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The 1872 Census

‘Indigenous Agency’ and the Science of Statistics in Bengal

Dwaipayan Sen ( teaches at the Asian Languages and Civilizations department, and the History department at Amherst College, Massachusetts.

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.

Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at a workshop on “Political Economy in South Asian History” at Amherst College, a pre-conference workshop on caste in modern India at the annual conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a conference on “Rethinking Global Capitalism: Understanding Structural Change in India” at the University of Chicago Center in New Delhi. The author wishes to acknowledge Uday Chandra, Andrew Sartori, Indrani Chatterjee, Ramnarayan Rawat, and Frank Conlon as also the anonymous reviewer for their encouragement and sharp reviews. The author takes complete responsibility for any errors or shortcomings in the article. He dedicates this work to his teacher and adviser, the late Moishe Postone.

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

To be sure, those less convinced of the power of colonial knowledge forms have countered that such interpretations of colonial rule almost seem to suggest (despite the appropriate qualifications and nuancing) that colonialism “invented” caste and community as we know it today, and that the formation of colonial discourses was predominantly a unilateral affair born of the orientalist prejudices of the colonial gaze. These scholars raised objections regarding the generally limited role accorded to Indians and how they contributed to the formation of knowledge, both in concert with and prior to the establishment of colonial governance, in comparison to the rather exaggerated analytical power accorded to concepts like colonial governmentality, power/knowledge, or discourse, to assumptions about the epistemological certainty accorded by colonial officials to census enumeration, or indeed, the actual effect of colonial ethnologists on policymaking.

Many of these reservations seem plausible, and inform my own concern to pursue some rather basic questions about the colonial census: how was the 1872 Census conducted in Bengal, and who actually carried out the enumeration? Who were the historical actors involved, and what were the wider contexts in which they operated? Finally, what difference might the answers to such questions make to historical understandings of the census in colonial India? While I concur that it is

no longer tenable to insist that the forms of knowledge through which colonial rule was established were fully European in origin and development but, rather, were created out of conditions that entailed considerable collaboration—intended and unintended, conscious and unconscious, wanted and unwanted—between the British and, at least, certain key indigenous groups (Peabody 2012: 77),

I shall make the case here for the involvement of a somewhat broader cast of characters than we are accustomed to credit.

The first part of this paper will suggest that the articulation of difference, while certainly an important feature, was not solely what lay at the heart of the colonial project of enumeration. By the late 19th century, censuses were under way not only throughout the British Empire, but also in the French, Dutch, Russian, Prussian, and Ottoman empires as well, in addition to the United States (US), Italy, as elsewhere. As I hope to show through a brief survey of secondary literature as well as the oddly neglected reports of the Statistical Society of London (SSL), census-taking throughout the world gave rise to similar kinds of problems, anomalies, and difficulties as those encountered in colonial India and in due course, came to influence the trajectory of the formation of political identities in those settings as well. Rather than locate the rationale of the colonial census and its subsequent objectification of collective identities in orientalist disposition and the expression of difference, I will suggest that such processes by virtue of their global scope might be more convincingly grasped as following from the methods and form of modern census-taking, rather than the peculiar outcome of colonial India. Designed as it was to enable comparability, the 19th-century census seemed to elicit and catalyse analogous, though by no means identical, responses and processes in societies the world over.

My reading of some of the key sources on the first decennial census of Bengal in 1872 in the second part of this paper will seek to demonstrate that the “indigenous agency” on whom the entire enterprise hinged, specifically the village munduls, had few objections with this project and on the contrary, appeared to have taken to it with aplomb in their appreciation for the distinction the work entailed2 (Sartori 2014). The first census of Bengal was thus the product of a certain collaboration or synchronicity between international techniques deployed by colonial officials and the munduls’ novel discernment of their society. In some senses, the census was a report on their view of the world. Acknowledging how integral they were to the making of the census suggests a degree of compatibility or affinity between modern statistical techniques and Dalit representatives of the mofussil world of Bengal, largely overlooked in extant historical scholarship.

