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CENSUS AND

IDENTITY FORMATION
IN BRITISH INDIA
AND THEREAFTER
HISTORY II
II YEAR
I TRIMESTER
2009

Amlan Mohanty
[1625]
Date of Submission: August 12, 2009

National Law School of India University

TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION..............................................................................................................1

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY......................................................................................2

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES....................................................................................................2

SCOPE AND LIMITATIONS..................................................................................................2

SOURCES......................................................................................................................2

MODE OF CITATION.........................................................................................................3

HYPOTHESIS..................................................................................................................3

RESEARCH QUESTIONS.....................................................................................................3

CHAPTER I: ......................................................................................................................4
History of the British India Census
CHAPTER II: ....................................................................................................................7
Census and Identity Formation
CHAPTER III: ..................................................................................................................14
The Politics of Census Data in pre and post-independence India

CONCLUSION...................................................................................................................17
BIBLIOGRAPHY...............................................................................................................19

marking distinct categories for them to identify with. stimulating the process of identity formation. but this paper seeks to analyse the role of the census in such a process. The peculiarities of the Indian social system were perhaps a source of concern for the British and the changes that took place after the introduction of the census have been scrutinised. It is doubtless that the nature of social organisation is such that it is constantly changing and requires no external stimulus. with particular attention to the principal modes of social organisation employed by the British through the census. the census as an institution that implicitly or explicitly serves to induce this process. The roots of an institution such as the census are enmeshed in political considerations and the politics associated with the census have been given due consideration. It is important to understand the role of the census. This paper attempts to trace the background in which the colonial endeavour to accumulate systematic information about the Indian people was set in motion. not merely as a passive administrative instrument primarily involved in keeping a national headcount. is worthy of attention. Since caste and religion were considered the foundations of Indian society based on the Orientalist perception. it is hoped that a deeper insight into the cultural processes involved in the formation of identities will be highlighted. prior to the coming of the British. The colonial census is of particular interest as it is an administrative instrument by which populations are divided into neat categories. they formed the core for enumerative classifications and as a result. right from the divisive strategies of the British to the homogenising strategies of today. which flatten and enclose the people. What is important to analyse is whether the Indian people were receptive to the invasive nature of the census that sought to encroach upon their primaeval social identities. but one that has been actively utilised to complement political agendas. the impact of the census on identity formation was greatest on the caste and religious identities of the people.INTRODUCTION With an outpouring of interest in the nature of collective identities and the process of reification. and the underlying motives for such an expansive operation. that existed in a primitive form. objectification and perpetuation of these identities. 1 . By analysing the enumerative strategies of the British.

this process. and is limited to a general study of census operations in India. journal articles. reports of census commissioners and commentaries in response to such reports. and to test the hypothesis of caste and religious based identities being hardened and perpetuated through the enumeration of the people in British India. the ramifications of census operations on identity have been analysed only to a limited extent. the enumerative modalities and classificatory strategies employed and the responses of the Indian people to such an institution. SCOPE AND LIMITATIONS The scope of this paper extends. based on such classifications. with a focus on its impact on identity formation and an emphasis on the British India census. given that they were the focus of the colonial endeavour to understand India and Indians. SOURCES The researcher has depended entirely on secondary sources such as books. and the census forms of the British India censuses to interpret the nature of questions that were posed to the respondents. they have been studied separately. although they were significant consequences. Rather. 2 . the processes involved in identity generation and expression have been emphasised. The objective of this paper is to understand the effect of census operations on the identities of the Indian people. to infer how and why the census impacts the collective consciousness of the people. to understand the demographic transition that occurred during that period. without delving into the complexities of caste and communal politics post-1947.RESEARCH METHODOLOGY AIMS AND OBJECTIVES: The researcher aims to study the overt and ulterior motives in British India colonial census operations. Though the census has had a considerable impact on other aspects of Indian society. that set in motion. starting from the first census in 1872 to the 2001 census. The only primary sources that have been looked at were the census tabulations of the 1901 census. but neither have been utilised as research material. Since caste and religious classifications had their own distinct consequences. Given the spacial constraints of this paper. only caste and religious identities have been scrutinised.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS 1) What prompted the British to conduct census operations in India and are there any discernible factors that arose from the socio-political conditions in Britain and India that actuated it? 2) What are the processes involved in the creation and prolongation of collective identities as a result of census operations and was such a phenomenon observed in the Indian context? 3) What were the changes in the functioning of community systems prior to the British census and after? Was this a direct consequence of British enumerative strategies? 4) How did the census impact caste and religious identities and were these changes the result of British calculations or a product of Indian responses to census classifications. 2002). 2007). Title of the Book. Year of Publication). Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. Place of Publishing: Publisher. Page Number (Month of Publication. B. Bhagat. 84 (New Delhi. R. HYPOTHESIS: The British India census served to perpetuate caste and religious identities through the enumeration of these communities. Volume Number(Issue Number) Name of Journal. Dipesh Chakrabarty. Articles have been cited as follows: Author. 42(21) Economic and Political Weekly. given that such classifications emerged from colonial interests and impacted Indian identities significantly? 6) Do political agendas and discourses dictate the nature of census data that is made available and have caste and religious identities been affected by such political intent? 3 . “Title of the Article”. Eg. Books have been cited as follows: Author. or both? 5) Is there a need for caste and religious based enumeration in post-independence India. “Caste Census”. Eg. Page Number (Edition Number (if any). Year of Publication). (May. 1903. Permanent Black.MODE OF CITATION A uniform mode of citation has been employed throughout the paper.

