Faulty Numbers behind the USCIRF
India’s response to the USCIRF’s report over the years, has been the same, yet different. It has cited the same colonial-missionary conspiracy to dismiss the reports over the years, while merely modulating the volume of the delivery. While it’s undeniable that the explanation makes sense to the native observers, what is less appreciated is also the fact that it sounds like hogwash to those who really run the world i.e the Western nations. Indeed, it’s even more untenable now, since the chair of USCIRF is himself a Tibetan Buddhist refugee brought up in India – a fact that is mentioned in his note of dissent in the report. Hence, much careful thought is needed on how these reports are accumulated, what is measured, and the processes for doing so.
The United States, like all protestant nations, has a history of caring for religious freedom as they define it. This comes with notions about rights (a grant from the Christian god), and freedom to proselytize etc. The US is so keen and impartial in this regard, that it has been known to deduct points off of such allies like Germany for placing limits on groups like the Church of Scientology and Jehovah’s witnesses. USCIRF, the organization started to monitor religious freedom around the world, may only be about two decades old but it institutionalizes processes that have been refined in the American academia and think-tanks for decades. The data that goes into its annual report is mainly based off of stories gathered from local news-media, NGOs, and its (predominantly WASPy) embassy officials. The stories set the tone \ color of the reporting, but extrapolating these to a large nation like India, requires quantitative figures to support them.
The measure du jour of religious freedom, is one that is annually published by the Pew Research Center. Its annual reports rank 197 countries on two cumulative indexes – a Social Hostilities Index (SHI), and Government Restrictions Index (GRI). The indexes, the think-tank claims, are highly reliable ways to quantify communal and state conflicts of religious nature, and have seen increasing use in their first decade of compilation. On the hostilities index, India, shockingly, beats out war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria to claim the infamous position as having the most social-religious hostilities in the world. India, however, has also been painted as the most egregious violator of human/women/religious in recent years, so perhaps it’s to be expected. It’s not like newspapers/think-tanks have ever been proven to be peddling lies for geopolitical gain or anything.
The Pew report has been presented as unassailable proof of India’s heinousness in many international forums, including the UN, EU, and the US congress. It has found mention in very text of the HRes.417 passed in the January 2014, sitting amidst a laundry list of supposed anti-minority incidents. The Pew indexes were later cited by human rights advocates, and the director of USCIRF, in a hastily arranged congressional panel on the plight of religious minorities in India, held on the eve of the 2014 elections. Their cultural dependents were also found to be quick in joining in on the global hysteria, feeding them in turn, with many more colorful stories – a colonial relationship that has stood every ill-weather and ideology for over two centuries. Despite its increasing stature, there has been little study done on the actual methodology used in computing the Pew index, and has been considered gospel truth.
Quantitative comparisons between countries requires a measure derived by low-level data such as crime-rate statistics, since comparing them directly between countries is not easy. The problem of measuring religious liberty numerically has a history of more than 8 decades – the first of such compilations was by M. Searle Bates in 1945, writing for the International Missionary Council, from his professorial perch in Nanking. The metric used by the Pew Research Center is based off of the work by Grim & Finke from 2006, which in turn traces its origin to the first report by the US Dept. of State in 2003. The Pew index is computed by scoring a questionnaire for each country, using crime-data and local reportage, to determine certain ’latent states’ that (ostensibly) govern the religious freedom in the countries. The epistemic validity of this measure has however been established/validated, not through rigorous testing, or by large inter-religious committees, but by merely establishing its corelation with indices and rankings previously collated by missionary organizations. There is little conceptual clarity in what precisely it measures and it’s not at all clear if this is religious freedom inasmuch as it is christian-religious freedom.
Conceptual issues aside, the Pew hostilities index hides a critical flaw that has gone unnoticed for decades – it is intimately dependent on the size of the country. The questionnaire used in the computation of the hostilities index are composed either of yes/no-type predicate questions or those that measure violent incidents on a saturating scale. The nature of the questionnaire, therefore allows one to lower bound the SHI for a hypothetical geographical union of countries, by taking the maximum of the scores for every question. Consider an illustration: if a woman were to be harassed for religion in country A and not B, then the geographical union A∪B would still have harrassed the woman. Naturally, bigger the country, the more likely it is for someone to be harassed this way. This property completely flies in the face of established methods which account for population sizes – methods which generally place India as a generally benign (yet poor) region. The Pew index, being unnormalized, is reflective of such genius click-baits like ’OMG! <x> women killed/raped in India every minute’, that we’ve come to expect from the world media, and perhaps now from their impartial think-tanks as well.
The lack of normalization also allows one to readily show the absurdity of the rankings by computing the mean scores for large coherent entities like the EU, the African continent, and Anglo-Saxon nations. The results of this computation (tabulated in (Table 1)) show amongst other things, that even the EU, the very doyen of human rights, fares worse than all three tragically war-torn nations: Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan. The scores of larger Europe hover around that of India while still being lower in population by a few hundred million – like India, they remain alarmingly high compared to countries in a state of endless civil war. In reality, as noted by the Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria alone experienced about 1,500 casualties from the ongoing religious conflict in 2016 – Boko-Haram alone killed 12,000 people in Nigeria between 2013 and 2015. A single ISIL attack on a Shiite shrine in Syria led to 83 casualties. India by comparison was mostly affected by secessionists, with religion contributing to less than 100 terror-inflicted casualties, with Europe faring even better. The difference in casualties is even more marked considering the sea of difference in the populations. Yet, India – if not Europe – is clearly worse.
