Did the media play a role in provoking, if not generating, the recent unfortunate and unnecessary controversy over the religious community based data on population growth culled from India’s Census 2001?

From a close scrutiny of a cross-section of English dailies published in Bangalore, it appears that the manner in which the media projected the findings on population growth did contribute to the ensuing "much ado about nothing" -- irrespective of what the Census Commissioner did or did not say at the infamous press conference on September 6, and what was or was not clarified in the footnotes to the documents released on the occasion.

Considering recent history, one would have expected both the Census authorities and the media to have been more careful and responsible in presenting the results of an analysis of the available statistics disaggregated by religious community.

Here are the details of how the English press in Bangalore dealt with the issue. First, the headlines, as they say on television:

"Muslims grow, Hindus number over 80%" stated the bold headline at the top of the front page of The Times of India (TOI) on September 7. None of the other papers placed the census story so prominently and provocatively on their front pages.

The Asian Age (AA) had its report in the middle of the front page but the headline was marginally less sensational: "Hindu growth rate falls, minorities up," although the alleged change in the proportion of Hindus and Muslims from 1991 to 2001 was highlighted in bold, coloured type.

The New Indian Express (NIE) had a brief item titled "Muslim population up" at the bottom of its Breaking News (briefs) column on page 1, indicating that the full report could be found on page 8. The bylined story on the inside page, headlined "Muslim growth up, Hindus down: Census," was accompanied by a small box item titled "NO FULL STOPS" in capital letters, which highlighted in bold type the apparent contrast between the population statistics of Muslims and Hindus.

The Hindu had its report on page 10 under a headline that simply announced the "Decline in growth rate of Hindus."

The Deccan Herald (DH) seemed to have missed the story (though one is open to correction on this).

Interestingly, Vijay Times (VT), which did have a report on the census findings at the bottom of its front page - the important anchor position - chose to highlight what they revealed about the situation in Karnataka. In fact, its headline was "Muslims in state excel in literacy." The lead paragraph also highlighted the fact that the literacy levels among Muslims in the state are higher than those of Hindus.

Significantly, the copy was less sensational than the headlines in almost all the papers (although the NIE story, unlike the others, focussed almost exclusively on the data relating to Muslims in relation to Hindus, ignoring almost every other aspect of the findings).

However, it is worth noting that none of the reports on the press conference mentioned that the Census Commissioner and Registrar General of India, J.K. Banthia, had clarified that the apparent increase in the growth rate of Muslims was not to be taken at face value. It appears, therefore, that neither he nor any of the other officials and experts present at the press conference adequately stressed the importance of recognising that the seeming rise in the Muslim growth rate was in reality a false impression created by the fact that the census could not be carried out in Jammu & Kashmir in 1991, and in Assam in 1981 - and that, since the former is a Muslim majority state and the latter has a sizeable proportion of Muslims, these omissions had a definite bearing on the current figures.

It is difficult to imagine that the failure of the Census authorities and other experts to clearly and unambiguously point this out to the media was a mere oversight, especially in view of the obviously sensitive nature of the findings in a country traumatised by the divisive communal politics of the past couple of decades, particularly the last few years. And also in view of the fact that front-page report in the TOI did mention that the Commissioner had actually "sought to explain the higher growth rate among Muslims, saying: 'Low literacy rate and low participation in work among Muslim females were some of the reasons for the high growth.’" (This and other similar remarks were later attributed to him by DH, too.)

In addition, the NIE report quoted him as saying that the percentage of children in the age group 0-6 within the population - highest among Muslims at 18.7 per cent - was generally taken as an "indirect proxy for the fertility rate." This statement was understood by the correspondent as "implying that the Muslim population continued to grow at a fast pace."

The NIE even quoted the well-known demographer, Prof. Ashish Bose, one of the experts present at the press conference, as having said, "The Muslim population has increased very fast. It is mainly because practice of family planning is very low and low levels of literacy." (sic) According to the report, although he cautioned the media against jumping to conclusions about the rise in the Muslim population being due to illegal immigration from Bangladesh, he also suggested, rather confusingly, that it could be due to immigration to some extent. This is despite the fact that he apparently described the data as "tricky and difficult" and said "it needed to be interpreted carefully."

On the other hand, the AA reported that Prof. Bose had "sounded a general warning against ‘rushing to conclusions,’ advising particular caution while interpreting the Muslim growth rate" because, as he apparently pointed out, "there had been no census taken in Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir in 1991." (sic) But this quote was buried towards the end of the continuation of the report on page 2.

The next day (Wednesday, September 8), only three of the six papers stayed with the Census story on the front page.

The TOI, which had placed the story at the very top of page 1 the previous day, had a bylined piece prominently placed in the same position on Wednesday, too. The strongly-worded and well-argued piece refuted the data allegedly provided by the Census Commission. The two-part headline announced very clearly: "Census figures don’t mirror truth: Muslim population up as 1991 report didn’t include J&K." The writer, Shankar Raghuraman, who had obviously contacted the Census Commissioner, quoted Mr. Banthia as confirming that "the growth rates released on Monday were misleading." On the inside pages the carried reports on the reactions of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to the data, as well as other aspects of the Census findings.