which was certain to exhaust their administrative energies and hit the British exchequer considerably. 231 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 84 (New Delhi: Permanent Black. 5 Sumit Guha.4 As the representatives of European Enlightenment.3 their aspiration for fairness and just administration.CHAPTER I: History of the British India Census In tracing the history of the British India census to present day operations and their implications on identity. “The Census and Objectification in South Asia”.2 Such systematic collection of statistics in detail and in specific categories. 1894). The basis of any historical investigation is to locate the context in which certain events take place and it is in this regard that the motives for British India census operations. Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. 1987). 3 Dipesh Chakrabarty. its interest in 'political arithmetic and statistic' as an instrument of governance.1 As Bernard Cohn rightly puts it. which Foucalt emphasises in his works on governmentality. for the purpose of ruling seems to be intimately tied to modern ideas of government. 4 Michael Foucault. “Modes of Census-Taking in the British Dominions”. 2 Bernard Cohn. Having brought with them the intellectual baggage of eighteenth century Europe. the history of the Indian census must be seen in the total context of the efforts of the British colonial government to collect systematic information about many aspects of society and economy. sourced from An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. 323 (June. it is perhaps prudent to first outline the essential questions that will be encountered. and to eliminate extraneous enquiries that are tangential to our purpose of study. Blackwell Publishing. hallmarks of 'modern governmentality'. their early attempts at such enumeration and the prevailing socio-political conditions in Britain and in India must be studied. MOTIVES OF THE BRITISH IN CONDUCTING THE CENSUS The most fundamental question that deserves examination is the British motive for conducting such a massive operation. the British inherited and dispensed the ideas of rationalism and scientific temper in the sphere of Indian society. is not especially surprising. and this chapter seeks to answer those questions. 57(2) Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.5 The increasing systematisation of these 1 Reginald Hooker. “The Politics of Identity and Enumeration in India c. 1980). 52 (New York: Pantheon Books. 2002). 45(1) Comparative Studies in Society 4 . demonstrated through the interest of the colonial masters in understanding the 'problems of population'. Power/Knowledge. 1600-1990”.

