Terms of Trade | Sectarian politics and its statistical hubris - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Sectarian politics and its statistical hubris

Aug 04, 2023 09:08 AM IST

Dismissing growing concern around incidents of sectarian violence by citing other numbers for communal harmony is a wrong application of statistical law

The law of large numbers is one of the foundational theorems of modern statistics. It basically says that as the size of a randomly drawn sample increases, the divergence between the observed mean and the expected mean of the population as a whole will also come down.

Paramilitary personnel stand guard in Haryana's Nuh as curfew is imposed. On Monday, large-scale violence erupted after a religious procession led by myriad Hindu groups passed through a Muslim-dominated town in the Nuh district of Haryana.(ANI) PREMIUM
Paramilitary personnel stand guard in Haryana's Nuh as curfew is imposed. On Monday, large-scale violence erupted after a religious procession led by myriad Hindu groups passed through a Muslim-dominated town in the Nuh district of Haryana.(ANI)

One can give a simple example to cut through statistical jargon.

If you toss a coin, the probability of getting heads is 50%. However, this does not mean that one will get exactly one head for two tosses of the coin. But if the coin were to be tossed ten, hundred or thousand times, it is more likely that the share of heads will become increasingly close to the halfway mark.

Why is a political economy column discussing a theorem on statistics and probability theory? Let us look at some things which have been dominating the news cycle.

The events in Manipur, keeping our collective distress aside, continue to make a mockery of the state’s monopoly on violence. It is only the state, which can authorise the use of physical force, and this condition is considered to be the bedrock of a modern state.

Armed militias continue to inflict violence, and a lot of the weapons being used have been looted from state armouries. There is enough evidence to suggest that the unrest is now proliferating beyond the state’s borders.

On Monday, in what was clearly a case of communal hate crime, a Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel shot his senior colleague and three Muslim passengers in a moving train in India’s financial capital Mumbai. While hate crimes are deeply troubling on their own, the fact that the perpetrator is a part of the state’s armed police makes it even worse.

On Monday itself, large-scale violence that was clearly communal in nature erupted after a religious procession led by myriad Hindu groups passed through a Muslim-dominated town in the Nuh district of Haryana.

The place is just a few kilometres away from the National Capital. While there is no question of condoning the violence, there are questions about the lackadaisical attitude of the police on the day of the incident; rumours of a cow vigilante criminal accused of killing Muslims participating in the procession added fuel to the charged atmosphere.

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing trend among administrations, especially in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to demolish the houses of people accused of various crimes without any due process of law.

Such tactics are increasingly being used by the state to brandish its intolerance towards criminals while the due process of the criminal justice system becomes collateral damage. It is very likely that bulldozers will be deployed in Nuh also.

In another set of developments, the politicisation of the ongoing legal dispute around the Kashi Vishwanath temple and Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi seems to recall the events associated with Ayodhya over three decades ago.

The irony here is that the 1991 Places of Worship Act, which is still on our statutes, should ideally have prevented the legal dispute in the first place.

“In this situation, expect more such religious disputes to be dredged up and inflame a communal sense of historical injustice. And, for these disputes to spill more and more from the courtroom into the political arena,” HT said in its editorial on August 1.

One could go on to give more such examples. The larger point is that a lot of political commentators cite these instances to argue that Indian polity, society and state are increasingly moving towards a situation where majoritarianism and ethnic conflict are becoming pervasive.

Is this really the case?

One could make a very different set of arguments to answer this question.

In their recently published book, Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State, political scientists Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur provide hard statistical evidence to show that large-scale violence has actually declined in India in the first two decades of this century.

Even if one were to count the recent violence in Manipur or local communal flare-ups, we are nowhere close to the levels of violence which existed in the country in the 1980s.

Similarly, a 2019-29 Pew Research survey, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, shows that while Indians are conservative in their religious outlook, an overwhelming majority of people across all religious groups pay a lot of importance to respect other religions.

In other words, the average Hindu or Muslim is not full of hate against each other’s communities.

It is these large sample statistics which are often cited to argue that the voices that are concerned about growing majoritarianism and violence in India have based their narrative on data points which are outliers to the larger picture of declining violence and large-scale communal harmony which is seen in larger sample-based studies.

The play of larger numbers

This is where the law of large numbers comes into play. While there are a few incidents of concern, conclusions based on larger samples, which the law of large numbers tells us are more likely to capture the larger story, suggest that there is no reason to worry.

This can be used to argue that anybody who claims that India is on the verge of a pan-nation civic conflict or breakdown of law and order is exaggerating things.

The question worth asking is will such a law of large numbers argument always provide insurance – and reassurance – for India? The only caveat worth keeping in mind is that applying something like a law of large numbers to the political landscape misses the point that political attitudes are a dynamic not static construct.

If political actors realise that there are clear rewards to be reaped by deploying a divisive and polarising tactics in politics – this holds for players from both the majority and minority groups – there will be a big proliferation in the deployment of such tactics during and between elections, and the evidence so far suggests that this process might have begun already.

If allowed to gain momentum, it can extract a very large human and economic cost.

This is exactly why the government should firmly act against all incidents and attempts, which try to vitiate the social fabric of the country.

It should not treat such attempts as yet another sectarian political manoeuvre, which will have no impact on social harmony and the rule of law as seen in the existing wisdom based on the law of large numbers.


Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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