Rukmini S’ 'Whole Numbers and Half Truths’ pushes back against misreading of data, misleading stories about India


India functions in myriad and baffling ways, making it challenging, particularly for data storytellers, to explain it in absolute numbers. And whenever we talk about numbers, data, a set of binary possibilities comes to our minds: what it hides and what it reveals. However, data should not only reveal itself fully—the ‘what’—but should also make you curious regarding ‘why’ it reveals what it does.

That’s what Chennai-based independent data journalist Rukmini S’s book Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (Context, an imprint of Westland) has achieved. It not only presents a unique narrative about what India does, where it lives, what it eats, how it votes, and so on, but it also relies heavily on credible data sources to conclude that “statistics alone don’t tell us everything. They need context, interpretation that’s free from ideological spin, and to be held up to the light.”

Staying committed to its belief of providing context to what the data reveals, Rukmini’s 326-pages long book explores little-argued angles to investigate the complete truth about the country, starting with its dealings with crime.

In its revealing first chapter, Rukmini mentions what the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does to “prevent the crime statistics from being ‘artificially inflated’.” She writes that they simply use the “most heinous” offence among the battery of crimes in which a person has been booked in their statistics. For example, a “deadly sexual assault” of a Delhi-based student wasn’t included under sexual assault statistics but murder.

But that’s when crime gets reported, she argues. Most people don’t wish to report them because often they feel that it isn’t “important enough” (28 per cent), while “the belief that the police could not help (20 per cen%) or did not want to help (17 per cent)” remain popular deterrents.

Contrary to the crime-inflation theory of the NCRB, Rukmini argues that states with “higher reported crime might actually be the ones doing a better job of ensuring full reporting.” Much of it’s also dependent on the structure of the police force. For example, more gender-based violence gets reported when more women are part of the police workforce. Kerala is a case in point.

The police, however, can only intervene when certain crimes are considered crimes in the first place. Rukmini compares police statistics with “relevant data from a large national health survey” for 2019-20 and finds that “over 95 per cent of the sexual violence women experienced was within marriage.”

Though for its nuanced writing, Rukmini’s should be celebrated for several reasons, for me, it stood out in unmasking the borrowed and collective victimhood of upper-caste, upper-class people, mostly Hindus, who love to see themselves as a minority.

In the chapter How Much Money Do Indians Make, Rukmini takes a jibe at this cohort: “Of all the narratives that Indians wrap around themselves—whether for disguise or for comfort—none is as dearly held as this one: I am middle class.” Rubbishing state’s affirmative action to bring minorities to the mainstream as poor-pleasing attitude, entitled masses of the country remain aloof to the ground reality. Sample this, for example: “Educational attainment of a Muslim child has fallen substantially over the last twenty years and inter-generational mobility is now considerably worse among Muslims than among SCs and STs.”

The upper-caste people also hold dear to themselves the idea of merit, ridiculing the bagging of jobs by minorities as risking productivity and efficiency at workplaces. To this claim, Rukmini offers Indian Railways’ findings. According to this fourth-largest network (in size), SC and ST inclusion has resulted in increased productivity and efficiency in some cases, while both the parameters remain unimpacted in others. This makes Rukmini concludes: “Facts sometimes don’t come in the way of feelings, in this case, the feeling of victimhood.” But little can be done of this feeling, which is gaining currency ever since Modi has become the prime minister of the country.

There’s also a stronger notion of India being a liberal country. Rukmini, who writes that truth is more complicated than it appears, notes that most Indians don’t “see liberalism as a virtue” by citing findings from several studies. Indian respondents in these studies have “expressed greater support for a ‘strong leader’ and for army rule than most other countries and the global average.” While some believe that “the State should punish those who do not say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’,” others “largely believe that women should be subservient to their husbands.”

Rukmini also points out that though both Hindus and Muslims detest interfaith marriages and that the “Muslims in India do not demonstrate more tolerance to people from other religious groups than Hindus; the difference lies in the patronage and State backing that muscular Hindu majoritarianism now receives.”

These sharp observations and commentary make Rukmini’s book a delight to read.

Whole Numbers and Half Truths also sheds light on data that gets shared out of context. Besides touching issues that are rather risky to traverse and assess objectively, Rukmini does a remarkable job in outlining how India votes and why most pollsters get the Indian pulse wrong.

In an extremely tight chapter, which is part criticism of pollsters, Rukmini notes that “‘development’ alone can never be a sufficient answer for the Muslim voter, with political disenfranchisement, social and financial boycotts, and physical insecurity being very real threats.” She also concludes from the data that though the Congress has been blamed historically for ‘pleasing’ its Muslim vote-bank, “if there is a truly loyal vote-bank in India, it is the BJP’s upper-caste Hindu vote-bank.”

Rukmini, with data backing her claims, also debunks an array of myths.

First, data reveals that “education levels do not seem to influence religious practice.” Second, despite unwarranted claims gaining prominence, “fertility is falling fast than anticipated” in the most-discussed fertile group: Muslims. Third, India is believed to be a vegetarian country but “no more than one-quarter to one-third vegetarian.” (The numbers could’ve been more revelatory if people from certain castes and groups never felt the pressure to mask meat-eating.)

And in several cases, Rukmini, or the data, shows a mirror to Indian society.

She observes that Dalits are being ghettoised in their constituencies and aren’t given unreserved positions. They also face discrimination in party politics. She also notes that young people are more likely to vote for BJP than Congress and the Left. And that “compared to earlier elections, voters were more likely to give credit to the Union government for welfare schemes, as opposed to state governments or local politicians.”

Describing discrimination on matrimonial websites, Rukmini finds that an “SC man was least likely to be contacted, despite all other variables—educational qualifications, salary and even skin colour—being nearly the same.”

All these insights, Rukmini opines, cannot be revealed if the interpreter is not willing to have an open mind and is looking for easy explanations. Data stories may change depending on the storyteller’s biases. And often these stories reek of upper-caste, cisgender-heteronormative privilege and ignore the nuances, and many truths, that untold stories at the intersections have to offer.

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Rukmini S’ 'Whole Numbers and Half Truths’ pushes back against misreading of data, misleading stories about India
Rukmini S’ 'Whole Numbers and Half Truths’ pushes back against misreading of data, misleading stories about India
ASE News
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