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India in Transition

The Politics of Numbers in Kashmir: From Plebiscite to Census (1991-2011)

Vikas Kumar
November 20, 2023

The obsession with population statistics in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is as old as the contested accession of the state to India and the occupation of parts of it by Pakistan. It was rekindled, most recently, in 2019 by the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which stripped away provisions that offered autonomy to J&K. While population figures play a crucial role in the politics of J&K, the quality of the data tends to be moot. The politics of numbers that shapes and is shaped by census statistics merits closer attention in this context, specifically its shifting nature between 1991 and 2011.

The erstwhile J&K was the only state of India that missed the census twice after 1947, first in 1951 and then again in 1991, due to political instability. In 2001 and 2011, the census was conducted in J&K, but the exercise was impaired by the interference of partisans of independence in the Kashmir Valley who feared that New Delhi wanted to manipulate numbers. J&K comprised three administrative divisions in India: Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. According to the census, Kashmiri-speaking Muslims constitute a majority in the Kashmir division as well as in the state overall. In the early 1990s, communally motivated attacks amid an armed insurgency precipitated the exodus of almost the entire indigenous Hindu population of the Kashmir division. Hindus constitute a majority in Jammu; in recent decades, Muslims have emerged as the largest religious community in Ladakh.

Kashmiri-speaking Sunni Muslims and Dogri-speaking upper caste Hindus, the dominant communities of Kashmir and Jammu, respectively, have been locked in a zero-sum game over representation in the state assembly and share in public spending and jobs since the 1950s (other communities such as Gujjars, Bakarwals, and Paharis joined the contest over public resources in more recent decades). More importantly, these communities hold divergent preferences vis-à-vis the political future of J&K. They have been concerned about the religious composition of the headcount because it is widely believed that the relative population shares of Muslims and Hindus would determine who controls the state’s future. This includes the unlikely scenario of a plebiscite over the state’s affiliation to India, as recommended by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) back in 1948 after India approached the body when tribal raiders backed by Pakistan invaded the territory.

As a result, every political move and administrative policy is parsed for implications for the numerical dominance of the Kashmir Valley, which gives it—and by extension its Muslim-majority population—a larger number of seats in the legislative assembly. The politics of numbers has, however, transformed over the past few decades, which can be explained by the tension between mardamshumari (census) and raishumari (plebiscite) in the Valley. We will examine three iterations of this shifting politics.

The 1991 Census
The census was scheduled in J&K in 1991, but was eventually canceled barely a week before its start date because “the field situation” did not “permit” enumeration. However, it bears noting that in 1990-91, the insurgency was limited to the Valley, while Ladakh and most districts of Jammu were free of violence. Moreover, the fatality rate in J&K was much less that of neighboring Punjab, which was also grappling with an armed insurgency. The census and elections were held in Punjab, even as the entire state of J&K was kept out of both the exercises. While census operations were threatened by insurgents and the census office was burned down in Srinagar, it is not clear if the census was specifically targeted as the whole range of state machinery came under attack in the early 1990s. The disarray within the general administration rather than the intensity of the insurgency was the primary reason why the census was canceled in 1991 (the census was conducted in 2000-01, the most violent years of the insurgency).

The armed insurgency disrupted elections and the census in the early 1990s and “embarrassed” the union government both within and outside the country. So, in the late 1990s, New Delhi was determined to resume the census and generate a collective self-portrait of the country that included Muslim-majority J&K. Resuming exercises such as the census and elections was seen as essential for restoring India’s self-image as a secular modern democracy. However, by then the insurgency and the government’s counterinsurgency had not only undermined the general administration that provides public goods (including statistics) but also deepened regional and communal polarization, making it difficult to build consensus on the provision of public goods. The government’s insistence on conducting a census under these circumstances meant that the availability of statistics enjoyed a priority over quality.

The 2001 Census
This is the larger context within which insurgent and armed militant organizations such as the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), among others, called for a boycott of the census in 2000 and warned officials against participating in the exercise. At least one government employees’ union leader asked its members to skip census duties until there was clarity on their safety. Note that October 1, 2000 was the reference date for the 2001 Census of J&K. However, this reference date was postponed in a haphazard and piecemeal manner across districts due to the boycott call that severely disrupted the census throughout the Valley and Doda district of Jammu.

