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The game of numbers

Print edition : Oct 14, 2000 T+T-

A larger political battle is being fought, on expressly communal lines, over the 2001 Census in Jammu and Kashmir, as the elites engage in a divisive debate on the State's demographic profile.

FEW residents of the Kashmir Valley will be surprised when troops in full battle gear come knocking on their doors. But they might be surprised when the soldiers do not demand information on terrorists: and when the nondescript men accompanying them set about filling in a long questionnaire on employment details and household appliances, among other details.

Over 10,000 government officials are scheduled to be escorted from door to door through the Valley from late October to conduct the second phase of the 2001 Census survey. The reasons for this extraordinary exercise are not hard to see. On September 7, H izbul Mujahideen commander Masood Tantrey warned of an Indian conspiracy to alter the State's demographic profile, and demanded that the census process be terminated. "If the government does not heed to the warning," he said, "we will not desist from ope ning our guns at them." "If any one of the 22,000 government employees is seen participating in the census operation," the Lashkar-e-Taiba's Abu Ubaid affirmed in turn, "he or she will be killed without warning." But even this drama is eclipsed by the la rger political battle being fought over the census in Jammu and Kashmir, a battle which could lead to a serious communal conflagration in the not-too-distant future.

Most observers simply put terrorists threats directed at the census down to social science illiteracy. Tantrey, one of the militants who met Union Government officials in August for dialogue after the Hizb announced a ceasefire, claimed that the census w as futile when "so many had migrated and thousands of youth had either gone underground or were reported missing." He evidently did not understand that those who had left the Valley would be enumerated at their current places of residence, or that failur e to enumerate "thousands" of missing youth would not be of great statistical significance in the context of an estimated population of 10 million. Some people argued that Tantrey, who attacked the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) for its silence o n the matter of the census, was just scoring political points. The only people who seemed concerned about the terrorist proclamations were employees' unions, for the very good reason that their members were under threat.

Former Union Minister and National Conference rebel Saifuddin Soz' intervention on the issue could not, however, be so easily dismissed. At a September 6 press conference, which evidently prompted the Hizb's threats, Soz charged that census figures had b een manipulated to show that the Muslim population of Jammu and Kashmir had been declining as a percentage of the total population, and that its growth in the Jammu region had been dramatically lower than that of Hindus. In a written statement issued at a subsequent press conference on September 13, Soz fleshed out his position. "The lone Muslim majority State had been characterised as one of the strongest elements of India's secular edifice," he noted, "and any manoeuvring and dishonest effort to tampe r with this character of the population ratio must be ruthlessly discouraged and condemned."

Polemical posture, at certain points, appeared to have overtaken reason in Soz' written statement. It, for example, insisted that census figures showed a fall in the Muslim population in the State, whereas in fact they only record a decline in its percen tage share of the total population. His use of the words "ruthlessly discouraged" led to allegations of collusion with the Hizbul Mujahideen. Nonetheless, Soz' figures demand close examination. The 1991 Census recorded that Muslims constituted 68.30 per cent of the State's population of 35,60,976 people. In 1971, that figure fell to 65.85 per cent, and then in 1981 to 64.19 per cent. By contrast, the percentage of all non-Muslims, overwhelmingly Hindus, grew from 31.70 per cent in 1961 to 34.15 per cent in 1971, and then 32.24 per cent in 1981. No census could be conducted in 1991, because of the escalation of terrorist violence in the State.

Soz' statement focussed further on events within Jammu. In Doda district, he noted, census figures showed that the Hindu population had grown by 47.23 per cent between 1971 and 1981, but that of Muslims by only 11.97 per cent. In Udhampur, the figures fo r the same period were 45 per cent against 6.35 per cent and in Rajouri, 47.72 per cent against 33.01 per cent. Muslim populations in the two districts showed a decline. The Hindu population of Kathua grew by 39.31 per cent, while the Muslim population f ell by 14.57 per cent. The fall was the most precipitate in Jammu, where the Hindu population grew by 36.14 per cent, and the Muslim population fell by 29.98 per cent. "How," Soz asked, "could the Hindu community mark a steep rise in its population growt h, and Muslims not only fall but fall below the State's average population growth? Did Muslims adopt family planning and score a march over other communities? Did any natural calamity occur during these decades especially to deal with Muslims?"

Commissioner of Census Operations Firoze Ahmad does not appear impressed by Soz, or his figures. "He's talking nonsense," the bureaucrat says. "He has the published figures, but does not seem to have made an effort to understand what they mean." Ahmad is ready with figures of his own, and lays them out piece by piece. "Let's take the case of Jammu," he begins, "and try and understand why the percentage of Muslims enumerated there declined." In 1961, the census operations were conducted in February, and in 1971, in mid-March. Census operations in 1981 were, however, conducted in April. Large populations of government employees move between Jammu and Srinagar for six months a year. During the 1961 and 1971 census operations, over 15,000 employees and the ir families would have been present in Jammu, but in 1981, they would have begun the process of moving back to Srinagar and been enumerated there.

Ahmad explains in similar terms the apparent fall in the percentage of the Muslim population of Kathua. The district's Muslim population is concentrated in areas like Lohar Malhar and Bani, and consists of large numbers of Gujjar and Bakkarwal nomadic he rdsmen. "Again, in 1981, a large number of these people would have moved on to pastures up in the mountains," he notes. "I'd be the first to admit that the enumeration of nomadic communities was poor, but that's an all-India problem, not one restricted t o Jammu and Kashmir." This year, he continues, special efforts have been made to ensure that Gujjars and Bakkarwals are properly counted. Officials from the Gujjar Development Board, a community organisation, have been recruited to supervise the enumerat ion process, and physically monitor the forest check-points through which herds pass through each summer on their way to high pastures.