The AA carried its story further down on the front page but it, too, sought to expose one of the half-truths generated by the new Census data. Under the headline, "Low Muslim literacy is myth," the report went into the details of the religion-based data on literacy, including differences across the country, to buttress its argument that the actual situation is rather more complex than is often assumed. However, it failed to highlight the missing data from the Census results of 1981 and 1991, which had created a false impression of rapid population growth among Muslims as a whole.

On page 8 the AA carried a boxed report on BJP President Venkaiah Naidu’s statement in Bangalore about the decline in the Hindu population being alarming. Interestingly, while the paper did not have an editorial on the subject, an op-ed piece headlined "Indian Muslims: Where have they gone wrong?" turned out to be an extract from Dr. Rafiq Zakaria’s new book, which had nothing to do with the Census figures!

The front page report in the NIE focussed attention on the Sangh Parivar’s reaction to the Census findings. Surprisingly, even though the piece was written by a senior and reputed journalist, and was obviously meant to highlight the political fallout of the newly released information, it did not at any point mention the fact that the apparent Muslim growth rate was something of an illusion created by the fact that J&K and Assam did not figure in the previous two Census operations.

The accompanying box item in colour, headlined (in capital letters) ‘IT’S A NATIONAL PROBLEM,’ also didn’t help clarify matters despite the fact that it comprised quotes from the Congress spokesperson, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Imam of the Fatehpuri Jama Masjid (a typical example of how such debates are often further politicised by the media through the juxtaposing of views from obviously opposing parties who are not necessarily equipped to shed light on the issue).

The double-barreled headline of the NIE’s front page report did, however, stress the fact that various constituents of the Sangh Parivar had already embarked on the misrepresentation and exploitation of the data for political gain. "Sangh mines census data: VHP paranoia - Hindu rajya will become Muslim country," it said.

Although the NIE had two related reports on page 4 and 9 on the same day, neither referred to the discrepancy created by the omission of Assam and J&K from the last two Census operations. The first one, datelined Bangalore, was based on Venkaiah Naidu’s comments on the subject to the media here. The other, by the same writer who had filed Tuesday’s story, sought to highlight the development-related factors leading to the apparent rise in Muslim numbers. However, continuing in the same vein as the previous day, the piece focussed almost exclusively on the Muslim minority.

In this story, too, Ashish Bose was quoted making sweeping generalisations about Muslims all over the world. And, again, the opinions of Syed Shahabuddin, the omnipresent "Muslim leader" generally favoured by the media, as well as Aslam Mehmood, a senior academic from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, were cited for "the other side." It is remarkable that no one else (from any community) was interviewed for the piece - someone who could have expanded the discussion to the links between population and development, thereby shifting the focus away from religious differences to other factors that contribute far more to the rise and fall of fertility and birth rates and, therefore, to population growth or otherwise.

Yet the NIE did have an editorial on the subject titled "Sense and Census" which emphasised that the data need to be read right. However, it did not question the Muslim growth rate figures on the ground that J&K and Assam were missed out in the last two Census exercises.

DH reported on the Monday press conference a day late, under the headline "Muslims register high growth rate, Hindus ‘decline.’" The report quoted not only the Census Commissioner but also spokespersons of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, the Congress and a Muslim Personal Law Board member. Venkaiah Naidu’s press conference in Bangalore was also reported under the headine "BJP alarmed by Muslim numbers."

In addition, DH had an editorial on the subject on the 8th. Carefully titled, "Useful pointers," with the caveat that "Census on religious communities should not be used by parties to stoke divisiveness," it sought to highlight the socio-economic issues revealed by the data, and to warn against the politicisation of the statistics by the Sangh Parivar. However, neither the editorial nor the reports made any mention of the unreliability of the data themselves on account of the omission of J&K and Assam from the previous Census operations.

VT had three reports on the Census controversy on pages 5 and 6. The first, headlined "BJP for common population policy" (as if there are separate policies for different communities now!), was based on Venkaiah Naidu’s press conference in Bangalore. The second, headlined "Sangh Parivar voices concern over census figures," was off-set by a boxed item against a coloured background headlined "Muslim Board hails it." None of them clarified the misleading nature of the alleged Muslim population growth rate.

The Hindu appears to have ignored the issue on September 8.

By Thursday, September 9, three days after the controversial press conference, the NIE had taken the story off its front page. However, it had three related reports on inside pages. One was based on a press conference in Bangalore addressed by BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley (headlined "BJP for national debate on population control"). Another, based on an interview with the Census Commissioner, reported on his attempt to exonerate himself and defend his organisation in the wake of the controversy; the misleading nature of the statistics released on Monday became clear thanks to his belated clarifications - for the first time in the NIE. The third was a brief item headlined "Muslims should check growth rate: NCM chief," quoting the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities who obviously had not yet grasped the fact that the data on the Muslim growth rate had been discredited.

