This isn’t how you use data: A data-backed response to Rupa Subramanya

Subramanya, the young researchers argue, is already convinced of a conclusion, which she wants to support through any convenient digits.

WrittenBy:Sandipan Baksi and Aravindhan Nagarajan
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As we write this, there are already reports in the media about another incident of mob-lynching over the bovine issue, this time in Himachal Pradesh. Many Indian litterateurs and public intellectuals have returned their awards as a mark of protest against the growing atmosphere of cultural and religious intolerance and the lackadaisical approach of the government to deal with the menace of majoritarian communalism.


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Many members of parliament, and at least one chief minister, have given extremely disturbing and dangerous statements attacking the very root of a democratic and secular republic called India. Attempts are being made to dictate what we, as citizens, are supposed to eat, speak, write and wear and how we are supposed to conduct ourselves.

In fact, if one goes by the intention of the chief minister of Haryana, citizenship itself appears to be turning hierarchical (oxymoronic as it may sound). And yet there are those who remain sceptical to these events and responses. Scepticism is indeed an important dimension of scientific progress. But irrational scepticism often ends up sustaining conservative and reactionary movements. It is one such sceptical hypothesis that formulates the point of departure for this brief commentary.

Based on a particular statistical exercise Rupa Subramanya, in her October 14 article for Newslaundry, claims that India has not become more communal under the current BJP rule. Interestingly, she concludes that any serious scholar will “have to wait for years and decades of data to say whether there’s been any kind of change in the trend of episodes of communal violence in India or not. So anything you read that says there’s been an increase in communal violence is driven not by fact but by propaganda”. Curiously enough, though, she bases her own claims of “no increase in communal violence” on similar flimsy data.  Are we to then infer a lack of serious scholarship? Or is it, as the author says, driven not by fact but by propaganda?

There is something deplorable in the fact that our society has not addressed the root causes of communalism – a phenomenon that is more diffusive and larger than communal violence: such as the continued socio-economic and political deprivation of minorities; the fostering of communal prejudices by various political actors; the weakening of processes of secularisation across various state institutions in the country; and the inability to deliver justice to those affected by these forms of violence. The very fact that we are responding to statistics comparing the number of communal incidents (incidents which do not have any place in a modern society) in order to examine the performance of the government indicates that there is something terribly wrong with the trajectory of development that we have selected. There is really the question of our ethos, values and ideals which cannot be answered by poring into statistics of how many people were killed each year in communal incidences.

While agreeing to the point that our society has historically (going back to the late nineteenth century) witnessed communal disturbances, with cow slaughter, religious processions and loud music outside places of worship as the usual flashpoints, we are still left aghast by what is left unsaid by the author in terms of these data on communal incidences. The numbers being used by the author are based on a series of answers furnished by the Ministry of Home Affairs in response to four questions asking for details of incidences of communal violence and their impacts on the affected population. The response to these questions is the provision of a statistical table which contains state-wise, year-wise data from 2010 to January 2015. Now, this is not the first time this question has been asked in parliament, and unfortunately it may not be the last time (as can be seen here and here). Similar data has been compiled by PRS legislative for the years 2005-2009. There is data available on the year-wise and state-wise distribution of the number of communal incidences, the total number of fatalities, and the total number of people injured in such incidences at least from 2005 to 2015.

The fundamental problem of the analysis employed by Subramanya is the use of a figure that is arrived at by subtracting the percentage share of communal incidences in each state from the percentage share of the population of each state. The author treats it as some Human Development Index (HDI) equivalent of the communal atmosphere in the country, the indicator that indeed provides a benchmark for an acceptable and normal level of communal violence, one that is proportional to the population of a state. She uses this gold standard to claim (may be sarcastically) that the communal atmosphere in Uttar Pradesh is not as bad as the absolute number of communal incidents suggest.

In the first instance there is nothing sacrosanct or particularly insightful that this particular metric provides us with. It is as good as any other that can be constructed. We would rather prefer to look at this information only at an absolute level, and strongly comment that such numbers say a lot about the inability (and in some cases perhaps implicit support) of the state government to keep the situation under control. To comment on anything beyond this would require a more disaggregated approach to data than just the number of incidents of communal violence. Surprisingly, the reports being referred to by the author has at least some such data, like the fatality and injury related information, which when accounted for population figures, would make more sense. We show below a table on the number of fatalities per million across states from 2005 to January 2015.

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From the data furnished by the Ministry of Home Affairs, it can be ascertained that from 2005 till 2015, 1188 people were killed in 7518 incidences of communal violence. But underlying this statistic is also a disaggregation that the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat show consistently high figures for trends of fatalities in communal incidences.

The use of a specific metric for only a period of four years allows a narrow inference to be reached: in the case of Subramanya it is that incidences of communal violence have remain unchanged in the last few years. The inference to be drawn cannot be that when communal violence occurs in BJP-ruled states they are not all that bad as they are made out to be. The very fact that the phenomenon persists and causes fatalities repeatedly in some regions more so than others is (perhaps deliberately) missed out. The presence of consistently high number of fatalities (and incidences) should be enough to indicate that state governments cannot be absolved irrespective of whether they belong to the BJP or not. There are many states which show a better record throughout this period, and some which have shown remarkable changes in trends. Odisha though part of this list, is an anomaly, as it has shown a massive decrease in fatalities from 52 during 2005-09 to just 4 during 2010-15. This particular statistic indicates that it is Madhya Pradesh which holds the dubious distinction of ranking first on the list and has recorded a consistent number of fatalities in the period 2010-2015.

