UN report cautions against misusing population data for societal divisions

Cites published literature, cases of ethno-nationalism, great replacement theory to make the point

Indivjal Dhasmana New Delhi

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The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has cautioned countries, including India, against misusing the population statistics to “fuel societal divisions”. A word of caution was sounded in UNFPA’s “State of World Population Report 2023”, which projected India's population to exceed China’s by 2.9 million by mid-2023.
“Indeed, the use or misuse of population statistics to fuel societal divisions is widespread and longstanding,” said the report.

Dipping into history, the UN agency said that in India, the rise of nationalism during the early 20th century was accompanied by rhetoric regarding the country's Muslim population, which was linked to unfounded fears that the Hindu religion would be endangered.
It referred to published works, including "A Dying Race" authored by Upendro Nath Mukerji and Bose in 1909, to make the point. The UNFPA quoted another work, "Census Enumeration, Religious Identity and Communal Polarization in India" by R B Bhagat (2012), to point out that these concerns were influenced by a biased reading of demographic data collected during the previous censuses, illustrating how data can be misused.

In India, for instance, data from the last population Census in 2011 showed that Muslims had witnessed a sharp fall in growth rate: from 29.52 per cent (1991-2001) to 24.60 per cent (2001-2011). Such a steep decline in the community's population growth rate hadn’t happened in six decades.
In general, the UN agency said dehumanising and extremist rhetoric can, in the worst cases, lead to organised violence against groups of people, including genocide.

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It said more recently, researchers have begun to observe and investigate how such language can also incite violence by random and unknown third party actors, a concept termed “stochastic violence", referring to a 2021 paper titled “Stochastic Terrorism: A Linguistic and Psychological Analysis” by Molly Amman and J Reid Meloy.
Elsewhere in the world, UNFPA said one extreme form of ethno-nationalism in Europe and other majority-White nations, which transcends national boundaries, is the “great replacement” ideology. The terminology of “great replacement” was popularised by French writer Renaud Camus, who claimed in 2011 that immigration from North Africa and West Asia would inevitably result in the end of French “culture”.

While Camus gave this viewpoint a name, the idea itself has been around for a long time, as shown by overt and covert discriminatory policies towards marginalised groups around the world, the UN body said.
The focus of the “threat” is often expressly racialised in many places, with claims that the White “race” is in danger of being outreproduced by the higher fertility of black and brown “races” and its culture diluted by immigration by these “races” — the terminology of “White genocide” is used alongside “great replacement”.

While this ideology is perhaps most commonly associated with countries in Europe and North America, versions of it appear in different contexts throughout the world, drawing divisions not only among races but also among religions, ethnicities and other classes of belonging, the report said.
Given how easily demographic data can be politicised, some countries have chosen not to collect or release it. Kenya did not release the census data on ethnicity in 1999 because of fears over how the political allegiance of different ethnic groups could be used to sow division. Lebanon has held only one census, in 1932, and has not held another for fear that demographic data on the population sizes of its different religious groups would upset the balance of power between those groups.

Likewise, Belgium does not collect data on the number of speakers of the country’s official languages, the UN agency pointed out. 

First Published: Apr 20 2023 | 1:35 PM IST

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