This survey reveals that the storm was based on an illusion created by misleading statistics, which the print media inexplicably left unexplained and did not prominently report even after the furore began.
 •  The Census revelations
The other papers carried news about the clarifications necessitated by the controversy on page 1:

The TOI story, placed in the middle of the front page, was headlined "Govt. to relook analysis of Muslim data." In addition to stories on how regional trends prevail over community (page 8) and how Buddhists and Hindus get the majority of jobs (also page 8), it published a strong editorial on the subject titled "Lies and Statistics."

The Hindu announced on the front page that the Census Commissioner was meeting officials and carried a report on page 11 on a statement issued by the All India Democratic Women’s Association about the misleading nature of the new data.

The AA reported at the bottom of page 1 that the sale of the report had been stopped while officials studied the statistics.

VT, besides carrying a report at the bottom of the front page saying that the government was taking a relook at the Census analysis, also had an editorial on the subject.

Although DH had a lead piece on the Census controversy in the prominent top left-hand corner of the front page, it did not report that the contentious figures were being re-examined. Instead, the story was headlined "BJP moots two-child norm for all" and quoted party leaders who had come to Bangalore for a national office-bearers’ meeting. In fact, it had nothing further on the controversy even though it published four reports and two colour photographs on the BJP meeting and rally in the city on inside pages that day. Coincidentally, perhaps, it featured an editorial page article titled "The anguish of a faithful Muslim," which had nothing to do with population data.

This survey of newspaper coverage over the three days following the release of the religion-based data by the Census Commission reveals that the critically important fact that the storm it kicked up was based on an illusion created by misleading statistics, which were inexplicably left unexplained, was not prominently reported by much of the media even after the furore began. And that even though TOI did follow up its initial, sensational presentation of the Census "findings" with an equally prominent headline and story at the top of the front page the very next day, the damage had already been done.

For one thing, the Sangh Parivar had predictably capitalised on the "mistake" and alarmist statements by its various leaders and groups were widely reported without any accompanying editorial clarification of the facts of the matter. Although the government and the Census Commission attempted some damage control by Day 3, and the media subsequently carried more informed reports and comments on the Census figures themselves, as well as on the complex connections between population growth and socio-economic development, including the status of women, it appeared to be a case of locking the door after the horse had bolted.

This is borne out by the fact that the initial reports on the apparent rise in the Muslim population growth rate seem to have stuck in many people’s minds and to have coloured their perception and understanding of the situation.

On the day the story broke, one of the topics of conversation at an evening get-together was, predictably, the Census data based on religious communities. It was quite clear that the headlines about the alleged rise in the Muslim growth rate had served to confirm the deep suspicions and worst fears harboured by far too many people in this country -- including the educated elite -- about minorities vis a vis the majority in general, and Muslims vs. Hindus in particular.

A couple of weeks later, a test for journalism students at a media institute in the city included the following question: "Could the controversy over the recent release of religious community based data from Census 2001 have been avoided by looking at population-related statistics and issues through a development lens?" While the students valiantly attempted to recall prior discussions on the links between population and development, it was clear that most of them had not fully grasped the fact that the apparent growth rate among Muslims is a bogus issue in view of the J&K and Assam factors.

This is hardly surprising in view of the scant coverage in the media of this vital piece of information. Still, these were journalism students who, presumably, examine the media more closely and critically than the general audience. Under the circumstances, one can only imagine what the average reader, listener and viewer would or would not gather.

Among the many questions raised by this little case study are the following:

  • Whatever the sins of omission or commission on the part of the Census authorities (in this case), what is the media’s role in reporting and illuminating complex, contentious issues such as this one, especially in the prevailing, communally sensitive environment?

  • Is it professional and/or ethical to highlight flawed findings in a provocative, if not sensational, manner one day - only to have the pleasure of exposing them as misleading the next day, especially when one knows how the majority of readers, listeners and viewers receive and absorb media messages, how easily stereotypes and myths can be reinforced by the media, and how difficult it is to dislodge initial perceptions that confirm prejudices of various kinds?

  • Is the role of journalists to merely take down whatever is said at a press conference and report it as accurately as possible (not that even accuracy can be taken for granted these days!) or also to ask questions to clarify matters, especially in the case of obviously controversial information such as this? And, even if many reporters sent to cover such events may not know a great deal about the Census, should they not be equipped to at least recognise potentially explosive information and either do some verification and cross-checking, if not background research themselves (in the form of quotes from available knowledgeable experts, if nothing else) and/or seek advice or help from more experienced colleagues?

    Introspection holds out the possibility of learning from mistakes. Without such a process, it is clear that -- wittingly or unwittingly -- the media will continue to affirm, if not actually create, various stereotypes, including some based on or relating to religious communities. And that, as a result, the media may help to circulate, if not actually generate, myths and misunderstandings that emphasise differences and deepen divides between communities.