 September 2015.

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The Emperor’s mangoes and horses, and his daggers and swords February 5, 2015

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Vikas Kumar

There are more than a hundred places in India named by or after Aurangzeb. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) has floated a petition to rename one of them, the Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, after Guru Tegh Bahadur. The petitioners argued: ‘No street is named after Hitler in the West, yet in New Delhi we have Aurangzeb Road.’ The DSGMC General Secretary added that ‘a public place named after Aurangzeb in secular India is inappropriate.’ We are obliged to confront, yet again, the matter of how to engage with our past.

Aurangzeb

Aurangzeb

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Doubly anachronistic December 8, 2014

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Vikas Kumar

In a recent address, on the occasion of the rededication of Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai, the Prime Minister claimed that Karna’s birth outside a womb was evidence that ancient Indians knew genetic science, whereas the episode of Lord Ganesh acquiring an elephant’s head showed that they also knew plastic surgery. A few days later, the Home Minister and a senior legislator of the ruling party went a step further and claimed that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle was inspired by Hindu scriptures. As if this was not enough, a historian close to the ruling party suggested that Ancient India had aircrafts and nuclear weapons. While the criticism that followed mostly focused on how the Hindu Right’s sense of history is deeply flawed, this article explores incoherence in the right wing’s use of history.

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The caste of the Modi effect May 30, 2014

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Vikas Kumar

Before this year’s parliamentary election, it was a truism that the national parties of India were led by English/Hindi-speaking upper castes. Even Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Jat leader from western Uttar Pradesh who was the prime minister during 1979-80, did not lead a national party in a parliamentary election. The other side of the glass ceiling erected by the upper castes spawned regional caste-based parties, whose founders saw no future for themselves and their communities within the national parties. Narendra Modi has broken the glass ceiling and joined the national leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hitherto a bastion of upper castes. Unlike Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh who served as the BJP president during 2000-01, Modi is not a convenient façade for a party otherwise dominated by upper castes. Equally importantly, unlike his prime ministerial predecessors who with the exception of Deve Gowda were primarily based in Delhi, he spent most of his political career in a medium-sized non-Hindi speaking province. His spectacular rise needs to be examined from the perspective of how it reworked caste equations within his party and how caste played a subtle role in his successful campaign.

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Caught between Ramraj and Swaraj April 1, 2014

Posted by ruthgamble in : India, Kumar, Vikas , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

In the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary election in India, a few political parties initially tried to choose candidates through innovative methods. For instance, the Congress, India’s oldest political party, briefly flirted with the idea of holding elections within the party to select candidates. On the other hand, a key feature of the selection procedure of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), one of the youngest parties, was a nomination form for prospective candidates, which checked among other things if applicants were familiar with the book Swaraj written by the party’s National Convener. Candidates were given eleven lines to share their opinion regarding this “manifesto of the India of tomorrow”. The mini-book reviews were supposedly meant to serve as screening devices. We can use the book for other purposes, though. For instance, it can help us understand the counter-institutional policies of AAP’s short-lived government in Delhi. Here we will use the book to compare the historical narratives that inform BJP’s Ramraj (government fashioned after the epic state ruled by Lord Rama of Ayodhya) and AAP’s Swaraj (self-rule). (more…)

Can the AAP click elsewhere? December 16, 2013

Posted by aungsi in : Kumar, Vikas , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

Launched by anti-corruption crusaders last year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) defied expectations in the recent Delhi assembly elections. It has shaken up the national parties of India, who thought elections could be reduced to the choice between their prime ministerial candidates. Can the AAP replicate its success elsewhere in the country?

The AAP was fortunate that Anna Hazare undertook his fast in Delhi. The party’s fight for the city of Delhi was simultaneously the fight for control over a state as well as the national capital. Had Anna fasted in Mumbai or Kolkata and the AAP launched there, it would not have appealed to the popular imagination in equal measure, which in turn would have affected its ability to attract donations and volunteers. Delhi also provided the party with other advantages that allowed it to avoid suspect money and launch an intense door-to-door campaign at a low cost.

 

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Nurturing India’s linguistic diversity October 11, 2013

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Vikas Kumar

While we still do not have a definitive estimate of India’s linguistic diversity, the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ Ethnologue (17th edition) reports 461 languages from India, compared to the 122 languages with more than 10,000 speakers reported in the 2001 Census and nearly 800 languages counted by the recently concluded People’s Linguistic Survey of India. But a simple headcount could be misleading because, on the one hand, about 17% of the languages listed in the Ethnologue are extinct or endangered and, on the other, 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and their “dialects” together account for more than 95% of India’s population. Furthermore, only 10% of the languages listed in the Ethnologue are used in educational institutions, whereas less than 5% languages account for most of the publications. The rest of the languages are unable to thrive even in fields like entertainment. For instance, in recent years, the Central Board of Film Certification has received submissions in about 5% of the languages. But three languages accounted for 45% of the films produced and more than 90% of the dubbed films.

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The missing and unacknowledged Qurans October 12, 2012

Posted by auriolweigold in : Kumar, Vikas, South Asia - General , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

The Quran has received a lot of attention in recent times. On the one hand, alleged desecrations of the Quran by NATO forces in Afghanistan or citizens of NATO countries have more than once triggered massive protests across the Islamic world. On the other, critics of ‘Islamic’ extremism have tried to trace its roots to the Quran.

The second kind of attention is of interest to us here. Two points are worth noting in this regard. The core Islamic theology cannot be causally related to violence involving Muslims. And, even if portions of the Quran that are not part of the core theology can be linked to religious violence, we need a more nuanced understanding of such links. In the ancient world knowledge was one seamless realm and means of preserving it were scarce. Religious texts often served as intergenerational carriers of whatever communities found worth preserving, including advice on warfare and statecraft. In short, the ‘theological’ roots of complex modern socio-political developments like Islamic terrorism/extremism are nebulous. But there is a largely ignored aspect of the Quran, potentially related to Islamic extremism and religious violence involving Muslims outside the Arab world, which would bear closer examination. (more…)

Reviving local level democracy in India July 13, 2012

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Vikas Kumar, Alok Tiwari and Ragupathy Venkatachalam

India is suffering from policy paralysis due to a crisis of credibility across the political system. The world’s largest democracy is threatened by a growing disconnect between the electorate and elected representatives, which is expressed as distrust and a general sense of a lack of accountability of the latter. Money and power are partly to blame for this disconnect, as is the first-past-the-post electoral system. This is evident at the local level where India’s democracy tends to degenerate into ethnocracies that disenfranchise smaller groups.

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India and Australia: The end of estrangement? April 4, 2012

Posted by nishankmotwani in : India, Kumar, Vikas , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

Reprinted from Clingendael Asia Forum at the Clingendael Asia Studies, 9 December 2011. Read the full story.

On the eve of the visit of US President Barack Obama, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared that Australia is willing to reconsider its ban on uranium exports to India. The ban is widely believed to be a major obstacle to a stronger India—Australia relationship, which has so far remained weak despite numerous, and shared maritime security concerns. While estrangement during the Cold War was understandable, Australia’s and India’s subsequent inability to forge a closer relationship is not. Gillard’s latest move is being seen as a game changer that will end strategic discrimination against India and signal Australia’s willingness to shed its Cold War blinkers and come to terms with the end of India’s nuclear isolation. It is unfair, however, to expect a dramatic improvement in the India-Australia relationship as a consequence of lifting the ban.