ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Arbitrariness in the Colonial Census of Ethnic Groups

Even today the administration of the census during the colonial era is highly regarded. But actually chance, luck, caprice and idiosyncrasy played a major role in the census classification of tribes and castes during the colonial regime.

Many Indian intellectuals have high respect for the census of castes, tribes and religious groups conducted as part of the Census of India by the British colonial government, and this respect goes up on the eve of every decennial census. However, very few of them try to know how the census was conducted, especially how the census enumerators entered the primary information in the census schedule and how this information was processed at various levels in the census organisation, ending finally in the publication of figures in the census r eports. An article written by a senior census official, published in 1923 in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (XII, 4: 389-402)1 gives us an insight into how arbitrariness prevailed at various levels in the census.

The article, “Is the Retention of the Term ‘Animism’ as a Main Religion Head in Our Census Tables Justified?” was written by L J Sedgwick, superintendent of census operations in Bombay Presidency in 1921. He was at that time the president of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, and the article was the text of his presidential address delivered on 25 January 1922. It is worth noting that most of the Bombay officials were fairly well- informed about castes and tribes in the presidency, because of three main reasons. First, the celebrated Bombay Gazetteers compiled by James Campbell in the latter half of the 19th century provided valuable e thnographic information. Second, the Ethnographical Survey of Bombay Presidency set up around 1901 in Poona under R E Enthoven widened and deepened this information. It produced a large number of monographs on castes and tribes, which seem to have been the main source of Enthoven’s monumental threevolume work, Castes and Tribes of Bombay (1922). Third, many Bombay officials participated actively in the activities of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, established in 1886.

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