SRINAGAR // As India begins counting its population for the 2011 census, there are concerns in Jammu and Kashmir that the predominantly Muslim region's demographics could be misrepresented for political purposes. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist leader opposed to New Delhi's rule in the region, has sounded alarm bells about the "real motive" behind the census counting in Kashmir, which he says is aimed at changing the state's Muslim character.
He has publicly spoken about a "conspiracy" hatched in New Delhi to include non-locals - migrant workers, for example, or deployments of Indian soldiers - in the counting in Kashmir in order to reduce the proportion of Muslims in the state and has asked the people to be "vigilant" and ensure that only genuine statistics were recorded by officials. "Whenever and wherever the officials try to include a non-Kashmiri in the population register, the people must object and resist it," he said.
Indeed, many Muslims fear that the region's demographics could be misrepresented by India to proportionally increase the number of non-Muslims and therefore make it difficult for the state to obtain either independence or become part of Pakistan. Nonetheless, counting began in Kashmir last week, numbering houses before moving on to people. The state governor, N N Vohra, said the census was of "crucial importance" for the harmonious development of Jammu and Kashmir and said the data to be collected will be utilised to lay the basis of future planning and infrastructure development.
The state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, sought to allay fears of ulterior motives in the census count, calling them "unwarranted". "Some people are creating noise on matters which have nothing to do with the issue of Kashmir or demographic character of our state," he said at a rally in the town of Rajouri on Monday. And not all separatists are against the census. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chairman of a faction of the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, an alliance of separatist parties and groups, said he was for the exercise but that it "must be transparent and not used as a tool to hoodwink the world community about the demographics of a state which is disputed".
India and Pakistan have contested the scenic Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir since their independence from Britain in 1947 and two of the three wars the South Asian neighbours have fought since that time have been over the region. The Jammu and Kashmir count in the last census, in 2001, was done in a haphazard fashion arising from boycott calls by separatists. According to that census, Jammu and Kashmir's total population stood at 10,143,700, with Muslims constituting 66.97 per cent, Hindus 29.63 per cent, Sikhs 2.03 per cent and Buddhists and others 1.36 per cent. Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim majority.
Kashmiri nationalists have come in for criticism of their own, with a regional leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Chaman Lal Gupta, accusing them on Monday of misleading officials in the 2001 census. He claimed data had been manipulated to show that the population in Jammu and Kashmir had grown by 31 per cent between 1991 and 2001, compared with 21 per cent over the same period in the rest of India, the implication being that Muslims are seeking to inflate their own numbers.
Against the background of suspicion, Kashmiri civil society activists have formed a group to create awareness at the grassroots level about the Census-2011. The Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies (KCSDS) has "resolved to analyse the implications of Census projections on Jammu and Kashmir based on validation techniques", said Hameeda Nayeem, a professor of English literature at the University of Kashmir in Srinigar, and one of the founding members of the group.
Prof Hameeda said past censuses were flawed and likely produced inaccurate figures. "People are concerned because the population projection of Jammu and Kashmir in the past censuses has had many loopholes in it," she said. "They are dissatisfied and disgusted at the demographic data presented in the successive censuses in the state. "In view of the importance of the demographic indicators for the state's socio-economic development and future political status, the census process and the data analysis need a greater level of civil society understanding and scrutiny."