The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The census bungling was bad enough, what lies behind it is worse

The furore over the census figures for Indian Muslims recalls Ying Ma, a Chinese American campaigner against black militancy, describing racism as 'the hate that dare not speak its name'. Hate begets hate. It also often masks fear which explains the far more crude posturing of Britain's shadowy White Nationalist Party. Indian Muslims owe it to themselves and to national harmony not to give the WNP's Hindu equivalent any excuse for mischief.

Statistically, fears of being overwhelmed are not without substance. Two east London townships already have more Afro-Asians than native whites. The demographic composition of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and West Bengal's border districts has changed. Substantial groups of people in both countries are disinclined to treat such change as normal evolution, unlike the United States of America which faces a mixed future with equanimity. Bill Clinton's acknowledgment in 1998 that 'a half century from now'there will be no majority race in America' means that whites, blacks, Chicanos and Asians will balance each other in the world's greatest melting pot.

WNP literature preys on the fear that Britain's coloured population (Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Africans, Indians, West Indians in the order of family size), which increased from 6 per cent in 1991 to 9 per cent in 2001, will be the majority 64 years from now. 'We're being bred out of existence,' it laments. No wonder the British Office for National Statistics did not disclose ethnic figures until 1991. In India, Jayanti Kumar Banthia's report for 2001 was the first ever based on religion. Political sensitivity explains official reticence on the subject of minorities, racial or religious. While enlightened white Britons are now prepared to co-exist amicably with the Asians and Africans in their midst, the 1991 finding that whites accounted for 94.5 per cent of the population also assures them that WNP propaganda notwithstanding, they have little reason to be afraid of being swamped.

British liberals and Indian secularists both pay lip service to the concept of a society based on the universal brotherhood of man but ideals often vanish the moment tribal loyalties are seriously challenged. There is, however, an internal reason for the difference between the US on the one hand and Britain and India on the other. Regardless of origin, all minority groups in the US subscribe to the American dream and aspire to the same totems of success. Harmony is based on the uniformity of taste in food, dress, housing, education and leisure activities. In contrast, most immigrants in Britain still live in cultural isolation, while Indian Muslims seem more and more determined to keep the mainstream at bay.

How great the gulf is was unwittingly exposed when the respected population expert, Ashish Bose, was at pains to announce that despite Banthia's controversial figures, 'the Muslim community has actually declined at a greater rate than the Hindus.' What he should have declared bluntly was that religious composition makes no difference to the national label in a state that sees all its citizens as equal, and that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh anxieties reflect disgracefully on India's casteless, creedless ideal. But such a claim would be too far removed from reality to be taken seriously. Hence, a well-meaning statement that actually concedes, albeit implicitly, the legitimacy of the fears expressed by M. Venkaiah Naidu and other RSS worthies who warn darkly that at this rate the subcontinent will have more Muslims than Hindus by 2050.

Bose advised them not to worry on this score because the statistical evidence does not support their misgivings: the RSS can note with relief that there is no danger of Muslims ever equalling or outnumbering Hindus. Of course, it was not Bose's intention to support the RSS thesis that it would be calamitous for 'India's unity' if they did but that is the effect conveyed. It is all the more revealing of general Hindu thinking for being unintentional and instinctive.

Repeated in a British or Indian context, Clinton's revolutionary view of the future would overthrow all accepted notions of what either country stands for. Understandably, therefore, the Bharatiya Janata Party government shied away from allowing Banthia's figures to be published. The BJP might arguably have been able to make political capital out of the suggestion of high Muslim growth but the claim would also have been social dynamite. The BJP may have felt that the risk of a violent fall-out outweighed the possibility of electoral gain.

It is curious, however, that it did not tumble to the astonishingly simple explanation offered by the present government. We are now told that the Muslim growth rate appeared to have gone up by 1.5 per cent to 36 per cent in 1991-2001 only because Jammu and Kashmir's 6.7 million Muslims were not included in the 1991 census and that this was no more than a 'clerical' error. The plea is that when the figures are 'adjusted' in light of the Jammu and Kashmir population, they prove comfortingly that there is no need to worry: the Muslim growth rate actually plummeted from 34.5 per cent to 29.3 per cent during this period. Hindu ascendancy faces no danger.

If this were all, why did the BJP not spot the omission' Why, for that matter, did Banthia himself not make the correction before being forced to do so by the public reaction' There may well be innocent explanations for both lapses but the lay public is always sceptical about official figures and does not take kindly to chopping and changing. Mark Twain's comment about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind.

Returning to the underlying cause of the census controversy, the parallel between India and Britain is valid only up to a point. The crucial difference lies in the minority's identity. While Britain (like France, Germany and the Netherlands) faces the challenge of settlers from abroad (though 50 per cent of coloured British were born in the country), India's minority is indigenous and, therefore, immune even to the theoretical threat of deportation. Our 138 million Muslims are as Indian as our 19 million Sikhs, 24 million Christians, or Hindus who comprise 80.5 per cent of the population. The problem of adjustment and accommodation is thus a national problem, as much a problem of Muslims as of Hindus.

Whether Muslims are conscious of their responsibility in this respect is another matter. The worldwide spirit of assertiveness is most evident in countries where Muslims are in a minority. Bangladeshis have absorbed rituals like gaye holud into their marriage ceremonies as part of the Bengali heritage but that would be unthinkable in India. Mention has been made in these columns before of a Calcutta seminar where a maulvi ruled out ordinary schools or even part-time religious instruction because a Muslim child has to read the Quran first and last. From early childhood, therefore, he is taught to see himself as different. Similarly, Muslim housewives told a family planning worker I know in Andhra Pradesh to preach birth control to Hindus until numbers were equal. Syed Shahabuddin's objection to smashing a coconut at a ship launch or the insistence on a personal law that violates many canons of natural justice are other instances of the exclusiveness that plays into the hands of Hindu bigots. They are ready to accuse Muslims of deliberately making a bid to achieve numerical parity (or superiority) and of seeking to dilute what are generally regarded as the cultural characteristics of the Indian nation. Politicians pander to this separateness instead of enforcing Amartya Sen's prescription of women's education as one way of countering Muslim inversion.

The census bungling was bad enough. What lies behind it is infinitely worse. A community in a mental ghetto does honour neither to god nor to Caesar. By blurring the distinction between the two, it perpetuates its own backwardness and weakens the overall social fabric.

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