In hindsight, it is not surprising that all the ’validity tests’ used in formulating this highly reliable measure failed to detect such egregious inconsistencies – only two out of a 197 nations exceed 500 million in population. There is also the issue of deception – as was hinted earlier, the questionnaire is obsessed with Christian issues like proselytism and has an inordinate number of questions relating to this – it is of course openly designed to corelate with these issues. Yet, it is somehow supposed to be a universal secular index, meant to promote freedom and democracy for all. Sadly, as noted by S N Balagangadhara, this bait-and-switch technique of taking Christian concepts/measures and turning them overnight into secular – and thereby universal – ones, is a theme that has played out too many times in history.
Jakob de Roover, in his book Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism has pointed out how little, we in India, understand about these concepts birthed in Europe. Scholars routinely skirt around the basic legal issues such as the standing of these rights, when they are in conflict with one another, with the state, or when they cause conflict with communities that have no such competing notion at all. For instance, contrary to hazy romanticism of Nehruvian secularism, a state agreeing to grant rights like right to proselytize is not because it’s of universally valid, but precisely because it’s commanded by the Christian god. In the case of a conflict with the natives, it shouldn’t be surprising to find the Indian state caught in a schizophrenic fit, madly trying to balancing the diktats of the Christian god with the needs of its citizens! Elsewhere, the Indian state has reduced the operation/management of everything in Hindu temples/monasteries to a secular affair, thereby turning itself into, either the largest Hindu-religious state, or as an egregious violator of right to religious practice (as accepted in most Western legal systems) – or perhaps a quantum state of both. The incoherent nature of the legal precedents that have governed such issues betray the complete lack of understanding in academia, politics and law. This may also explain, psychologically, why Indian traditions, having never had such notions as rights, have never really resisted (instead often enthusiastically supporting) state control, while Islam and Christianity are extremely careful in avoiding it (as the recent Triple-Talaq issue has shown).
Interestingly, in the case of India, the Pew GRI questionnaire takes cognizance of the egregious constitutional-judicial-legislative infractions on the rights of India’s own native traditions. The state routinely interferes in Hindu practices and usurps the funds/properties of their institutions in the name of secularism. However, this plain legal reality is completely turned on its head by attributing these numbers, entirely (without evidence) to the only social theory about India: that it is a society run by corrupt upper-caste Hindus (code for Brahmins) by oppressing Non-Hindus and Dalits. The Pew and the USCIRF reports alike, by parroting the hinduphobic media at home and abroad, are also quick to label cases of cattle-theft/retaliation as an Hindutva attack on Muslims and Dalits. The con runs deeper – attacks by jihadi outfits in India, while being counted by the Pew questionnaires, are later used to justify the Orwellian spin in their reports – Hindus on the attack!. Narratives on caste-atrocities on Dalits have also been shown to be unsupported by crime-rate data by Dunkin Jalki & Sufiya Pathan in the book Western Foundations of the Caste System, and by Nihar Sashital writing for Swarajya.
It’s to the credit of Tenzin Dorjee, chair of USCIRF, for speaking out on how detached from reality, the report is, but India’s own retort leaves much to be desired. It’s also telling that no one in power – not the American freedom warriors, nor their retainers at home, nor the supposed Hindu nationalists, have expressed any concerns for the blatant violations on the rights of India’s numerous indigenous micro-traditions. Considering all these occulted undercurrents, India needs to be wary of its new found best friend – the media narrative being built up with such religious fervor, is not dissimilar from the decade-long moves that have preceded regime-change wars across the world. There is enough precedent to go by – India is merely replaying a role against China, that China once did against the USSR – but its ability to benefit off of its current position is dubitable (a repeat of its role in the Opium and World wars, as the Chinese would be well aware). The narratives have already started affecting India’s commercial interests across the world; they are often used to arm-twist the nation into agreeing into positions it would otherwise not. It also creates an explosive situation at home by feeding historical fissures and conflicts; exploiting them in ways the British colonial state did in the centuries prior. In the distant future, should its self-interest ever be in irredeemable conflict with the powers that be, India shouldn’t be surprised to find moderate rebels marching with weapons, bringing human bodies freedom from the large melons that sit atop of them. The silver lining ? Once India is broken up, the sub-continent will fare much better on the Pew indexes.
Table 1: Geographical unions/Nations with the highest mean GRI/SHI scores over all nine Pew reports. In the above table, 5E: 5 Anglo-Saxon nations, EU : European Union, EFTA : 4 EFTA nations, EU-FUTURE : 6 Balkan states & Turkey, DCFTA : Ukraine, Georgia & Moldova, RUSSIA : Belarus & Russia.
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