Demographic mapping fuels religious tension in India

by - 1st September 2009

Lapido Media Exclusive

BJP's Narendra Modi, denied US visa in 2005The Hindu nationalist government in the powerful state of Gujarat, western India is conducting a census of minority populations that could help target persecution, it’s been claimed.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been trying to collect data on religious minorities in its stronghold state for a decade.

The BJP has formed a commission to study demographic patterns in the state since India’s Independence in 1947.

But social activists have told Lapido Media that the panel could target the minorities and ‘add to the already existing fear among these groups’.

A notification issued by the BJP says the panel was formed to counter ‘allegations’ that the state government had polarised people along religious lines.

‘The government of Gujarat is of the opinion that the allegations so made are not based on scientific study,’ adds the notification.

But Fr Cedric Prakash, Director of a Jesuit non-profit group, Prashant, said:  ‘The panel will make the minorities sitting ducks for the hate propaganda and violence by right-wing Hindu groups’.

Extreme Hindu nationalists had been targeting minorities for attacks in Gujarat with the patronage of the BJP, he added.

In December 1998 and January 1999, a series of anti-Christian attacks were reported in Dangs district.

Hundreds of Muslims died in 2002 Gujerat massacresIn 2002, hundreds of Muslims were killed across the state following the burning alive of 59 Hindu pilgrims inside a train.

Fr. Prakash said:  ‘The whole exercise has a very insidious motive’.  Extremists could misuse such data to organise meticulous attacks on the minorities.

During the 2002 riots, shops that were Hindu-owned but rented by Muslims were not destroyed while the material inside was burnt or looted.

Barkha Dutt from NDTV news channel famously asked at the time: ‘What’s so spontaneous about an attack that is planned so meticulously that only the seventh shop in a crowded lane gets razed to the ground but everything around it is untouched and undamaged?’

The Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, was denied a US visa in 2005 for his suspected involvement in the killing of Muslims in 2002.

Pro or anti-minority move?

Lapido Media spoke to the top bureaucrat in Gujarat’s legal department, M.H. Shah, who said the formation of the commission was notified in early July.

‘We only issued the notification; the commission is being handled by the home department,’ Shah said.

Gujarat Home Minister Amit ShahGujarat’s home (interior) minister Amit Shah told Lapido that the panel’s work had begun. ‘The objective is to stop the ghettoisation of minorities,’ he said.

‘People make allegations that the government has ghettoised minorities, but no one knows the truth,’ the minister said.

‘Many journalists also blame the government, but let them show official documents to prove their claims,’ he added.

The panel will assess the total area occupied by religious communities during Independence and their migration every ten years thereafter.

The commission will also give ‘recommendations and policies as a guidance’ for ‘stopping polarisation of population in the state’.

The term of the commission will end in January 2011. However, the BJP may extend the panel’s term so that it becomes a poll issue in the next state assembly elections in December 2012.

Dubious panel

Suspicion is focused on the chairman of the panel, Justice BJ Sethna, a controversial retired judge of the Gujarat High Court.

In a case of mass murder during the 2002 violence, the Supreme Court of India reversed Justice Sethna’s judgment.

In June 2003, the judge had upheld the acquittal of the accused by a lower court.

The National Human Rights Commission termed the acquittal a ‘miscarriage of justice’ and the apex court intervened and ordered a fresh trial.

Like Fr. Prakash, many civil society activists have objected to the BJP’s move.

The Indian Express daily quoted a senior lawyer, Girish Patel, as saying that the panel was likely to blame the minorities for the ghettoisation.

Patel said polarisation began mainly after anti-Muslim riots in 1969 and it rose to new heights after the 2002 violence.

In 1969, around 700 people were killed in Ahmedabad city alone.

‘The situation is very serious today. If someone in a Hindu locality wants to sell his house to a Muslim, he is attacked by the neighbours,’ Patel added.

Earlier attempts

The BJP started gathering data on Christians in 1999 under the pretext that it was to ensure the security of Christians.

The 1999 survey asked objectionable questions, asking Christians about foreign grant receipts, or their involvement in illegal activities and possession of weapons.

In May 1999, the Gujarat High Court issued a desist notice to the state government.

The court held that ‘if any survey or census is to be made . . . with regard to the criminal activities or for other allied purposes . . . [it] cannot be based on a communal footing’.

However, in March 2003, the BJP started another survey claiming it was probing reports of religious conversions.

In May 2003, the BJP initiated yet another move to conduct a similar survey, but discontinued it after the media exposed it.

Of the 50.6 million people in Gujarat, 4.5 million are Muslim and 284,092 are Christian (Government of India Census 2001).