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‘Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell us About Modern India’ review: Stories that numbers tell

Literary Review

Most of us have a tendency to hold forth on our favourite subjects. We may not even think twice about where our influences come from, basing statements on some reading and anecdotal experience. In her book  Whole Numbers and Half Truths, Rukmini S. demolishes this cherished belief. She says in her introduction that many of these established narratives are pure fiction masquerading as facts.

This is not a country which is data poor. What we lack is proper interpretation of data and its timely availability. For instance, we genuinely think that this is a fast urbanising society. All young people are aspirational, caste differences are disappearing. But the truth is complex and nuanced. Every chapter makes us look at the country with different eyes.

The author, former National Data Editor with  The Hindu, is an award-winning data journalist who now writes for a range of national and international publications. With data from India’s “vast and impressive” statistical architecture — government, the Census, the National Statistical Office numbers and other entities — and highly regarded private institutions, Rukmini attempts to narrate “stories numbers tell.” 

The book begins with the chapter on how India tangles with cops and courts. India is seen as a place where rape is rampant, and when the National Crime Records Bureau numbers are released, it is usually accompanied by headlines that call a city a ‘rape capital’ or that a particular State is unsafe for women than the other. 

Rukmini has studied the numbers in great detail. “In 2014, I studied every judgment passed in a case involving rape (IPC Section 376) in Delhi’s seven district courts in 2013 — nearly 600 in all. I found that one fifth of the cases were wound up because the complainant did not appear, turned hostile, insisting they had never alleged rape, or admitted in court that they had filed a false complaint.”

In some cases there was pressure on women to withdraw the complaints. In some, community members intervened. In two cases, accusations were made for money or to settle a property dispute. Of the 460 cases fully argued in court, the largest category (189 cases) involved consenting adults.

Young lovers elope, girls’ parents bring them back, beat the girls up, get the young men locked up. Rukmini gives many examples, all based on recorded data, where people don’t get justice. “It isn’t just that India’s crime statistics end up showing a misleading picture, or even that the young people at the heart of these tragedies are put through untold misery. It’s also a major problem for the future of how criminal trials are decided in India.”

Not secular

Let’s now turn to the chapter, ‘What India thinks, feels, and believes,’ which shatters several myths. “At its core India is conservative — even fundamentalist. If there is going to be a change, it will take work,” contends Rukmini. For many years, the urban educated have held on to the belief that Indians in spite of differences are a liberal and secular lot. This is not what data show. 

The World Value Survey, a conglomerate of various country-level polling agencies, has surveyed sample populations around the world on their views on social values for nearly 40 years, she writes. “In the latest round (2010-2014), the Indian sample showed a lower commitment to democratic principles than most other major countries. India, along with Pakistan and Russia, featured below the global average on the importance accorded to democracy.” Most Indians think a strong leader is “very good” for the country.

In 2019, India ranked below the median of countries that believed it was “very important for human rights organisations to operate freely in their country without state interference, compared to European nations, which valued this highly.” India is also below the median in its commitment to Opposition parties operating freely.

In a study of four States, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Odisha, two-thirds of the respondents felt that those who don’t say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ must be punished. Many Indians want to prevent inter-religious marriages. Both Hindus and Muslims feel this way, data show.

However, in a 34-country Pew Survey, India was above the median in its support of people having the right to practise their own religion. Across the spectrum most people said it is important to respect all religions to be truly Indian. Rukmini says specific questions, however, bring out deep illiberal attitudes and religious intolerance and that there is outright hostility for the ‘other’.

Complex realities

Indians stick to their own religious groups when it comes to their friends. Even among Sikhs and Jains which are much smaller communities, friendships are made within their circle. Data show the kind of housing segregation Muslims have to suffer. Even upper middle class Muslims find it difficult to rent houses in localities of their choice.

The book also gives insights on how India really votes, how India eats, prays, enjoys, loves, marries, how much money Indians make and how they spend it and several other interesting behaviour patterns.

“In God we trust. All others must bring data,” said Edwards Deming. In our diverse country, nothing is what it seems and the reality is messy. For anybody who wants to understand and unite the country,  Whole Numbers and Half Truths is essential reading.

Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell us About Modern India; Rukmini S., Context/Westland Books, ₹699.

The reviewer is a Chennai-based journalist and author.


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Printable version | Feb 26, 2022 4:31:46 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/stories-that-numbers-tell/article65073451.ece