The munduls role in this epochal project therefore challenges long-standing assumptions (even in the view of those who perceive colonial knowledge forms as born of processes rather more dialogic), regarding the near-exclusive influence exercised by indigenous elites in shaping colonial discourse, as well as the supposedly staid resistance of the marginalised in Indian society to the modern. For here, we have an instance of figures of authority indeed, representatives amongst the so-called “lower orders” of late 19th century Bengal—so often identified as the very limit to the colonial modern—constituting the very conditions of possibility for a process regarded as an alien imposition. My purpose in this paper is to briefly substantiate this proposition.

Surprising Resemblances: Census in the 1800s

A rather curious feature of the three key contributions to the study of the colonial census considered here is the relatively scant attention paid to the histories of census-taking elsewhere in the contemporary world (Appadurai 1996; Dirks 2001). To be sure, Appadurai’s famous article, “Number in Colonial Imagination” (1996) certainly explored the possibility of what was happening in the metropolitan context rather briefly, but he was quick to dismiss any identity on the following grounds:

First, the basis of the British census was overwhelmingly territorial and occupational rather than ethnic or racial. Second, insofar as it[s] concerns were sociological in England, the census tended to be directly tied to the politics of representation, as in the issue of rotten boroughs. Finally, and most important, both British and French census projects (as well as the embryonic social sciences with which they were associated), tended to reserve their most invasive investigations for their social margins: the poor, the sexually profligate, the lunatic, and the criminal. In the colonies, by contrast, the entire population was seen as different in problematic ways, this shift lying at the very heart of orientalism. (Appadurai 1996: 118)

For Appadurai, the “classificatory concerns” and “numerical concerns” of British rule in India were so exceptional for its time that it was only under the mature colonial state that “these two forms of dynamic nominalism came together to create a polity centred around self-consciously enumerated communities” (Appadurai 1996: 132). One is unsure of the verisimilitude of such conclusions, as recent research on the history of the British census seems to suggest the exact opposite. Not only were colonial censuses concerned with a great deal more than ethnicity and race (or caste and religion), but there does not appear to be a clear division between a focus on occupation and territory in the metropolitan centre, and the ethnographic features of societies in British colonial settings. As we shall see, many of the features identified narrowly as the intended or unintended consequences of the colonial censuses of India were obtained elsewhere as well.

Kathrin Levitan’s (2001: 1) cultural history of the British census documents at great length how it was “increasingly accepted and appropriated by large numbers of British people, who used it not only to understand, control and improve the population but also to recognize themselves and others as members of groups and to claim rights and privileges for these groups.” She adds that while most studies on the role of censuses in articulating group identities have focused on colonial settings, her own study showed that “the census helped not only in creating national identities but also in confirming and defining group identities within the nation, whether occupational, religious or regional” (Levitan 2011: 6). With regard to race and religion:

As ideas of racial competition and survival became more central, both the administration and interpretation of the census reflected the ideological shift. While earlier census takers had had a wide range of categories available to them, and were as likely to describe people by occupation or religion as by race or nationality, the censuses of the 1860s brought race to the forefront. (Levitan 2011: 177)

Levitan’s study acknowledges that there were in fact resemblances between the effects of census-taking on society in both metropolitan Britain and colonial India. Debates over definitions, arbitrariness, inconsistencies, and numerical precision seem to have accompanied the census wherever it was attempted.

Looking beyond the empire, in the US, which was the first nation state to conduct a census (Anderson et al 2012), the practice raised every bit as much rancour and controversy as the census returns in, for example, the 1930s Punjab. It is a truism to observe that the census has been integral to discussions about race and racism in the US history. Arguably one of the most comprehensive historical studies of the mid-19th century census noted that: “census classifications became the very language of social discourse, and the chief categories defined races, sections and the relative growth of both” (Anderson 1990: 269). A historian of the US census, Margo J Anderson (1990: xi) observed that it “frequently became entangled in the larger political controversies of the nation—for example, in the sectional disputes of the 1840s and 1850s, Reconstruction, or the role of the new welfare state in the 1930s.”

