The events leading to the release of Census data on religion on Tuesday were a departure from the norm and marked by secrecy, sources in the census office said.
The 2011 data had been ready since late-2013, as the office worked on releasing the data far more quickly this time. First, the United Progressive Alliance, in the final year of a stormy second term and faced with a resurgent BJP, got cold feet about releasing the data, a senior Home Ministry official said.
When the BJP came to power, it too waited. Meanwhile, the Home Ministry selectively leaked the key findings. Even after the leaks, the census office could not promise when the data would be released. “It is fully ready with us. We are only waiting for Home to okay,” a senior census official had repeatedly told The Hindu .
On Monday, the Registrar-General of India made a presentation to the Home Ministry on the findings. On Tuesday, there was no inkling that the numbers were expected until the Home Ministry put out a short press release coinciding with the uploading of the data on the census office website.
The press release gave no historical context, and the data on the census website were mere numbers, with no explanation.
Census officials told The Hindu on Wednesday that they had been barred by the Home Ministry from speaking to the media about the religion data.
However, off the record, senior officials said the reason for the delay in the release of the 2011 data was the “large volume of data”, and the absence of a press conference was on account of “our policy of only releasing data online henceforth”. The lack of historical context was intentional, officials said. “You can perceive the data from so many angles. It’s perfectly fine. We have left it open so that people can interpret it the way they want to,” Kameshwar Ojha, Additional Registrar-General, told The Hindu .
In sharp contrast was the manner in which the religion data were released the last time around. The 2001 census data on religion was released in 2004. A press conference for its release was held by the then Census Commissioner, J.K. Banthia, at Vigyan Bhavan, and was widely attended, a long-time staffer at the census office told The Hindu. The details of the press conference were confirmed by senior journalists who attended it on September 6, 2004. Mr. Banthia released the report and presented a copy to the then Minorities Commission Chairperson, Tarlochan Singh. Noted demographer Ashish Bose was also invited as a panellist to the press conference and helped to put the numbers in context. Mr. Banthia presented the findings, and took questions from reporters, clarifying some of the key points of contention, chief among them being that Jammu and Kashmir and Assam had not been counted in 1991, thereby artificially depressing the figures.
One of the other reasons cited for not holding a press conference this time to announce the religious data was a controversial statement made by Mr. Banthia during the release of the report. He had said: “Low literacy rate and low participation among the Muslim females were some of the reasons for the high growth [of Muslim population].” In 2004, the growth of Muslim population was 36 per cent and that of Hindus 20.3 per cent.
All Census Bureau releases in the United States are accompanied by press conferences, technical briefings on the phone for journalists, and extensive literature explaining the findings. This is true for sensitive issues like race as well.