and it was as if during these years after the rebellion. The initiation of the census operations soon after the Great Rebellion.9 It appears that there is some basis on which their claims are footed. 198 (New Delhi: Permanent Black. Cambridge University Press. Report on the Census of Bengal. 6 7 8 9 10 5 . 155 (January.7 It is also interesting to note that support for this justification seems to be restricted to the writings of British census officials. in 1901. Nicholas Dirks. the centralisation and control over knowledge was tantamount to centralisation and control over power itself. The search for 'scientific precision'. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Ideologies of the Raj. 1872. 2002). 1991). 11 Bendict Anderson. Beverley argued that without such information. cannot be dismissed as a mere coincidence. one must recollect instances where 'administrative necessity' was the justification for some of the most deplorable policy decisions of the British. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. 117 (New Delhi: Foundation Books. H. Henry Beverly. the spread of education and public health measures. the incidence of local and imperial taxes. 21 (London: Verso.'8 Similarly. 2003) . the recording of 'exact images' by photography. Thomas R. for there is no doubt that the census was related in fundamental ways to imperial projects such as military recruitment. Risley states that such information would relate to 'almost every form of executive action'. The 1857 uprising made it clear that the British knew far too little about the colonised populations of India and a detailed and systematic ethnographic study was of paramount importance to them. H. sufficiency of food supplies.categories was also intimately connected with the development of photography in Europe at the time. but to gain perspective.6 The official rationale for the taking of the census was based on administrative necessity. emigration and immigration and even the control of prostitution. logically complemented and warranted the compiling of such statistical information. but a deeper analysis of the other theories surrounding their motives must be looked at as well. 1 (New Delhi: Gian Publishing. The justification of 'administrative convenience' for the partition of Bengal in 1905 is one such instance. who adduce evidence with typical diplomatic sharpness. 1989). 2002). the organisation of adequate judicial and police arrangements. For instance.10 The relation between knowledge and power cannot be understated and the census as an institution of power was of particular interest to the British. maintaining law and order.11 The census project was part of an attempt by the British to and History. Metcalf. Stated in the first issue of Man magazine. 'the basis is wanting on which to found accurate opinions on such important matters as the growth and rate of increase of the population.

Colonialism and its forms of Knowledge: The British in India. 1996)." as sourced from Orientalism and the Post-colonial Predicament.enumerate their possessions. While the Mughal enumerative activities were tied to taxation. to understand the resource potential of the dominion and to have the power to dictate socioeconomic visibility of particular communities. the Government of India carried out a series of censuses which they hoped would provide a cross-sectional picture of the "progress" of their rule. and utilising it to their benefit in the course of their administration in India.12 Thus. As part of the imperial settlement project after the repression of the Indian uprising of 1857-1858. "Number in the Colonial Imagination. sub-consciously aware of its ramifications on the identities of the Indian people. which was essential for strengthening the colonial grip over the people. 13 Arjun Appadurai. Perhaps the underlying motives of the British is elucidated best by the contrast between pre and post-British census operations. 6 .. 1993). Peter van der Veer and Carol Breckenridge). (eds. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press.13 12 Bernard Cohn. the main objectives in detailed census taking were to understand the demographic and social structure of the country. 316 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. especially the Christians. the British extended it to group identities..

one can identify the function it plays in systematising and perpetuating collective identities. to categorise populations by creating definitive boundaries around shifting identities. conspire to emerge. 12 (Cambridge: University Press. Ian Hacking's concept of 'dynamic nominalism' serves as a useful tool in understanding the effect of the census on ethnic identities. we may draw upon the theories constructed by sociologists. The essence of his hypothesis is that people spontaneously come to fit the categories that have been created for them. a humdrum exercise in accounting that plays no significant role in the conditioning and construction of social realities.CHAPTER II: Census and Identity Formation The intricate relationship between the census and identity formation is often clouded by the impression of the census as a mere bureaucratic routine. as the adoption of an inter-disciplinary approach in this context enables us to understand a process that seemingly cuts across both. stemming from enumeration. The British too endeavoured to divide the people in their dominions into mutually exclusive and exhaustive identity categories.14 and with the belief that caste and religion were the sociological keys to understanding India. The relevance of such a sociological phenomenon 14 David Kertzer and Dominique Arel. carries with it the intrinsic burden of shaping identities and this is precisely what happened with the colonial census. To assess the impact of the census on identity formation. On closer inspection. Census and Identity: The Politics of Race. at the same time the kind itself. hand in hand. 7 . 1986).'15 It is not so much that certain communities or identities were recognised by colonial bureaucrats and students of human nature. but rather that these identities came into being. 15 Ian Hacking. Ethnicity and Language in National Censuses. administrable and legible. was being invented. to make society more manageable. the Indian people were categorised through the census. 2002). sourced from Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy. He explains how the 'classifications and the classes they aspire to accommodate. THE IMPACT OF CENSUS ON IDENTITIES The very idea of representation tied to notions of proportionality. and the Self in Western Thought. they were used as categories around. “Making Up People”. we may extend it to those fashioned for them by the colonial authorities. and in this specific case. each egging the other on. historical and sociological disciplines. Individuality. 228 (California: Stanford University Press. and within which.