Nineteenth-century Italy similarly furnishes evidence of the profound influence of statistical thought and practices on the formation of politics and identities. Silvana Patriarca’s (1996: 4) study, Numbers and Nationhood, contended that: “in Italy statistics not only performed a work of ideological and political legitimation, but also contributed to the creation, the “production” as it were, of the Italian nation, that is of the very entity that they were supposed to describe.” Indeed, Patriarca showed that questions of cultural difference between the “two Italies” were deeply intertwined with the development of statistical practice. In particular, she observed

That national statistics, far from promoting a complete unification of Italy—as its original makers had intended—ended up highlighting a profound internal division is an irony that the early statisticians were probably not able to appreciate. (Patriarca 1996: 23)

While it is possible to further multiply such examples (and certainly the experiences with census-taking in France, Prussia, the Austro–Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires offer meaningful comparisons), the question that warrants consideration is this: if group identities all over the world (and not solely in colonial India) underwent contested objectification due to the impact of censuses in ways quite similar to caste and religious identities in late 19th and early 20th centuries India, on what grounds do we justify the privileging of colonial difference in our analyses (Ketzer and Arel 2002)? That is to say, if censuses enabled the drawing out of admittedly imprecise identification of various forms of social particularity all over the world, why should one see the kinds of transformation that underwent in colonial India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as necessarily the unique consequence of colonial governance? It seems to me that one might profitably situate the formation of such group identities in colonial India in a wider analytical context.

In what follows, I hope to demonstrate why the intentions behind the 1872 Census of Bengal were shaped by an understanding of enumeration, which in important ways was quite indifferent to the particular social features of the population being considered. That is to say, the modern census assumed the notion that each individual was an enumerable subject
in the abstract, irrespective of their particularities. The science of statistics the colonial state attempted in India was deeply informed by and conversant with the international context of its emergence, in which the SSL played an important role. The “colonial” census was shaped, quite simply, by a global impulse.

Statistical Society of London

Founded in 1834, the connections between the SSL and the censuses of colonial India have hardly drawn any extensive remarks in the vast scholarship on the formation of colonial discourses and knowledge in India. One cannot, however, underestimate its importance. Founded by figures like Charles Babbage, Richard Jones, Adolphe Quetelet, William Whewell, Thomas Malthus, and Colonel W H Sykes, the society’s presidents included many who committed their lives to the service of the empire in India and other colonies, notably, the Marquess of Landsdowne, Lord Stanley, William Henry Sykes, Frederic J Mouat, and as late as 1943, William Henry Beveridge.

The objectives of the organisation, as described in the first issue of its journal (The Journal of the Statistical Society of London), understood statistics to entail the “ascertaining and bringing together of those ‘facts which are calculated to illustrate the condition and prospects of society’” and statistical science to “consider the results of which they produce, with the view to determine those principles upon which the well-being of society depends” (SSL 1838: 1). The society entertained the research and addresses of officials in domestic, European company, and wider imperial employment, and received a royal charter in 1887. In effect, it served to link colonial India with the wider global network of statistical thought and practice. Henry Waterfield, the secretary of the India Office Statistics and Commerce Department, entrusted with overseeing the 1872 Census of India for instance, also served as its secretary. The SSL, “the greatest in Europe” according to its 1872 president William Farr, was absolutely central to conversations at the first International Statistical Congress in Brussels in 1853, and those that followed.

The opening paragraph of Farr’s inaugural presidential address to the society in December 1872 communicates something of the ethos of this organisation at the moment when the first census of India was implemented. Farr was a distinguished epidemiologist and one of the founders of the discipline of medical statistics. He struck a note of robust optimism for their enterprise:

Statistics—that is the science of States—the science of men living in political communities, was never in such demand as it is in the present day; and the supply promises to be equal to the demand. Politics is no longer the art of letting things alone, nor the game of audacious Revolution for the sake of change; so politics, like war, has to submit to the spirit of the age, and to call in the aid of science: for the art of government can only be practised with success when it is grounded on a knowledge of the people governed, derived from exact observation. (Farr 1872: 417–30)

Since the days of Alfred the Great, he continued, England occupied a privileged place in the history of statistics, from the “Domesday Book” of the 11th century through to the work of Adam Smith (Farr 1872: 417–30). Yet this was not mere Anglocentrism. Farr soon acknowledged the much wider significance of this “science of states.” Indeed, it was Sweden which conducted the first exact periodical enumeration of the population according to sex and age in the middle of the 18th century, and “since that date with the other natural sciences, the systematic observation of statistical facts has extended over Europe. Every Government has contributed materials to the vast edifice in which we are laboring, some more and some less, some precious and some worthless, according to the measure of their intelligence and capacity” (Farr 1872: 417–30).

