Use of statistics in politics not new in India

Political debates in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were generously sprinkled with the likes of monthly per capita expenditure, poverty, crime, growth, and inflation rates. At the heart of the controversies were two recent rounds of the National Sample Survey and National Crime Records Bureau statistics about riots, which were selectively summoned by all parties to burnish their pet development models.

While the last elections witnessed unprecedented use of statistics, the politicisation of statistics and statisticisation of politics goes back to the 19th century, when government statistics became publicly accessible for the first time. Pre-colonial Indian states collected statistics as their usefulness was well-understood throughout history, from the time of the Arthasastra to the Mughal period. But pre-colonial states did not disseminate data among their subjects for various reasons, including technological constraints. The British, however, chose to share a large part of the data they collected. The variety of ways in which colonial statistics were used by Indians is revealing.

Literary and inspirational uses of statistics began soon after the first census (1871-72). One of the earliest invocations of people as enumerated population is found in Bankim Chandra’s song Vande Mataram, written in the first half of the 1870s and later included in his novel Anandamath (1881). The song’s second stanza opens with the lines: ‘Terrible with the clamourous shout of the seven crore throats/ And the sharpness of swords raised in twice seven crore hands.’

As per the 1872 Census, Bengal Presidency’s population was about 6.7 crores. According to Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, the author of ‘Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song’, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Saraladevi Chowdhurani replaced 7 crores with 30 crores when she sang the song at the Benares Session (1905) of the Congress. As per the 1901 Census, India’s population was about 30 crores. One is also reminded of Gandhi’s ‘Constructive Programme’ (1945) that refers to ‘40 crores of people’ and ‘80 crores of hands.’ According to the 1941 Census, India’s population was about 39 crores.

In the 1870s, government statistics also began to be used to subvert the colonial rule. Dadabhai Naoroji was among the earliest to develop an elaborate critique of colonialism using government statistics. In Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged Dadabhai Naoroji’s role in exposing the English misrule. Gandhi himself appealed to colonial statistics to question, among other things, the claim that literacy grew under the British. Gandhi’s non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements affected the 1921 and 1931 censuses in some parts of the country.

When the poet-philosopher Mohammad Iqbal expressed his distrust in majoritarian democracy, he was also lamenting the emerging tyranny of numbers: “Jamhooriat ek tarz-e-hukumat hain ki jisme, bandoun ko gina karte hain tola nahin karte” (Democracy is a form of government in which people are counted, not weighed). This sentiment was widely shared by the Muslim elite.

For instance, much before Iqbal, and soon after the 1881 Census, Syed Ahmad Khan observed that, “Although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of the Hindus...yet they must not be thought insignificant or weak.” Later the Muslim League showed keen interest in census.

The Hindu right, in turn, feared the fecund Muslim. In 1909, U N Mukherji, son-in-law of Surendranath Banerjee, a founding father of the Congress, published an influential pamphlet “Hindus: A Dying Race”. He argued that the extinction of the Hindus was inevitable as their relative population share was declining.

Sri Aurobindo’s rejoinder pointed out that, “The mere decline in the rate of increase is in itself not a matter of concern as only countries/communities ‘backward in development and education’ have defied the worldwide decline in fertility.” Sri Aurobindo’s response remains relevant as the relationship between development and fertility continues to be overshadowed by the right wing’s conspiratorial theories. Unfortunately, such interventions did not lessen the growing statistical competition between communities. In 1941, in some provinces, communities manipulated the last colonial census to secure a favourable boundary demarcation.

Caste portrayal
The British administration played no small role in promoting communalisation of statistics. Yet, it is amusing that the same data convinced the Hindus that they were endangered, and the Muslims that they are at the mercy of an endangered community. The colonial period also saw conflicts over how the government records portrayed different castes, with most caste groups being keen to climb up the social ladder. In a complete reversal, we are now witness to a race to the bottom. The religion of tribes was hotly contested particularly in the east, where the future of Assam was at stake. The Hindi-Urdu conflict also spilled into the realm of colonial census.

The use of government statistics to support policy reform predates all other uses and goes back to the early 19th century. Raja Rammohan Roy explained the differences in the rates of sati in British provinces by referring to the differences in classical inheritance laws – Mitakshara in Upper Provinces and Dayabhaga in Bengal Presidency. He used ‘printed official returns (laid before Parliament)’ to prove his hypothesis that Dayabhaga incentivised sati by supporting widows’ claim over property of deceased husband. His argument anticipates Law and Economics, a sub-discipline of economics, which encourages empirical analysis of the effectiveness of law.

The alacrity with which 19th century Indians embraced statistics, and put them to diverse uses, is indeed surprising because before the advent of colonial rule public statistics were unheard of in the sub-continent. This should alert us to the possibility that the relationship between the colonisers and the “natives” must have been more complex in India compared to other colonised societies, which did not have a prior tradition of reading and writing and must have taken a longer time to adapt to colonial rule.

(The writer teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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