community and organisation. communities had 'fuzzy' boundaries. 1903. The basic premise around which this paper is being written is that caste as it exists today is the product of a historical encounter between India and the British colonial rule that has perpetuated its existence by providing a single term capable of expressing. presenting a Brahmanical ideal of social assembly and caste. when he says that in pre-British India. primarily based on the chaturvarna system.18 An implicit function of the census was that it took over the historical role 16 Norbert Peabody. Bhagat. ‘The Imaginary Institution of India’ sourced from Subaltern Studies VII. and in substance. Brahman or Kshatriya. “Caste Census”. that boundaries need not necessarily coincide with British classifications and that not all of us are fat or short. Census: Human Inventories in Late Precolonial and Early Colonial India” 43 (4). 8 . they became 'enumerated'. prevents the individual's exploration of his or her complex and intricately designed selfhood. B. “Cents. the biggest problem with this was the fact that the British understanding of caste was based on their reading of Oriental literature as well as their reliance on local scholars of Hindu scriptures. 20 (New Delhi: Oxford Press.Partha Chatterjee and G Pandey).in the Indian context can be explained by Inden's philosophy of 'essentialism'. (May. incapable of convergence and intersections with other identifiable categories is taken forward by Kaviraj.17 The problem with such identity generation is that it fails to concede on the point that the existence of vague boundaries is normal. 2001). 18 R. 820 (October. through the census. Comparative Studies in Society and History.. As already explained earlier. that do not admit of either-or divisions. The idea that the enumeration of the Indian people helped in their categorisation into water-tight compartments. and rendered them passive.16 The persistence of these imagined essences not only denied Indians the ability to act by exerting power. thereby yoking them to unchanging and determinate natures. CASTE AND THE CENSUS Perhaps the most complex questions for the census takers arose over the question of caste. but it also justified British interventions into India in order to act for the Indian people. giving us discrete kinds of identities. organising and above all systematising India's diverse forms of social identity. However. 42(21) Economic and Political Weekly. 1993). the concern about social order was foremost in the minds of the British and the political centrality of caste was first expounded through the census. which installed caste as the fundamental unit of India's social structure. tall or thin. (eds. Sense. Cambridge University Press. but in British India. by which he means that Indians were made aware of their core identities. 17 Sudipta Kaviraj. 2007).

21 Supra note 18. At the social level. to acquire new identity through enumeration. But it appears almost impossible to think that the caste system could be mapped and organised into a cleanly structured and hierarchically ordered grid. and thereby identity formation. For example.20 Perhaps the most influential policy decision on identity formation was H. Risley's attempt to draw up a list of castes ordered on the basis of 'social precedence'. wanted to be recorded in the 1901 census as Rajputs. as it were. but aspired for greater social prestige and social benefits that were provided by membership to higher castes. is significant in that there was substantial input from these relatively privileged. trying to decipher a verifiable correlation between caste and social status. the underprivileged found an opportunity to express their aspiration and if possible. 20 Sumit Sarkar. 45 (New Delhi: Permanent Black. History. as listed in the British census forms and their determined attempts at social mobility was an intrinsic factor in the formation of their identities. a a small group in Punjab. In the census. 9 . including the ability to promote as well as demote castes.21 The vast outpouring of claims to higher status came mostly from the middling castes. and handed it over to the new colonial rulers.19 The role of the dominant classes in the census classificatory strategies of the British. 2002). high-caste indigenous groups in influencing the 'colonial knowledge'. many people thought the object of the census was to fix the relative social position of the different social classes and to deal with questions of social superiority. who were previously content with their abidance within the 'fuzzy boundaries' of the pre-colonial society. there was a surge in demands among many castes to organise and represent their interests in terms of caste identities and as a result many lower caste people represented themselves as higher castes in order to raise their social status. the Mahtons.which Indian rulers had played as final arbiters of the ranking of castes. Hindutva. given that nuances of rank would be so slight. stemming not only from considerations of assumed social standing but also from the direct administrative benefits such a denomination 19 Id. Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism. that the position of every caste and sub-caste in the social ladder could be distinguished and determined precisely. Since social and economic advantages accrued to some castes and not to others in the traditional hierarchy. despite customary social practices and unwritten social norms dictating social status.H.

