World Population Day 2020: Examining Census Construction and Communal Strife in Colonial India

The British Raj, by attempting to reduce the diversity of the Indian populace into numbers that could fit a particular category, ignored the ideals of social justice and instead furthered communal mobilisation through their policy of “divide and rule.”


The census has played an integral role in contemporary Indian history. The partition of India was based on census data. The reorganisation of states post-independence on the basis of linguistic identity, the creation of electoral constituencies, and also the allocation of resources from the centre to the states is based on population density and requirements. 

However, India’s first synchronous nationwide census was conducted in 1881 by the British Raj to achieve their imperialist agenda—they needed to categorise and classify the population in order to formulate separate policies. As historian Thomas R Metcalf states,

The study of India was thus made part of a larger scholarly enterprise in which the Victorians, as children of the Enlightenment, sought rational principles that would provide a comprehensive and comprehensible way of fitting everything they saw in the world around them into ordered hierarchies. The existence of empire by imparting a sense of urgency to the process spurred on this creation of knowledge and at the same time the unequal power relationships of imperialism helped shape the categories within which that knowledge was constructed. 

As this reading list explains, the British developed the census to include racial and religious categories—which was unlike the census of any other country at the time—as a method to bring “order” to the Indian colony. This world population day, we explore the process of data collection under the British rule and the effects of creating binaries between communities with a history of shared relations.

1) A Desire to Segregate the Population

R B Bhagat notes that racial and ethnic classifications in a census are an attempt to “categorise national population in neatly non-overlapping categories.” India’s population census (non-synchronous), conducted in 1872, included categories such as race, tribe, caste, and population. Bhagat argues that this was done by the British to prepare an ethnographic account of the Indian people in order to further the colonisation agenda; religion influenced state functioning and the category of “race” was created exclusively to separate the whites and Christians from the “natives.”

The preoccupation of the census with Anglo-Indians was mainly to segregate the Europeans or people of white origin and to know their intermixing with the Indians. The concern is evident in the changing definition of Anglo-Indians in the census. In 1921, an Anglo-Indian was described for census purposes as persons of mixed European and Indian descent, but in 1931 census a slightly different definition was used defining an Anglo-Indian as a person whose father, grandfather or other progenitor in male line was a European since it was assumed that others would probably prefer to be returned as Indians [Census of India 1931:426]. Therefore, the European origin is not only defined on the basis being white but also on patriarchal lines keeping in view the fact that the progeny of a European woman or Anglo-Indian woman by an Indian Christian will vitiate the racial pool of Europeans of white origin. 

2) The Census Introduced the Category of ‘Caste’

Padmanabh Samarendra posits that the term “caste” is a Western import, derived from the Portuguese casta, which has been erroneously equated with jati and varna. The empirical approach of the census in colonial India relied upon social realities rather than textual definitions to define people’s castes. Despite the evidence that suggested the diverse nature of the Indian society, Samarendra notes that British officials still sought to emphasise the existence of a pan-Indian caste structure. 

 The census operations launched by the colonial state produced a social map of the country reconstituting pan-Indian identities of caste, tribe, Hindu, etc, within its very format. The design of these operations replicated the model of the administrative edifice of India: the district census reports were compiled to produce a provincial report; the provincial reports together, in turn, generated the general report on the census of India. Implicit in the format was the assumption about the universality of caste; that castes from different parts of the country could be added up and presented in a master table. The obligation on the census officials was to uncover the essence of caste, to abstract those defining features on the basis of which castes across the regions could be identified, counted, compared and classified. Thus in the wake of the questioning of the text-based varna model, attempts were made in the course of the successive census operations to sift and identify castes from amidst the multifarious jatis and construct for these an alternative pan-Indian classificatory grid.

Samarendra further clarifies that while the hierarchical order and associated discrimination in the Indian society existed well before the British came to India, avoiding a generalised structure of the caste system may lead to a better understanding of the constitution of social authority in the country. 

Caste, hence, is an idea of recent origin that emerged by displacing the text-based varna order on the one hand and suppressing the multifariousness of the jatis on the other. Though there was no prior design shaping its production, a pan-Indian caste system in its empirical avatar appeared initially towards the close of the 19th century in the documents of the state. Hence, the use of the category of caste in place of varna and jati, in historical explanations of the Indian society or in the framing of policies by the state in contemporary times, can only be misleading. 

3) Census and the Birth of Communalism

“A census is not a passive account of statistical tables, but also engages in reshaping the world through categories and their definitions.” Bhagat writes that the census defined mutually exclusive religious communities that furthered the divide-and-rule policy of the British. Numbers were made political: Hindus were informed that they were in a majority and persuaded to act as so, regardless of the fact that they were distinguishable by sect, class, and caste. The British justified this categorisation by arguing that Indian culture was influenced by religious identity, unlike in other Western nations. 

In spite of several difficulties, census officials took great pains to classify the Indian population in terms of homogeneous and mutually exclusive religious communities … The census reports of each of the provinces as well as the all-India report mention a plethora of such instances where the scheme of census classification could not be applied due to the interwoven nature of social structure. The Hindus were defined as, “a native of India who is not of European, Armenian, Moghul, Persian or other foreign descent, who is a member of a recognised caste, who acknowledges the spiritual authority of brahmans, who venerates or at least refuses to kill or harm kine, and does not profess any creed or religion which the brahman forbids him to profess.

Classifications such as these neglected the social intermingling between communities. Bhagat states that a plethora of social practices of Hindus and Muslims were indistinguishable, with certain Hindu practices even including a strong Islamic influence. Classification becomes even more difficult when attempting to differentiate between Hindu, Sikh, and Jain practices.

The practical difficulty in classifying the Indian population in terms of religious categories was solved by the census officials in their own way. The enumerators were asked to record all persons who said they were Hindus, Musalman or Christians, etc, and those who did not profess to belong to any recognised religion were entered under the name of their caste or tribe. In the course of tabulation all such persons were treated as Hindu if they belonged to a recognised Hindu caste however low it might be. 

Read More: 

  1. Making the 2011 Census a Tool for Good Governance | Ashish Bose, 2008
  2. Census and the Aam Admi | Ashish Bose, 2009
  3. Fact and Fiction | R B Bhagat, 2004
  4. Caste and Census: A Forward Looking Strategy | Sonalde Desai, 2010

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