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What good is a census without consensus?

Why CAA, NRC and NPR may have already damaged the 2021 census

Women queue up to check the final list at an NRC Sewa Kendra in Assam. Getty Images
Women queue up to check the final list at an NRC Sewa Kendra in Assam. Getty Images

The most famous census ever conducted is described in the Bible’s Gospel of Luke. Undertaken during the reign of King Herod, who was a Jewish vassal of the Roman empire, the headcount required all adult men to register in their ancestral homes. A descendant of King David named Joseph journeyed from Nazareth for this purpose, taking along his pregnant wife Mary, who gave birth in Bethlehem and was forced to care for her newborn son in a manger because the inns were all full.

Most historians believe Luke got his dates wrong. The only census recorded in Judaea during that era took place in the reign of the governor Quirinius, and was conducted immediately after Rome dethroned Herod’s son Archelaus to directly rule the region. That happened in 6 AD, 10 years after Herod’s death.

Not every citizen complied as meekly with the demands of Quirinius’ census as Joseph did with Herod’s. A man named Judas of Galilee (not to be confused with the Apostle Judas Iscariot), who denounced the idea of Jews being ruled by a Gentile power, formed a group of insurgents who came to be known as Zealots.

The revolt of the Zealots was crushed in Quirinius’ time, but the sect survived to play a central role in the first Jewish-Roman War fought between 66-73 AD. After a months-long siege, the Roman army under General Titus overran Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, changing the nature of Judaism forever. A faction of Zealots called Sicarii decamped to the cliff-top fortress of Masada, where they organized a last stand that ended in mass suicide. And it all began with a disputed census.

Censuses continue to cause controversy in contemporary times, though responses are rarely as extreme as that of the Zealots. Kenya has faced accusations of undercounting the population of its north-eastern territories, where many ethnic Somalis live. Scotland’s 2021 census, which is due to ask respondents questions about sexual orientation for the first time, will offer a choice of 21 sexualities, including skoliosexual, gynephilic and demiromantic, which some experts call confusing. “Demiromantic", for instance, which refers to people who only feel sexual attraction once an emotional bond has developed, gives no information about whether the respondent is heterosexual, gay or bisexual.

The biggest census-related conflict in recent times took place in the US, and went all the way up to the Supreme Court. It involved a new question that those unfamiliar with US politics might consider innocuous. In March 2018, Wilbur Ross, secretary of the US commerce department, which runs the census, announced that the forthcoming decennial survey would ask respondents about their citizenship status.

The commerce department’s own experts estimated that some 6.5 million residents would abstain from participating in the census if it involved citizenship in any fashion. Members of the Democratic party viewed the question’s insertion as an attempt to lower the count of states with high immigrant populations, which tend to vote Democrat. A low count would affect federal funding as well as the allotment of seats in future redistricting.

In court, the commerce department argued that data from the citizenship question would help the government better enforce the Voting Rights Act, a landmark law that protects racial and linguistic minorities against discrimination in voting. The Supreme Court’s conservative chief justice, John Roberts, joined the court’s four liberal judges in striking down the citizenship question on the grounds that it had no relation to the Voting Rights Act. Roberts suggested the Donald Trump administration should reframe its defence, but President Trump backed down in the face of widespread resistance and kept the query out of the census.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah should take a leaf out of Trump’s book, and hit pause on the process of the National Population Register (NPR), which is due to proceed alongside India’s census from April. As part of the house-listing phase of the census, tens of thousands of government workers will spend the summer and monsoon months knocking on doors and asking residents where they bathe, how they cook, what they eat, and which gadgets they own.

The NPR, as the Citizenship Rules of 2003 make clear, is a first step towards a National Register for Indian Citizens (NRIC, better known as the NRC), which was mooted as a means to weed out illegal immigrants. Following the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), India’s Muslim citizens have rebelled in large numbers against the CAA-NPR-NRC combination, fearful of being trapped in a discriminatory bureaucratic nightmare. The rallying cry of Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge (We will not provide documents) has also galvanized non-Muslims concerned about civil liberties. A number of state governments have expressed reservations about the NPR process. As matters stand, the NPR is poised to go down in flames, and take the census with it. Such a disaster would contaminate government statistics for the next decade, and distort all provisioning and planning.

Pronab Sen, chairman of the standing committee on economic statistics, is among the experts suggesting that the NPR be separated from the census. But even that might be too little, too late. Once the fundamental bond of trust between the state and a section of the population is broken, all interventions, whether vaccination campaigns, or infrastructural augmentation, become exponentially more difficult.

Despite the overload of coverage related to the CAA and NRC, few well-educated Indians are aware that the CAA is unrelated to future asylum seekers and says nothing about religious discrimination. They remain befuddled because every bit of accurate information has been matched by misinformation and disinformation related to the legislation. Can we expect Indian Muslims, especially those with only basic education, to distinguish between the benevolent motives of the census and the potentially harmful effects of the NPR? Perhaps the 2021 census is damaged whether or not it comes bundled with a second set of questions.

A very different threat also needs consideration. While a great wave of protests against the CAA and NRC has taken place under the banner of the Constitution and flag, it is likely that a ripple of radicalization is also spreading across the country. It will engender a small group of zealots owing all allegiance to God and none to state, who will exact a heavy price in years to come.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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