The devil cites accounts

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Faith makes you protest all manner of things — from the census to electricity

Krish Ashok


Illustration: Anand Naorem

The 2011 Indian Census will be the largest census in the history of mankind. An expenditure of Rs 2,209 crore. Eleven million tonnes of paper. Lakhs of man-hours. Not surprising, given that even folks like missionary-burning Bajrang Dal activists have stayed true to the Biblical diktat of being fruitful and multiplying. As one expects, this massive task is not without its share of controversies. First off, there was the case of the census question about one’s caste. Apparently, several intellectual, urban Indians whose parents were busy using caste to filter for suitable grooms and brides for them, had a problem with their census entries identifying them as belonging to a caste. But that’s nothing compared to the sort of ludicrous nonsense that’s been going on in Mizoram.

Apparently, some religious fanatics there have perceived the Unique Identity Project and the census as bad omens. Referring to quite possibly the most unhinged part of the Bible, the Book of Revelations, these religious people with low cognitive ability point to the verse 13:17 that says “No man might buy or sell, save the mark or the name of the beast or the number of his name”.

Of course, as any Mizo heavy metal rock fan (a surprisingly large demographic I am told) will tell you, the number of the beast is 666 and is usually followed by a memorable Iron Maiden riff, but we digress. If 666 or (other numbers that contain three sixes) was the only problem, I am sure a simple solution can be found. Unchristian numbers could be reserved for, well, non-Christians perhaps.

But wait, the verse ain’t done yet — “Before the end comes, the number and symbol of the Beast or Satan would be distributed to mankind and everybody would be counted by the Prince of Darkness.” Aah. So these worthies have a problem with the fundamental notion of numbers being assigned to people because that is a sign of the end. The Prince of Darkness apparently likes counting, and if accountants and finance people are anything to go by, I am slightly inclined to agree with the Book of Revelations. But that’s really not the point.

Fanatics in Mizoram have perceived the Unique Identity Project and the census as bad omens

The crux of this problem is not one of those usual Indian platitudes which we trot out at short notice — such as the lack of education or modernisation but really a deeper challenge in perception management. There’s no point in ridiculing the scriptures or questioning these people’s intelligence. Faith, like a malignant tumour, is a hard thing to deal with.

This anecdote from a different era gives us a clue. In the 1950s, when the Indian government was electrifying villages for the first time (no, not by performing Iron Maiden songs as you would imagine), they encountered one problem frequently. Village elders would often express reservations about this new-fangled electricity thing for which they did not even possess adjectives to describe. Was it hot? Would it not burn them?

As the story goes, the engineers apparently convinced the elders in several villages (using hitherto unsuspected powers of imagination) that this electricity came from hydroelectric projects very high up in the snow-covered mountains so it was by nature cool.

Back in our times, perhaps the census officials also seek a simple solution. They could explain (quite truthfully actually) to the Doubting Thomases of Aizawl and elsewhere that the census data is secret and that the law ensures that nobody can access these records. Not even Satan. Anyway, what they should know is that all of this tomfoolery wouldn’t be required a few generations from now.

Once everybody is online, governments just need to ask Google or Facebook. Not even the devil can hide his identity from these chaps.

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