India by numbers

The main lesson of the 2011 census: Stop using demographic data as a political weapon

The timing of the release of information on religious communities comes suspiciously before Bihar goes to the elections.

I love Haryana. It has the best Murrah cattle: a bull from Kurukshetra recently fetched an offer of Rs 7 crores. Despite the khaps and the traffic jams and water crisis, Gurgaon – the state's pride – is most likely to achieve smart city status in the near future.  It is also, after Bihar, the state where Christianity has made its surge this century, according to the religion-wise data of the 2011 census released this week. That has got some people, especially the local media, very worried.

The Haryana figures showed an 85.22% rise in the Christian population. That is huge by any count. There are visions of large-scale conversions. There have been several incidents in the recent past that show that local politicians have been trying to milk the issue, for perhaps the figures were leaked to them, as was done in some other states for Muslims. Not so long ago, Jhajjar's district magistrate enforced section 144 of the criminal procedure code relating to unlawful assembly to prevent worship inside a house that was being used as a church. Elsewhere, a church building under construction was attacked.

According to the 2001 census, Haryana  had a mere 27,185 Christians.  In the 2011 census, this figure has gone up to  50,353. That works out to an increase of 23,168 more people.  Most of this is because people from Delhi and other states bought apartments in Gurgaon and Faridabad, which serve as bedroom communities for the capital. Migration to Haryana's industrial towns is another reason for the increase in Christians. In absolute terms, the number of Hindus in Haryana grew by 35 lakh 15 thousand people. Sikhs increased by 73,000.

Stagnant numbers

The census shows a stagnation, if not a small decline, in India's Christian population. The government's press release on the census said that there has been "no significant change in the proportion of Christians and Jains" but does not explain at what level change becomes significant.

In fact, Christian-majority Nagaland  shows a marked decline of 2.83%. Nagaland, in the Sangh books, is deemed to be a state where the Christian majority poses threat to the security of India. It is only in states where the numbers were small that there is a notional rise in the percentage of  Christians. This is because the base value of the Christian population is so small that even a minor increase in numbers shows up  as a rise in percentage. This is the situation in Haryana.

The government, after selective leaks for the past year or so, has officially stated that the proportion of Hindus in the total population in 2011 declined by 0.7 percentage points over the decade; the proportion of the Sikh population declined by 0.2 percentage points and the Buddhist population declined by 0.1 percentage points. The proportion of Muslims increased by 0.8 percentage points.

Demography ought to be a subject of development economists and planners but it has, since perhaps the Emergency of 1975, become a weapon for politicians. The Bharatiya Janata Party, and its theoreticians and ideologues in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are masters at wielding it, as is obvious from a cursory look at the official RSS mouth pieces, the Hindi-language Panchjanya and the English-language Organiser.

Targetting Abra

Muslims are the main target. But the RSS has also made huge political capital (and vast sums of money) from devout Hindus among the NRI diaspora, claiming they will be swamped and overwhelmed by the “alien Abrahamic religions” of Christianity and Islam. Venomous slogans have been coined against both Muslims and Christians. While Muslims are presented as pro-Pakistan and terrorists, Indian Christians are painted as secessionists who devour Indian cultural values. To counter this, Sangh leaders have been calling for the disenfranchisement of Christians, curbs on Muslims and exhorting Hindu women to have anything from four to ten children in this Demographic Great War.

In fact, the population of Sikhs and Buddhists is proportionately decreasing. Buddhists, especially, have been one of the major religions in India for 2,500 years and their current figures are cause for civilisational concern.

So where are the  "cryptic Christians" of Sangh folklore, who list themselves as Hindus or as people of no religions?  It isn't implausible that some Christians may not tell the census enumerator their religion, opting for “no-religion". One of the causes is the criminal ban on Christian and Muslims converts from former untouchable castes being allowed to avail of employment, electoral and education reservations. Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists, also egalitarian religions, face no such ban. This matter is now in the Supreme Court. It is effectively a strong nation-wide anti conversion law operating on the Dalits.  But all this talk of crypto-Christians is also political diatribe.

Misrepresenting tribal faiths

Enumerators also routinely write "Hindu" for any person who names a tribal religion, or even if she says she is an atheist.  This explains the small numbers that turn up for “other” religions despite the very large numbers of tribal people in Central India who are of pre-Aryan and pre-Hindu civilisations.

The crucial thing is the timing of these releases.  A large component of Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign was the vitriol against Islam. The entire Sangh edifice is built in response to the Muslim presence in India. It uses Islamophobia as an effective mobilisation and polarising tool. The Bihar elections are going to be held soon. Bihar has a sizeable Muslim population. The timing of the release of this religious community data is definitely aimed at influencing the electorate.

Many have been demanding for long that India release all quantified and desegregated data of the decennial census soon after the census exercise is over, instead of releasing it in driblets to suit its political imperatives and motives. The caste survey has just been completed, but the government has not released that because the results may not suit the party whose political base still continues to be the upper castes and the aspirational middle-income classes.

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