By P.V. Durga:
As children, most of us have been told the story about the elephant and the blind men. They touch different parts of the elephant to try and understand what it looks like. Since each of them touches only one part of the elephant such as the tail or tusk, they end up believing that the elephant in itself is what they have touched. They are unable to fathom it as a collection of all their interpretations about its form. This is exactly what the recent fiasco about the religious census data seems like. The data was not contextualized, and each media house chose to highlight its own interpretation of the data.
The data contained facts about the decadal growth rates of the population of various religions, collected as a part of the 2011 census. It said that India has 966.3 million Hindus who make up 79.8% of the population, 172.2 million Muslims who constitute 14.23% of the population, and Christians and Sikhs with a share of 2.3% and 1.72% respectively. In addition, it also included figures about Buddhist population with a share of 0.7% and Jains who make for 0.4% of the population. What was amusing here was how most newspapers chose to draw comparisons between Hindu and Muslim populations and use them as their headlines, ignoring figures about other religions (remember, Sikh and Buddhist populations declined by 0.2% and 0.1% respectively over the decade).
When such numbers pose the risk of being open to interpretative variations, authorities should have shown some responsibility by historically contextualizing the data and providing explanation for the findings. Given the fact that topics concerning religion have the potential to spark off massive debates in India, it becomes all the more important to present such data with prudence. Apparently, the Census Officials were “barred” by the Home Ministry from speaking about the data. Also, the Additional Registrar General mentioned that the lack of contextualization was “intentional” so that people may interpret it as they wish.
It is also necessary to question the timing of the release of the data. Apparently, the figures collected as part of the 2011 census had been ready since late 2013, but the Home Ministry chose to release it only now. With assembly elections due in Bihar, West Bengal and Assam which have significant Muslim populations, politicisation of the data by the BJP to gain the support of Muslim population seems imminent.
The need of such data, which is divisive in nature, needs to be questioned, because the responsibility of the authorities does not end with releasing the figures alone. Moreover, using them as political trump cards during elections means that the government is pursuing majoritarian agendas. Figures about decadal growth rates, fertility rates and sex ratio which were part of the data released ought to wake the government up to “development interventions” through education, family planning, gender equity and economic development across all religions, including the minorities.
For a country that has constantly struggled to keep its unity intact despite the multiple layers of diversity in its population, such data perpetuates the differences. While it is true that it may present the needs of changing diversity, it is best that such numbers be confined to the policy making and implementation levels, and not be politicized. Otherwise, the idea of “unity in diversity” may seem like a distant dream.