22 Bernard Cohn. ii) the kind of aspirations expressed by the respondents in their replies. a direct consequence of the reinscribing of social precedence through the colonial enumerative strategies. urged lower caste groups to aim for higher social status. sourced from An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. administrative benefits guaranteed to certain castes. at 46. and the dynamism and fluidity that existed prior to the British coming to India. the British enumeration of castes did serve the administrative interests of colonialism as caste was traditionally associated with specific occupation and functions. indicative of the 'substanstialisation' and politicisation of caste. as sourced from Dimensions of Social Change in India. 24 Deepa Reddy. resulting in public perception of them being a single ‘caste’. the publication of statistical data demonstrating a Brahman monopoly of the civil service and securing a dominant societal position for themselves. “The Evolution of Political Arenas and Units of Social Organisation: The Lingayats and Okkaligas of Princely Mysore”.22 Petitions were organised by caste sabhas and sometimes helped to prod the authorities into accepting caste names considered more respectable. and iii) the effect of the publication of the census figures on the personal and collective identity of the people. To tie up up the threads expressed above. 2005). the numerous subdivisions and complexities were brushed aside for convenience. Mysore and Bombay. is also illustrated through the strong anti-Brahmin movements in Madras. with caste consciousness being actively expressed through the census. 2000). 174 (New Delhi: Oxford Publishing. provided an anti-Brahman rhetoric which was carried forward through political representations and creation of political parties. there were a lot of faulty classifications. In essence. 78(3) Anthropological Quarterly. determined by: i) the kind of classification and questions the British sought to introduce in the census. 25 James Manor. 23 Supra note 20. 10 .would bring them. the gaps between the higher and lower castes widened. Secondly. was dissolved. For example.25 The underlying proposition advanced by me in the above analysis is that the effect of census on identity formation is of a tripartite nature. impractical and rigid interpretations of the caste system by the British.24 Also as a result of their attempt to locate precise boundaries around these fuzzy communities. as explained below. The above proposition can be extended to religious communities as well. it is clear that through traditional classificatory techniques based on the varna system. leading to the reification of their identities and lastly. 549 (June. with the “Okkaliga” community.23 The effect on the identities of people from such non-functional. in the form of official posts. 1987). 249 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press. “The Census and Objectification in South Asia”. “The Ethnicity of Caste”.

2003). 4352 (November. their congealing into distinct.28 To test the proposition outlined in the previous chapter. 11 . Bhagat. 27 R. “Role of Census in Racial and Ethnic Construction: US.26 and while these 'fuzzy communities' have existed since time immemorial. how the publication of such statistical data has impacted the religious identities of Indians. religion. The general division proposed early on for the purpose of census forms was that of. This is in stark contrast to the US and British census where religion has been kept away deliberately from racial and ethnic classification and has consciously guarded the nature of state being affected by religion. 36(46) Economic and Political Weekly. In India. 'Mohomedan' and 'Others'. one must keep in mind that only with the coming of British rule. did the notion that there existed distinct 'Muslim' and 'Hindu' communities in India. but such a rudimentary classification was eventually abandoned and their notions of religion. 28 R. British and Indian Censuses”.THE CENSUS AND ITS IMPACT ON RELIGIOUS IDENTITIES When it comes to the census and its role in the construction of communal identities and in furthering the communal consciousness of the people in colonial India through the application of the divide and rule policy. Bhagat. the responses tendered by the Indians as a result of such classification and thirdly. the creation of mutually exclusive religious communities by the British through separative colonial census categorisation techniques. 'Hindoo'. B. like caste. was used as a fundamental category in census tabulations and data without any restraint. take on a fixed shape. at 133. from the very first census in 1872. “Census and the Construction of Communalism in India”. from the late eighteenth century on.27 The foremost indicant of the census as an instrument of division is the divergent census policy with regard to religion in the British colonies and that in Britain itself. B. 38(8) Economic and Political Weekly. 2001). race and caste were intertwined in the eventual system evolved for tabulating the 26 Supra note 6. discrete and mutually antagonistic communities was certainly aided to a great extent by the counting of heads. 690 (February. I have adopted a similar three-pronged approach by examining first.