But the reason why Subramanya’s narrow understanding is unacceptable is precisely what the data doesn’t account for. What exactly does a communal incidence mean and how is it estimated is something that is left ambiguous in all of these reports. Noticeably, the National Crime Records Bureau does not record and release data in terms of incidences of communal violence. There is no indication of the communities affected by these riots, the precise nature of these incidences. A cursory glance at the questions asked in various Lok Sabha sessions and the data tables provided by the Ministry for Home Affairs tells us that certain significant questions are left unanswered. These include data on the communities affected, details of the loss of property, the loss of income and employment, compensation received, etc. Crucially, there is no data on sexual violence and rapes committed during periods of communal violence. Further, data on whether perpetrators have been apprehended and/or convicted for these incidences are missing.  Most importantly, there is no information on the matter of the political affiliation of those found guilty, as also to the ultimate political beneficiary of the ensuing polarisation. Here it must be appreciated that laying the blame, and rightly so, on the state governments cannot become an excuse to overlook the reality that there are political motives to such incidents.

What the statistics also hide are the differences between – to take a crude example – communal flare-ups at a procession in Delhi from a few months ago, and the 1984 riots, where citizens from one particular community were brutally assaulted for a number of days; or to compare it with the 2002 Gujarat riots where the state mechanism completely failed in its duty to protect a section of its citizens. If, according to the author, it would take decades to state anything conclusively, then this discrepancy in the data would also gloss over the differences between these incidences and the lynching of Mohammed Aqlaq in Dadri. We will suspend judgement on whether the curious case of cattle vigilantes will be recorded as a communal incidence, since these vigilantes have the ability to take the law in their own hands by investigating and giving instant penalty to those transporting cows (even, it is alleged, in cases where the transporters perhaps have the legal permit to do so!). In the framework employed by Subramanya, it seems they are just the same, all incidences of communal violence, with one being comparable to the other. By doing this communalisation is reduced to one set of numbers neglecting the complex and qualitative changes in the nature of the socio-cultural atmosphere of the country.

If at all trends in communal violence are to be enquired into, they would require far more meticulous and tedious work of compiling data on the impacts of such violence in each state, the casualties from different communities, the violence suffered by women; and exploring those events to provide descriptions of what exactly happened – as has been attempted here. There is very little that can conclusively be made through the dataset being used by the author, apart from the mind-numbing fact that communal violence exists and causes senseless destruction. However, Subramanya goes on to draw conclusions that need a lot more information than she has made use of. It appears that she is already convinced of a conclusion, which she wants to support through presenting whatever information suits the bill. This raises the question of bias, if not motivation.

There are some other points that Subramanya makes. The first is that the media suffers from an anti-Modi bias and that journalists rush to make conclusions on the question of communalism. This allegation is a sword that swings both ways, as observed during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The point is that in a democracy it is important that the media asks uncomfortable questions and plays the role of a staunch critic of the power centres; that it strengthens its credibility as a watchdog of sorts. And if it needs reminding, it is the same media which received all kinds of kudos for its aggressive reporting on spectrum scams and spurious land deals, by the very same people who label blame upon it now.

Finally, Subramanya takes particular issue with the stance taken by various writers and artists on this issue. As Premchand quite eloquently stated a long time ago, literature, “. . . which does make us face the grim realities of life in a spirit of determination, has no use for us today. It cannot even be termed as literature.” It is the duty of art to question the status-quo and arouse a critical spirit in the society.  By raising their voice against the growing atmosphere of intolerance, which by the way is detrimental for any democracy, the artists in fact are trying to be true to that duty. Our artists and writers have historically played an extremely important role against fundamentalism of all hues, and have expressed their dissent without fear against authoritarianism in all its variety. The various forms of political responses shown by artists and writers like Namdeo Dhasal against the caste system, Durga Bhagwat against the emergency, or Safdar Hashmi against the 1984 carnage (to name a select few), or institutionalised expression of dissent through platforms like the Progressive Writers’ Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association, is exactly the legacy of protest against irresponsible authority, that we must appreciate. Subramanya, by decrying cultural resistance as simply partisanship comfortably chooses to ignore this legacy. The writers and artists need to be applauded of taking a stand and not be simply dismissed as “manufactured paper rebellion” [Sic].

An interpretation based on the use of select statistics and a narrow framework that ignores all that counters somebody’s claims, gives more than a hint of selective amnesia, if not direct “political motivation”. Despite the use of a smart interactive graphic tool in the article, such an approach, we believe, is simply an example of pseudo-scientific sophistry. It is dangerous because it is being used to hide majoritarian communalism. It neatly veers away from difficult questions regarding the increasing polarisation and growing religious and cultural intolerance in our society, a phenomenon which doesn’t have a known statistical index. There are grave instances from history where the grasp of fear psychosis on the minority community became so widespread that it created a delusion of peace. Rest assured, the number of incidents of communal violence may tend to decline in such societies, at least in the short run. But is that any positive indication at all?


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