Questions of timing and context

Numbers lend themselves to words in myriad, complex ways. Data on population by religious communities in a country of India’s size and diversity can be especially sensitive, with deep, long-term implications for communal harmony and political stability. Going by experience, population figures in terms of just religious affiliation will only serve as fodder for political groups pursuing conservative and majoritarian agendas. Without any correlation to other demographic features such as income, education, occupation and mortality rates, to merely present the rates of growth in the population of specific religious communities as stand-alone facts makes no sense at all. For a government to authorise the release of such potentially polarising data almost randomly, without taking any institutional responsibility, is highly questionable. The Registrar General of India, who reports to the Union Home Ministry, was given the clearance by the Prime Minister’s Office, but not enough thought appears to have gone into the issues that might crop up consequent to the release of such data. The release came unannounced, almost as a matter of routine. Neither the Home Ministry nor the PMO took responsibility: there was no media briefing by any minister or official, just the release of raw data without providing context. The inescapable conclusion is that the government was not worried about the sensitive nature of the data, and about their potentially divisive effects in the absence of explanatory addenda. All collections of data are value-neutral, but the manner of their release and potential for use and misuse are not.

Of course, even in 2004, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government allowed the release of the data on population by religious communities, the situation was not very different. The then Census Commissioner, J.K. Banthia, defended the release of demographic characteristics based on religious composition as being in the public interest and resulting ultimately in public good. Though the collection of data on religion has always been part of the census exercise, 2004 was the first time such data were released as a separate report. What is intriguing is that the manner of the release of the 2011 data is in sharp contrast to the care being taken in the release of the caste census of groups other than the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. If the release of such data is to serve any purpose, that should be to better direct policy initiatives to target socio-economic backwardness of specific groups. That the release was timed close to the Bihar Assembly election injects an unnecessary political taint. But what is most disconcerting is that the government did not step forward to take institutional responsibility, or to provide an explanation of why it was necessary to release such inherently polarising data without clear context. Governments are meant to uphold peace among communities; law and order is their primary responsibility. It is therefore important that when sensitive data of this kind are released, they take citizens into confidence on the context of such data.

Source: The Hindu

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#2015, #27, #august