Sikhs (no. and above all compared with other religious communities. many minor religious groups were probably excluded from tabulation. it is possible that similar to the process in which individuals aspired for higher caste status through the census. 3 (August 2002). discrete religious classifications that led to the process of self-identification in such a way that people began to regard themselves as members of a particular community in a way that excluded the possibility of practising aspects of multiple traditions at the same time. took great pains to classify the Indian population in terms of mutually exclusive religious communities. 31 Supra note 27.1 in the form). Language and the Anglo-Indians: Eurasians in the Census of British India”.31 to the point where Anglo-Indian/Eurasians who entered their religion as anything other than Christian had their entries "corrected" to Christian. 30 Kenneth Jones.results of the census29 The result of such enumerative modality was that it made people aware of the need to identify themselves as belonging to a particular group and its effect on identity formation has been accurately summarised by Jones when he says that 'the census provided a new conceptualization of religion as a community. 12 . Religions became communities mapped. 1981)..33) or Jains (no. an aggregate of individuals united by a formal definition and given characteristics based on qualified data. but in truth. counted. or to be to their advantage in one way or another. Their preoccupation with Anglo-Indians is another example of the way in which the British in spite of several difficulties. As a result. "Religious Identity and the Indian Census. “Religion. On the second point of census responses moulding identities. merely the application of 'divide et impera'. reek of Hacking's dynamic nominalism theory. the fact that many Sikhs and Jains also worshipped what may be identified as Vaishnava gods and the constrictive nature of the census questionnaire that prompted them to choose between being Hindus (no.'30 In fact. it can be argued that it was the process of being asked to identify one's religion based on narrow. where people were made to fit into the categories that were created for them. Race. all in the name of administrative necessity. 84 (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.32 All of the above examples. 32 Supra note 29. at 4354." sourced from The Census in British India: New Perspectives (ed. Take for instance. the principle on which the colonial rule was founded.25). my assessment is that people were pigeon-holed into religious types because in the process of self-identification and the census enumerators trying to fit them into pre-determined religious denominations as specified in the forms. they may have also tailored their responses to fit what they saw as likely to reflect well on themselves. La Trobe University Journal. 29 Peter Friedlander. Gerald Barrier).

after the publication of which.36 Thus.N. that the census plays a primary role in the hardening and perpetuation of religious identities through its enumeration. “Censuses. 34 For figures.Finally. 36 Supra note 33. see Supra note 27. in a pamphlet titled. 35 Supra note 27. at 4355. but also for comparison. Swami Shradhanand began the work of reconversion of Hindus from Mohammedan and Christianity. 4302 (October. U. what is most evident is that census data has been used historically. through the census. 2004). helping in stabilising communal identities around new orientations. drew attention towards the declining proportion of Hindus in the total population34 and raised the phobia of Hindus. not just for enumeration. at 4355. Mukherji. 33 Charu Gupta. 'Hindus: A Dying Race'.33 An example of the extent to which census data energises the religious consciousness of people is the effect of the 1901 census data. At the same time. Gender and Identity” 39(39) Economic and Political Weekly. 13 .35 The numerically defined strength of the community. it becomes clear. used especially by Hindu communal forces. with regard to the publication of census data and the implications thereof. Communalism. has historically been a significant component of communal consciousness.

Broach. 14 . 435 (July. but there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the collection. after the new demographic scenario that emerged from the 1901 census. The colonialists left no stone unturned to exploit situations that arose from the publication of census figures.” Census data on religion was thus used to widen the rift between religious communities particularly between Hindus and Muslims on numerous counts. 62 (New York: Random House.CHAPTER III: The Politics of Census Data in pre and post-independence India As indicated earlier. tabulation and publication of census data as deep-seated political considerations direct the nature of such data and has done so from the time of the British India censuses. the cornerstone of the British colonial philosophy. in an instigative address declared. It is certain that politics interfered with the taking of the census in the cities of Ahmedabad. H. and Surat in the colonial censuses. H.. The importance of numbers in the political sphere cannot be overstressed and it is of special importance to religious communities owing to the fact that 'numbers count in history'. instances of such political manoeuvring with the assistance of census data and its impact on the collective consciousness of the Indian people. so for example. 25(3) Geographical Review.38 37 Findlay Shirras. is another instance.. by sparking off debate on the size and growth of population of different religious communities. Risley. What Is History?. or will Hinduism hold its own in the future. “can the figures of the last census be regarded in any sense the forerunner of an Islamic or Christian revival which will threaten the citadel of Hinduism. “The Census of India.37 The case of Anglo-Indians having their responses 'corrected' to fit in with the British political agenda. POLITICAL STRATEGIES AND THE CENSUS There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the British were aware of the massive impact that an institution like the census would have on the identities of people and utilised it as one of the many instruments for the application of the divide and rule policy. I attempt to analyse here. a crucial factor in the shaping of identities and communities in pre and post-independence India. 1935). American Geographical Society. 38 Edward Hallett Carr. apolitical exercise. 1961). 1931”. the term 'census' is suggestive of a tedious.