Ahmad is also dismissive of Soz' allegations of a conspiracy to tamper with the figures. "What he didn't tell the media," Ahmad points out, "is that the population growth of Muslims massively outstripped that of Hindus in five of six districts in Kashmir Valley between 1971 and 1981. In Badgam, the one district where the growth of the Hindu population was higher than that of Muslims, it was because the Kashmiri-Pandit dominated areas of Barzulla, Rawalpora and Hyderpora, on the outskirts of Srinagar cit y, had been transferred to the revenue district of Badgam." Another important factor is that the total fertility rates for rural Hindus in the State has been established, in successive studies, to be higher than that of Muslims. "The fact is that educati on, healthcare, and economic wellbeing define fertility rates, not religion," Ahmad points out. "Soz seems to agree with Hindu communalists who say Muslims have more children because of their religion."

The slow decline of the percentage share of Muslims in the State's total population may also be driven by the influx of industrial and agricultural workers and as part of the then booming tourism industry. "Look," Ahmad says, "if the government of India was engaged in a sinister plot to flood the State with migrants, it wouldn't have advertised it in the census figures. The fact is, we just record who lives where. And each census form is signed by local employees." Soz' fear that the enumeration of migr ants will allow them to be recorded as State subjects, Ahmad says, is also unfounded. "The numbers of Army and paramilitary force personnel is submitted directly to the Registrar-General's (of Census Operations) office," he asserts, "and the place of bir th of migrants is clearly recorded." In fact, the census shows that the numbers of some categories of migrants, like Partition refugees who were denied state subject status, has fallen steadily.

SADLY, few independent demographers in the State or outside it, have seen it fit to intervene in this debate. It is possible that if they did, no one would be listening. Local media debate on the census issue, for example, frequently makes reference to t he 1987 Census, which is asserted to have shown that the numbers of Muslims as a percentage of State subjects was also declining. The document is in fact a record of the percentage of State subjects who belonged to specified Scheduled Castes and Schedule d Tribes. And it has gone wholly unnoticed that the first phase of the census process, during which gross population figures are enumerated, was in fact completed between March 16 and June 5, without event. Sources at the Registrar-General's office told Frontline that a "very preliminary" study had shown a rise in the population from 59 lakhs in 1981 to a little over twice that number in line with projections made by experts.

What forces, then, drive the debate? Interestingly, the Hindu Right in Jammu has sought to play on exactly the kind of fears raised by Soz. At a September 19 press conference, BJP members of the Legislative Assembly Piara Singh and Ashok Khajuria announc ed the existence of a State government-run plot to settle Muslims in Jammu and alter its demographic profile. The MLAs claimed that State support had led to the construction of 35,000 homes in Jammu by Muslim migrants over the past seven years, and deman ded a white paper on the communal issue. On October 1, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) formally announced support in Jammu for plans to sunder the State into three along its existing provincial and ethnic-religious fault lines. The demand, which ha s long had the backing of the Hindu Right in Jammu, is ironically similar to proposals by Islamic chauvinists to carve out an independent Muslim State, with Jammu and Kashmir's Hindu majority areas remaining with the Indian Union.

It is hard to see Soz, whose secular credentials have been impeccable, as a born-again Islamic chauvinist. "How can anyone make such an allegation," he asks. "I have never sided with communalism, and I have paid a high price for my refusal to do so." The fact remains, however, that the census controversy has played itself out on expressly communal lines, something he can hardly claim to have failed to anticipate. Ironically enough, successive census surveys themselves illustrate the real problem in the State, which has been ignored ever since the collapse of the N.C.'s early, aggressive secular mobilisations. Census figures suggest a steady migration of Hindus into Hindu-dominated districts and towns, and of Muslims into Muslim majority areas. It is th is process of communal consolidation, manufactured by communal politicians, that underpins the divisive debate on demography.

It takes little to see just how deep communal fissures run in the State today. On September 23, the Srinagar Police arrested millionaire businessman Wasim Khatib on charges of helping to build an overground network for the ultra-right al-Badr terrorist o rganisation. Khatib's brother, Nadeem Khatib, left training as a commercial pilot in the United States and trained in Afghanistan before he was killed by the Border Security Force in Udhampur last year. The businessman then joined al-Badr leader Arifeen Khan, who uses the code name Lukmaan, to finish the war his brother had joined. Interestingly, Khatib was a prominent member of the Srinagar Golf Club, and his membership was sponsored by Nasir Sogami, who is among Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's closes t friends. Sources told Frontline that Khan escaped arrest after police officials, apprehensive of Khatib's association with Sogami, failed to search his house. Sogami had ensured the suspension of a police inspector earlier this year after the of ficial confiscated his car in the course of an investigation into stolen vehicles.

There is nothing to show that Sogami knew of Khatib's activities, and, indeed, it is probable that he knew nothing. The fact remains, however, that Khatib's role in al-Badr illustrates just how deeply the Valley's elites are now committed to religious ch auvinism.

THINGS are not much different in Jammu. Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Chaman Lal Gupta's pet project, a new terminal at Jammu, consists of five temple-style pagoda structures, staring out across the tarmac at a Sufi shrine, which for hundred s of years has been venerated by both Hindus and Muslims. The temple pagodas are an unmistakable symbol of the deep climate of hatred in Jammu, which has expressed itself in riot after riot over the past three years.

The census, then, is just a pretext for a religious war, led by the competing elites of Srinagar and Jammu. It, most certain, will not end when the last census enumerator returns home.