Contemporary commentary catalogued the boycott as another fallout of the secessionist insurgency. The HM’s boycott call can, however, be read through several different lenses. First, it can be seen as the refusal to acquiesce in activities that normalize New Delhi’s claim to sovereignty. Second, it reflects communal anxiety in the Valley about demographic change that could erode the Muslim majority character of J&K. While these longstanding macro-concerns can account for the rationale of the boycott, they leave factors that precipitated and enforced the boycott unexplained. This is where a third lens is required. Competition among pro-independence groups and political parties under the shadow of a nascent engagement between pro-independence groups and the union government can help better understand the politicization of the 2001 Census.

The possibility of direct engagement between a section of the HM and the union government alarmed the Hurriyat Conference, an overground alliance of political and religious organizations campaigning for Kashmir’s separation from India, that claimed to be the true representative of the Valley. A sharp exchange ensued between the HM and the Hurriyat. The HM advised the Hurriyat to focus on “the conspiracies being hatched against the Muslims” rather than attack the ceasefire initiative. The possible use of the census to alter J&K’s demography was one of the conspiracies that the HM highlighted. While the two sides patched up soon, the politicization and communalization of the census proved irreversible.

Around this time, the ruling National Conference was dealing with anti-incumbency in the run-up to the 2002 assembly elections. It was struggling to protect its political turf amid twin pressures generated by the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission’s recommendations, which worsened the state’s finances and limited the fiscal space for developmental initiatives, and New Delhi’s outreach to pro-independence groups and rejection of the state government’s partisan autonomy report. Saif-ud-Din Soz—a politician who had been expelled from the NC a few years earlier for defying a whip—chose to question the impartiality of the census to present himself as the authentic voice of Kashmir. Soz issued two press statements after the HM’s boycott call to elaborate the alleged threat of demographic change.

So, amid the political uncertainty generated by the nascent peace process, a variety of actors within the mainstream political parties and the pro-independence camp tried to secure their support base by tapping into communal passions inflamed by the alleged threat to the demographic composition of the state.

The 2011 Census
The long run-up to the 2011 Census was dotted with demographic controversies reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s. However, this time the pro-independence groups called for participation in the census (and also, elections) to stall attempts to undermine Kashmir’s demographic dominance and share in the state legislature and development funding. This should not be seen as a sudden development.

First, even during the 2001 census, certain communities within Kashmir were supportive of the exercise. Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes, which comprise the third largest population group of J&K and have a significant presence in Kashmir, “evinced an extraordinary interest in their enumeration” because they viewed the census as essential to engage the developmental state. They, however, demanded steps to address concerns, among other things, about the undercount of the nomadic part of the community under the de facto method (in which individuals are counted where they are normally residents during the period of enumeration).

Second, even the HM’s attacks on the 2001 census were framed in statistical (concerns about the undercount of migrants under the de facto method) and developmental (fear of obstruction of “avenues of development for Muslims” if Kashmir loses the majority) terms, in addition to its older and broader concerns about the Indian state’s legitimacy.

Third, there was a more general shift from violent opposition to the census to its manipulation to secure a larger share of the public pie across India’s politically restive ethno-geographic periphery. This was seen in 2001 in states such as Nagaland and Manipur. This shift across the periphery can be seen from the perspective of twin developments in the early 1990s. On the one hand, after the end of the Cold War, nationalist insurgencies degenerated into sub-nationalist conflicts over redistribution. On the other, the retreat of the state after the liberalization of the economy added urgency to capture public resources in the economically stagnant periphery where trust in the impartiality of public institutions is low. So, the data deficit of the periphery is intertwined with its democracy and development deficits.

The shifting politics around the census during 1991-2011 can, therefore, be accounted for by the competition between mainstream political actors and pro-independence groups that, in turn, unfolded within the larger political-economic context defined by the liberalization of the economy and the end of the Cold War that reshaped the rules of the game. The impact of these non-demographic developments on the quality of census statistics and public policy is a story for another occasion.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and is the author of Numbers as Political Allies: The Census in Jammu and Kashmir (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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