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Bend it like Bhalla

On census, Christians and conversions, Surjit Bhalla has tortured his data to make it say what he wants to hear.

Written by Tony Joseph | Updated: September 1, 2015 8:45:39 am
christian, christians in india, converted christians, conversion, christian conversion, religious conversions, Hinduism, india religious census, hindu muslim population, census 2011, population growth, muslim population census, religious population, muslim population growth, census population 2011, india census 2011, census population data, Religious Communities, Religious Communities census, india news, nation news In communities that have a strong preference for sons and adopt practices such as sex selection, the sex ratio becomes highly skewed against women. (Ilustration by: Pradeep Yadav)

Last week, Surjit S. Bhalla wrote a piece in The Indian Express titled ‘Census, Christians, Conversions’. After going over well-trodden ground on what the recently released Census 2011 figures meant, he came to the crux of the matter as he saw it: Why hasn’t the Christian population fallen as a percentage of the total Indian population? According to him, the Christian population has been stuck at 2.3 per cent for two decades, and the only reason that it has not fallen is that Christians have been proselytising and converting people all around.

It takes skills of a high order to create and raise a red flag over a population percentage that is stable. There is also an attitude in the framing of the issue that is similar to that of a local bully telling his smaller neighbour, “Hey, you, I see there has been no deterioration in your circumstances as I had hoped; have you been up to something?” But let’s leave that aside and tackle the serious problems with the arguments he puts forward in support of his thesis.

The device that Bhalla uses to make his argument is a comparison between the behaviour of the Christian and Sikh populations. According to him, the education levels of Sikh and Christian women are comparable, and because women’s literacy is one important determinant of fertility rates, he argues that Christian and Sikh populations should behave similarly. And since, according to the census figures, the Sikh population declined from 2 per cent of the total in 1991 to 1.7 per cent in 2011, while the Christian population percentage stayed stable, he asserts that the difference can only be attributed to conversions. This amounts to serial assaults on data, and in the following ways.

First, Bhalla arbitrarily chooses the years to fit his theory. If you take 1971 as the starting point, instead of 1991, as Bhalla has done, you will find that the Christian population has declined from 2.6 to less than 2.3 per cent, a decrease of over 0.3 percentage points in 40 years. During the same period, the Sikh population declined from 1.9 to 1.7 per cent, a decline of only 0.2 percentage points. So which community declined more in population-percentage terms depends entirely on the period one chooses. That Bhalla chose the period he did shows us what result he wanted to arrive at. Nothing more, nothing less.

Second, Bhalla also omits mentioning a crucial factor: The large difference in the sex ratio between the two communities he has chosen to compare. Sex ratio is the number of females to males in a population. In communities that have a strong preference for sons and adopt practices such as sex selection, the sex ratio becomes highly skewed against women. Among Christians, there are 1,023 females for every 1,000 males, while among Sikhs, there are only 903 females for every 1,000 males. It is a well-known and academically accepted fact that highly skewed sex ratios like this have a significant impact on population growth. Supreme Court advocate and Aam Aadmi Party leader H.S. Phoolka reportedly wrote to the Akal Takht Jathedar on the issue recently, saying: “There are many reasons for the decline of the population, and among them, the major cause is the lowest sex ratio among Sikhs at the national level.” In other words, Sikh population growth is likely to be abnormally depressed because of the adverse sex ratio, a problem that the Christian community does not have. So the kind of Christian-Sikh comparison that Bhalla makes is prima facie indefensible. Again, the fact that he found it necessary to omit any mention of the vast difference in sex ratio between the two communities only shows us what result he wanted. Nothing more.

Third, statistician Bhalla has also wantonly selected the communities to compare. He chose to compare the Christian community with Sikhs, and not with Jains, who are leagues above both Christians and Sikhs when it comes to women’s literacy and income levels. Jain women have a literacy rate that is over 90 per cent, compared to only about 76 per cent for Christians and 63 for Sikhs. According to Bhalla’s theory, therefore, the population percentage of Jains should have fallen drastically, even more so than that of Sikhs. But what do we find? In the 20 years between 1991 and 2011, the period that Bhalla considers, the proportion of Jains in the population has remained rock steady at 0.4 per cent. The fact that Bhalla chose to compare Christians to Sikhs, and not to Jains, shows us what result he wanted to arrive at, and nothing more.

Since the basic premises on which Bhalla rests his case are flawed, the talking points he derives from them — like the number of conversions per year and the cost per conversion — also fall apart. But the overall point is just this: It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Bhalla has tortured his data to make it say what he wants to hear.

Having spent time trying to understand Bhalla’s theory, I am inspired by him to go farther, use his methods of dealing with data, and come up with sensational results. Here they are: Hindus are all set to take over the United States by 2075, and the United Kingdom by 2131! Here is why.

As we all know, Indians of all varieties — Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Christians — have been doing quite well, financially and demographically, in the US. The Hindu population in the US, in particular, has grown dramatically (from 0.4 per cent in 2007 to 0.7 per cent in 2014). The average annual compound growth rate of the Hindu population alone in the US works out to 8.32 per cent. The overall US population, on the other hand, is growing at a rate of only 0.7 per cent. So it’s a foregone conclusion that the Hindus are destined to take over the US. But in how much time? You could do this calculation yourself, but here’s the nut graf: If present trends continue, Hindus will form 1.37 per cent of the population in 10 years, 5.89 per cent in 30 years, 25.36 per cent in 50 years, and exactly 52.6 per cent in 60 years. Let’s just hope there’s no American demagogue who is thinking of using these figures to rustle up hatred against an enterprising and wealthy minority that contributes much to that country.

The UK, unfortunately, will take a little longer to become Hindu majority. Hindus made up 1.5 per cent of the UK population in 2011, up from about 0.94 per cent in 2001. The Hindu population is growing at the rate of 3.86 per cent, while the UK population on the whole is growing far slower at 0.6 per cent. So how long will it be before the Hindus dominate Whitehall? If present trends continue, in precisely 116 years — or by 2131. Hindus will then account for 51.52 per cent of all Britishers.

Of course, the Christian population in India would then have become even more marginal, if it keeps to the current trend (contrary to what Bhalla says, Christians as a percentage of the total population did indeed come down, from 2.34 per cent in 2001 to 2.29 per cent in 2011).

The writer is a former editor of ‘Businessworld’ magazine.

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