India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
The new parliament that was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, May 28, has every opposition leader questioning the idea of a New India with imaginations of Akhand Bharat. To every perceived voter of the BJP, Modi is replacing the symbols of colonial history with Indian symbols of power. The parliament building signifies that power and it is a structure with an increased seating capacity of 888 Lok Sabha seats and 384 Rajya Sabha seats. This highlights the role of the census in the delimitation exercise, which will happen sometime after 2026.
The Union home minister and BJP leader Amit Shah said in 2019 that the BJP will remain in power for 50 years. Shah, the much-touted master strategist and ‘Chanakya’ of BJP’s electioneering ideas, understands the role of the census and delimitation in ensuring that the party remains in power. The delimitation and re-organisation of Kashmir after the dilution of Article 370 show us what the BJP is capable of doing to take control of power. The delimitation process of 2008 was also very controversial in the Northeast among the tribal communities, which lost representation. The new delimitation commission set up for the Northeastern states by the executive in 2020 has also been temporarily halted.
The census 2021 – whenever and if it ever happens – will be one of the most important exercises in the history of India. The data from the census will determine how electoral constituencies will be redrawn. The outcome of this exercise can change the landscape of representation in parliament. To political observers, this is not a new phenomenon as delimitations in Gujarat, when Modi and Shah were in power, gave the BJP a similar advantage while undermining opposition political parties.
Raw data from the census was always confidential and in the custody of the census commissioner under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Census Act of 1948 protects the citizenry by ensuring the raw census information is not shared with anyone. The census as we know is being replaced by population databases like the National Population Register and 360-degree profiling databases, where census data remaining confidential is immaterial when the other databases have similar information. Any national political party with access to this information and the ability to influence the delimitation process can change the contours of our electoral constituencies.
Therefore, it is important that data contained in census 2021 should have information security, while also minimising the data that is collected in the process. The National Population Register and the upcoming Amendments to the Registration of Birth and Deaths Act, 1969 instead promote building 360-degree profile databases. These issues of information security and census are not unique to India. Even the United States Census Bureau is exploring mathematical options of Differential Privacy to protect the confidentiality of its population and the effects of the census on its democracy.
The US is also a prime example of issues related to the manipulation of electoral constituencies through a process called “gerrymandering“, which has mostly helped the Republican party. If and when the delimitation process does start, the ability of political parties to profile voters and their voting patterns may determine the spatial boundaries of new electoral constituencies. This ability to spatially identify the population and its profiles is now being acquired by the Indian state in different sectors from agriculture, land titling, urban taxation and other economic avenues to replicate its usage in electoral politics. The Indian government is literally using drones to map every household in India and this information too is going to be used by political parties as part of electoral manipulation and electioneering.
By the need for information security, I am not limiting it to confidentiality and privacy of the population in census 2021, but also the integrity of information in the census. The census is not only about determining population but also electoral voters through the exercise of citizenship that has been juxtaposed with the census. Faulty data in the census can always be used to take away the rights of minority populations – as was the plan in Kashmir and northeastern states. At the same time, any information that is acquired by the state and is not shared with its population creates information asymmetries between the citizenry and the state.
Delimitation is a future exercise that will be a very political process and will cause different population groups to adversely react to how the exercise proceeds. But the census is a problem that is at our doorstep and the lack of accountability in its administrative procedures will determine the fate of various population groups. While a significant section of civil society opposed the weaponisation of census and citizenship exercises through the NRC, our lack of ability to determine information practices of the census 2021 could be a very costly affair for democracy.
The current opposition to Census 2021 is also making the Ministry of Home Affairs do an online exercise, where citizens update their information on their own. The multiple parallel exercises of creation of birth and death registries, social registries for welfare, Aadhaar Voter ID linking and NATGRID for surveillance will allow the government to do a census without going door to door. If it is just data collection, the government has figured out how to force us to part with it through coercion.