see Supra note 39. widen or repair seams in society. Thus. is done without any sort of academic or public debate. which was necessary for the sustenance of colonialism in India. in post- independence India. it becomes clear that political overtones permeate into matters of census collection. which can only be attributed to political considerations. serving as the main clutch through which divide and rule was possible. at a suitable time. sometimes emergent political consideration may require expressing a largely homogeneous picture of population. fertility rates. at the time of the census.41 Another important political manoeuvre with regard to the census is the lag between census enumeration and the publication of the data. For instance. like that of the Indian state now. and it is clear that the census made all efforts to reconstruct religious categories designed according to the notion of race and religion of the colonialists. 241 (January. then the population data would also reflect such differentiation.40 The simplest tool for such homogenisation is the making and unmaking of sensitive census categories. 41 For a detailed study of such political strategies. tabulation and publication. 15 . had no political compulsion. Conversely. 39 Mehar Singh Gill. religious and tribal lines.39 The British. “Politics of Population Census Data in India”.. If the discourse aims at accommodating differences along various ethnic. mortality rates etc. which brings one to realise that the nature of data on ethnic. 42(3) Economic and Political Weekly. were strongly motivated to paint India as a land of conflict. but since it did not fit into the socio-political agenda of the BJP-led central government. at 243. to go in for a homogenising discourse and instead.As illustrated earlier. it was not pursued. making the census a constructive tool in the hands of the government to channelise collective identities in congruence with their political agendas. there was a need as well as a demand for including a question on OBCs in the 2001 Census. religious and caste-based minority groups is determined largely by the current political discourse of the country. the religious consciousness of people is extremely sensitive to issues of population growth. almost all the major national political parties. mitigating the antagonism that exists in society. quite simply put. particularly the Congress and the BJP aim at erasure of socio-cultural difference in the country. On the other hand. Census data can. as the 1901 census discovered.. 2007). incapable of reconciling their contravening interests. 40 Ibid.which interestingly.

K. 2158 (August. 47 Ashish Bose. “Caste and the Census”. age.47 42 P.. to introduce fundamental changes in the questions. rendering such figures meaningless in assessing the social situation. 45 Satish Deshpande and Nandini Sundar. 46 Supra note 27. 16 . designed to undermine as well as to disprove Indian nationhood. education etc. 44 Asha Krishnakumar. I am more inclined to the view that it is bound to be subverted by petty caste and communal sympathies. It is important to note that till 1931. 1434 (April. 2000). 2007). in understanding social changes and realities in India and expose the dominance and monopoly of certain castes. at 4356. What is required though. and may lead to caste conflicts on a large scale and hence must be discontinued. Sikhism and Buddhism shall be deemed a member of scheduled caste. it is argued. and not just.THE FUTURE OF THE INDIAN CENSUS: ENUMERATION OF CASTE AND RELIGION The most prominent question that emerges from the above discussion is whether caste and religion based enumeration should in fact continue. fertility. “Backward Castes Census: An Outmoded Idea”.46 While the importance of such data in the determination of social conditions in the country is clear. 42(24) Economic and Political Weekly. “Beyond a Headcount “. 2245 (June. possibly leading to the inflation of population figures and the distortion of vital information on employment. 17(18) Frontline. 45 On the point of inclusion of categorisation on the basis of religion in the census. 1998). castes of the people were also enumerated. is to move away from a mere headcount. given that it plays a significant role in identity consciousness and is evolved from a colonial endeavour rooted in divisional strategies. 35(17) Economic and Political Weekly. expressed through vote-bank and reservation politics. one must keep in mind that as the constitution enjoins that no person professing a religion other than Hinduism. 43 Id.42 Caste enumeration.44 which will intensify divisive caste identities. save for SC's and ST's. but after India became independent. will provide more reliable results about the backwardness of castes and help in the improvement of their conditions. in order to determine how people of India live. how many Indians there are and where they live. 33(32). this practise was given up. “Caste and the Census: Implications for Society and the Social Sciences”. it is imperative on the part of the census to ask a question on religion in order to determine the scheduled caste status of a person. Misra.43 while those against it stress that is a device of colonial domination. Economic and Political Weekly. 2000). 78 (September.

