- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

NEW DELHI Accusations of fraud and political manipulation have dogged the first days of the second-largest head count in the world India's census 2001.

As 2 million enumerators fan through the country asking citizens questions like "What religion do you belong to?" some families complain that the answers are written down in pencil only to be changed later.

The Muslim League, the self-styled guardian of Muslim interests, claims that Hindu enumerators are tampering with the information in Bombay, the scene of bloody communal riots seven years ago, as part of a wider conspiracy to conceal the real strength of the Muslims in India.

According to the last census 10 years ago, Muslims form approximately 12 percent of the total population. In Kashmir, a majority Muslim state wracked by insurgency since 1989, the locals complain that the number of Muslims appears to be declining according to official figures.

"Politics in India has always revolved around numbers, and by undercounting the Muslims in a certain part of India you distort reality and thus you affect the welfare and development programs in the country which depend on these numbers," said Syed Shahbuddin, a former member of parliament and editor of the magazine Muslim Monthly.

The deputy registrar-general of the census, Raj Gautam Mitra, rejected the criticism.

"For the first time, all the people who provide the information are required to sign, or put their thumbprint if they are illiterate, at the bottom of the form once it's filled to show that they approve of the information written down so how can there be any fraud in this?"

Mr. Shahbuddin was quick to point out the flaw in the plan. "How can illiterates possibly know what has been written down about them? I believe that there should be independent educated monitors who move with the enumerators and can help people fill out the forms."

Enumerators are also getting into trouble for listing eunuchs as males, as the 23-question census form offers only two choices for listing a person's sex. Protests in one part of New Delhi by an angry group of eunuchs forced one enumerator to hurry away in fear.

"We would need to have a separate form to include eunuchs as a category, as it does not fit into the demographics we are looking at right now," said Mr. Mitra.

"Getting a correct count of a population that has crossed 1 billion people is also made difficult by the fact that some parts of the country are still not connected by roads. Some of the most difficult areas are in places in the northeast of the country like Arunachal Pradesh, but we must hope for the best," he said.

The 20-day count will end Feb. 28. Enumerators complain that the task has become much harder this time around, as people have become more suspicious.

"One household which should be done in half an hour now takes me almost two hours as people need to be convinced that the questions are being asked only for the purposes of the census and not for some other ulterior motive," said one enumerator who did not wish to be named.

Christians are also upset with the design of the form, which provides no way for lower-caste people to list themselves as anything but Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist.

In a legal notice issued to the registrar-general in charge of the census, the All India Christian Council claimed there was an attempt to communalize the process.

"There is no scope [within the form] for scheduled castes to claim to be Muslim, Christian, animist, indigenous, agnostic or no-faith categories," said Joseph D. Souza, president of the council.

To deny a lower-caste person the religion of his choice is in violation of the Indian constitution, the council says. Christians, who make up 2.32 percent of the population according to the last census, in recent years have been attacked and some even killed by hard-line Hindu groups.

Despite these hurdles, the head count continues even in earthquake-ravaged western Gujarat state, where about 30,000 people are believed to have died and many more have been driven from their homes and into hotels and tents.

"The enumerators have been asked to visit vacant flats at least four times," said D.P. Shah, the deputy city census officer. "Hopefully it will all be complete by the deadline, even if we have to work through the nights."

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