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

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‘Indigenous Agency’ and the Science of Statistics in Bengal

The 1872 Census

Often cited as an exemplary form of the epistemological violence wrought by the British colonial rule in much postcolonial inquiry, the 1872 Census merits closer analysis in the context of wider 19th-century conversations about the so-called science of statistics. An in-depth study of the processes and reports reveals that the village munduls were in fact indispensable to the actual work of enumeration and the singular figure of “indigenous agency.” The role they played constituted an important condition of the possibility of implementing the census in late 19th-century Bengal.

The centrality and importance of the census to discussions about the formation of political identities in the modern South Asian past cannot be overstated. Ever since Bernard S Cohn’s (1987) seminal and powerful article, “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia, about the role of the census in classifying and objectifying Indian culture and society, historians have drawn on and further developed his insights in a variety of regional contexts involving a wide range of themes. Grounded in the theoretical premises pursued by Michel Foucault and armed with the critical reading strategies advocated by Edward Said and his critique of orientalism thereafter, the notion of colonial difference emerged as integral to this body of scholarship. As Arjun Appadurai (1995: 15) argued, for instance, in an influential article, “the British colonial state employed quantification in its rule of the Indian subcontinent in a way that was different from its domestic counterpart in the eighteenth century.” A position broadly associated with the cultural turn in South Asian history-writing and Subaltern Studies, the claim of difference was fundamental to such perspectives.

Scholarship imbued with postcolonialist concerns thus underscored how colonial administrators and officials were fixated on caste and religious community due to their orientalist–empiricist perceptions of Indian society and as a means to, ultimately, further justify their domination. One of the chief contributions of much of this research was to demonstrate the far-reaching consequences wrought by what was designated as colonial power/knowledge on the colonised, by enumerating, classifying, mapping, and surveying them. Colonial classifications of Indian society were held to be arbitrary and inaccurate, yet had the effect of fixing and objectifying what had earlier been a “fuzzy” sense of identity into enumerated communities (Kaviraj 2010). The fairly direct relationship between colonial censuses and caste and communal conflicts well into the late-colonial and postcolonial era was identified as a neat example of dynamic nominalism, an argument reminiscent of the old nationalist complaint against imperial policies of divide and rule (Chakrabarty 2002). Where Indian subjects had any say in the matter in this tradition of historical thinking, they were typically the unwitting Brahmin collaborators whose imaginary was effectively erased by the colonial official. Recall, for example, Nicholas B Dirks’s (2001: 106) portrait of Colonel MacKenzie and his assistants, preparing the way for the “enormous condescension of later colonial efforts to know India.” The one chapter in Castes of Mind that marshalled the censuses as historical evidence, indicated Dirks’ view that the enumerators were (either exclusively or primarily) British colonial officials as is evident from the following statement. “The enumerators did, in fact, take great pains to allay concerns of the population, as they had no faith in the Indian people’s capacity to understand the greater good of the census project” (Dirks 2001: 200).1

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Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018

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