The Rampant Politicization of Indian Census Data Must Stop


When the prejudiced start peddling their beliefs as fact, you know society is in trouble. For long, some in India have nurtured rumors that India’s Hindu majority will be overridden by a growing Muslim minority. They claim that the Hindu population is in danger of being outnumbered by Muslims if serious efforts are not made to stem the rising demographic profile of minorities in the country. They further argue that the demography of many districts of the northeastern state of Assam is shifting due to the rising infiltration of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Such paranoia has become a part of popular discourse in India today.

Of course, it’s none other than the Hindu right wing peddling this paranoia. The right in India now has new statistics to whip up Islamophobia in the country: new census data covering the period between 2001-2011 shows that the Hindu population in the last decade has decreased and slumped to 79.8 percent of the country. On the other hand, Muslims now comprise 14.2 percent of the country, representing a growth of 2.46 percent over the same period. In the meantime, Hindus grew by just 1.68 percent.

Statistics, however, are moot. They speak in the way we’d like them to.

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For Hindu right wing groups, the data is enough to entrench further fear in the minds of people. They say that for the first time, the Hindu majority community’s population has fallen below 80 percent and that some actions need to be taken to contain these demographic trends.

Professor Rakesh Sinha of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an ideological cousin of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says that the decline of the Hindu population below 80 percent “means that the Indian way of living is in danger.”

Meanwhile, Yoga guru Ramdev, a controversial figure associated closely with the BJP, says that a “need is being felt to make a law to arrest the growth of the population of a particular community as the population of Hindus and Sikhs is on a downward trend.”

Is the census data really as alarming as it is being made out to be by Hindu fanatics?

A simple and unbiased reading of the figures would reveal that the Muslim population has registered slower growth than Hindus in the last two decades. Between 1991-2001, the Muslim population grew by 2.95 percent. In the following decade, it came down to 2.46 percent, representing a slump of 0.49 percent. However, during the same period, Hindus came down from 1.99 percent to 1.68 percent, a decline of 0.31 percent.

The data clearly shows that it is the Muslim population which has registered more decline in growth rates rather than the Hindus.

But the Indian Home ministry, in its statement after the release of the data, said that the Muslim population is growing faster and that there is a fall in the share of Hindus in the country.

No doubt, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in Delhi is playing devious politics by misreading the census data.

Stoking fears of Muslim domination and propagating paranoia against the community has been a standard practice for the Hindu right-wing since the 1980s. The BJP came to occupy the national mainstream on a concerted campaign of anti-minoritism. With the party in power now, the fringe Hindu right is empowered to try and consolidate Hindu sentiment in favor of the ruling establishment.

Consider also that the timing of the announcement of the census data is also suspect. Political analysts say that the BJP has timed it with the Bihar elections, which are due next month. The party wants to polarize voters by invoking Muslim fears. This kind of political mobilization has worked for the ruling party in past and it hopes to recreate the same magic again.

Some critics question that if the BJP does not have any political motive in releasing the census data now, then why did it not publish the results of the caste census despite a clamour for this data from a majority of regional parties. The right-wing party thinks that if it releases the caste data, it might boomerang on the party as it would reveal the real socioeconomic status of different castes in India.

The BJP and other Hindu right-wing groups are scared of these stark facts as they affect their very political raison d’etre. They are manipulating statistics to serve their narrow political agenda.

Such parochial politics stands to poison the minds of the people. It risks entrenching a deep-seated prejudice against the country’s largest minority, which, in the long run, is not good for the health of the country.

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