soon after the Great Revolt and prior to the partition of Bengal suggests a motive that is far removed from bureaucratic concerns and is in fact closely associated with the colonial need to understand and control the socio-cultural resources of the Indian society and to project cleavages within colonial society. the timing of the census. The relationship between the census and identity formation in the Indian context is characterised by the shift from 'fuzzy' communities. While claims of administrative necessity cannot be dismissed as entirely frivolous. initiated by the colonial authorities. was soon eliminated. although the anthropological nature of such collection is suspect and seems to me to betray the unspoken motives of the British. could glide past the social landscape of India and abstain from the actuation of identity formation.CONCLUSION It seems inconceivable that the census exercise. that were relatively fluid. The preoccupation with numbers in the metropolis. given that their Victorian encyclopedic quest for total knowledge was in fact an attempt to put into translation. that categorised them into basic units of social organisation. with a view towards fixing and officialising collective identities (such as caste and religion) in their narrow understanding of modern governmental practices. where the colonial imagination was absorbed by an interest in statistics and measurements that went beyond mere utilitarian enterprises. which was essential for sustaining and justifying a colonial rule that was intrusive in nature. 17 . coming from an intellectual environment of the post-Enlightenment era. The advent of photography in Europe provided the logical footing for a systematic accumulation of exact information. to 'enumerated' communities that represented administratively labelled categories of ethnicity. The enumerative modality involved the process of 'dynamic nominalism' wherein the indeterminate nature of their identities were given shape by the creation of categories that required a degree of self-identification based on colonial requirements. Indian social relations and conditions into a language comprehensible to them. localised and modified based on the social environment. Identities were essentialised and the peaceful co-existence that ensued as a result of not knowing how many of them there were in the world and the possibilities of collective action. served as the backdrop for the introduction of the census in India.

moulding collective identities. In the case of caste-based categorisations.The principal proposition extended by me in this paper is that the effect of censuses on identity is of a triangular nature – the three corners represented by the kinds of questions asked and classifications utilised by the British. brought about a complete change of consciousness. in the case of religious identities. depending on the need to homogenise the population. by mandating the selection of either-or religious affiliations in the census forms. which allowed the British India census to perpetuate caste and religious identities through the enumeration of the people based on such classifications. to the question of caste and religious based enumeration in post-independence India. Hindu and Muslim leaders were quoting census figures to each other to prove whether they had received their legitimate share of benefits and relying on census figures to provoke a fear of the 'Other' and propagating a constant myth of a catastrophic decline in the population. It is clear that the categorisation and publication of Indian census has been closely connected with the political agendas of the country’s rulers during the British as well as post-British periods. Further. the post-British censuses sought to redraw and re-demarcate these boundaries and to reintroduce some 'fuzziness' in this connection. it must be understood that the problem with all ascriptive categories like caste and religion is that their recognition and enumeration implicitly tends to harden previously indigenous categories that maintained sufficient fluidity. the responses of the people. It appears that each of these three elements. the need for explanation to the British and to themselves. nationality and ethnicity. and the underprivileged sought new identities through enumeration. the Brahmanical domination was evident. but overlooking them is not a viable solution. Whereas the colonial census contributed to locate precise boundaries between once indeterminate communities. and more so together. so the Brahmanical ideal was privileged. in the process of self-identification. their classifications based on social precedence encouraged respondents to represent themselves as belonging to a higher caste. the new classificatory trend in European intellectual tradition motivated them to develop a taxonomy based on their perception of Indian societies primarily belonging to primordial categories. Finally. 18 . With the publication of census data. Similarly. In conclusion. it must be said that it was the act of questioning. the reaction of the people to the census data. by themselves. the census classification was intricately tied to British notions of race. and finally.

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