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Holding a mirror to society

Political reactions to crucial national issues are becoming more astonishing by the day. So we find the Minister of State for Home, Sriprakash Jaiswal, presumably grubbing for a few extra minority votes in the impending Maharashtra elections, demanding that data relating to various religious communities should be excluded from the Census of India reports. The demand is not isolated, and there has been a sustained attack on the Census on this ground, from certain parties claiming ‘secularism’ as their ideological justification, but in fact motivated by shallow electoral and political ends. It is not certain, as yet, that their fulminations will have real impact on the Census and its contents, but they are already doing untold damage to the fabric of this country and the relationship between its communities.

A Census holds up a mirror to society and to its constituent communities. The clearer and more detailed the image, the better we can understand our own strengths and weaknesses. As an unbiased index of a wide range of social parameters, it is crucial for an objective assessment of our own capacities and vulnerabilities. To believe or assert that it particularly shows off the infirmities of a specific community more than it does its advantages or achievements, is to succumb to our own prejudices.

I, as a Sikh, am both alarmed and deeply shamed by certain elements of the Census report. While data on education and economic profiles of the community is encouraging, the declining rate in population growth may possibly be a matter of transient concern. On the other hand, to the extent that this is, at least in part, a consequence of the high numbers of Sikhs migrating out of India, it is also testimony to the continuing dynamism of this community.

However, the fact that the Sikhs, today, have the worst sex ratio in the country (893, as against 931 for Hindus, 936 for Muslims and 1009 for Christians) is a matter of utter disgrace. The low sex ratio is also part of the reason why the growth rate of population has been depressed among Sikhs – the result of selective foeticide and a declining pool of women in the reproductive age group. This single statistic demonstrates how thin the veneer of civilization and modernity is, and how far the community has strayed from the egalitarian teachings of the Gurus. I would not, for any purported ‘national interest’ or transient vote bank political concern, have this data suppressed. It is a reminder to the community to take a hard look at its own abhorrent attitudes and practices, and their dangerous consequences for its own future.

To take the case of the Muslims – the issue that has most agitated Jaiswal and his ‘secular’ colleagues – the only difficulty with the release of the community-wise data was, in fact, the manner in which it was projected in the initial stages, suppressing the information that the much higher apparent rates of growth among Muslims were the consequence of the fact that Kashmir had been left out of the 1991 Census. Whether this was mischievous, or simply the result of the mechanical structure of data presentation, is not clear, and may need some investigation. That misconception, however, has now been cleared, and it is useful to focus on what the Census actually says about the Muslims.

The Census has, for one thing, helped clear up many popular misconceptions and negative stereotypes regarding the Muslims. The sex ratio among Muslims is certainly better than both the Sikhs and the Hindus. The female literacy rate, at 50.1 per cent, is only marginally below the female literacy rate among Hindus, at 53.2 per cent. More significantly, the gap between the male and female literacy rates among Muslims, at nine per cent, is smaller than the gap between Hindu male and female literacy rates, at 11.9 per cent, though absolute rates for both males and females are higher among the Hindus. Nevertheless, the broad thrust of this data certainly militates against the majority stereotype.

It is undeniable, however, that, even at the ‘adjusted’ 29.3 per cent, the rate of growth of the Muslim population is well above the national average, and above that for other major communities (Hindus: 20.3 per cent; Christians: 22.6 per cent; Sikhs: 18.2 per cent). No community "is an island, entire of itself", and all are "a part of the main". India is a diverse, pluralistic culture, where all communities have lived together within a reasonable framework of accommodation and coexistence. Within such a framework, communities cannot mutually ignore or violate the spaces they respectively occupy, and there are boundaries that need to be respected. It is not only the Muslims, but also other communities – though they grow at comparatively lower rates – that need to be alarmed by the fact that their populations continue to grow at a pace that is not consistent with the prosperity and well-being of the country at large. No community can ignore the compulsions and imperatives of the age we live in, and there is urgent need for corrective action on this count. The most urgent correctives are needed, obviously, where the rates of growth are the highest – and it is, consequently, not inappropriate that some alarm is expressed at the higher growth rates among Muslims. Communalising such concerns for short term political ends – by both ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ political formations – however, is a serious disservice to the nation.

But the Census did not end with a single global figure for the Muslims. It is useful to note that, despite the adverse stereotype of Muslim ‘resistance’ to the idea of population control, their rate of growth of population is declining – though at a pace that leaves much to be desired. More significantly – and consistently with data for all other communities worldwide – it is declining most rapidly in areas of prosperity and higher education. This is the simple reality: Muslim rates of growth of population are highest in the most backward areas of the country, where literacy rates are low, and where poverty is endemic. These trends are compounded by the relatively higher general poverty rates and lower work participation rates among the Muslims. This data is an open indictment, both of the Muslim leadership itself, and of the supposedly ‘secular’ parties that have treated this community as a vote bank for decades, but have done little to extract the Muslims from the backwardness and deprivation in which they remain largely mired to this day.

The Census data on religions is a crucial input for each community to reconstruct and reinvent itself in conformity with the imperatives of the age. Burying our heads in the sand – as Jaiswal and company recommend – is not a constructive response, though it has long been the favoured response of political parties to many a national crisis. If anything, there should be an appeal to further deepen the coverage of the Census, to the extent possible, to reflect greater detail of the social and economic profile of various communities, so that our actions and achievements can be brought into greater conformity with our own pretensions, projections and beliefs. Sustaining communal delusions, and pandering to sectarian misconceptions, is not an efficient pathway to nation-building.

(Published in The Pioneer, September 18, 2004)





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