The chief development in this collective effort was the convention of the International Statistical Congress where national representatives and statisticians discussed their discipline “with a view to determine, without limiting the range of inquiry, what facts capable of numerical expression should be observed by all; what measuring units should be employed; and generally what the forms of tabulation and analysis should be” (Farr 1872: 417–30). The first Congress met at Brussels, during the reign of Leopold, under the presidency of M Quetelet. The most recent invitation of the Emperor Alexander II, met at Petersburg, in the present year. With no less than 23 participating states, in Farr’s view, the Congress had the effect of drawing public attention to the importance of what Quetelet, the Belgian polymath credited with introducing statistical methods to the social sciences, had “so expressively called ‘social physics’ ” (Farr 1872: 417–30).

The SSL, thus, represented a critical node in an international and inter-imperial conversation on science. Farr hailed the Russian empire’s laudable “spirit of progress” thus: “So Asia will be drawn into the domain of science in the north by Russia, while in the south and east she is enlightened and led out of Oriental immobility by England” (Farr 1872: 417–30). The English did not have an exclusive claim on this mode of statistical practice. Census-taking was a worldwide effort of which those undertaken in India were but one instantiation. In fact, the society was consulted about the actual form of the 1872 Census, and its Indian census subcommittee suggested four designs for the contemplated census schedule (Walby and Haan 2012).

First Census of Bengal

In March 1874, about two years after completing his work as the key official in charge of overseeing the census as Inspector-General of Registration in Bengal, Henry Beverley addressed the SSL regarding the unprecedented nature of what he had accomplished. His management of the vast and complex collective effort, which resulted in the first systematic enumeration in Bengal’s history, had

brought to light some 25 millions of Her Majesty’s subjects, of whose existence our Government had previously been in complete and utter ignorance. The population of Bengal rose in one day from 42 to 67 millions. The Lieutenant-Governor, who was already supposed to have one of the largest gubernatorial charges in the world, suddenly found that he had unconsciously been the ruler of an additional population more than equal to that of the whole of England and Wales. (Beverley 1874: 69)

Even if India had been independent of this country, Beverley (1874: 70) continued, the society “could not but welcome any contribution regarding it which tended to advance statistical science.” But given the “intimate connection … no apology is needed for introducing to you this evening the subject of the population of the largest, richest, most fertile and most populous, of our Indian provinces” (Beverley 1874: 70).

Beverley’s peculiar triumph (the quest for accuracy as opposed to necessity, as Cohn understood) stood magnified by “one of those terrible famines which every now and then devastate our Eastern possessions, and create a spasmodic and extraordinary interest in India among all classes of Englishmen” (Beverley 1874: 70). Because of his work, the government could attend to relief with greater utility. Eight million lives would have been ignored in Behar were it not for the census. No information would have been available about food storage and relief works. Indeed, Beverley concluded his address with the famine utmost in mind: “If one of the indirect results of the census proves to be the salvation of a few thousands only from the miseries of the famine, I may safely assert that those who lavished time and trouble on that gigantic undertaking will consider themselves amply repaid” (Beverley 1874: 101). During the discussion of Beverley’s paper, Frederic Mouat agreed that much of the credit for any lives saved during the famine would be due to Beverley and his collaborators.

These do not sound like the motivations of the much-vilified colonial official appearing as a stock ideal-type in various iterations of nationalistic historiography. Farr, who was chairman of the society two years ago, spoke during the discussion of Beverley’s presentation, of equalising the distribution of food by improving transport infrastructure, complained about the absence of any “effective poor law” and considered whether the government “could not introduce some plan akin to our poor law system, by which the people of India would have a claim upon the property of the country” (Beverley 1874: 113). He thought that some system by which “the owners of property in Bengal, should have an interest in the lives of the people” was required (Beverley 1874: 113).3 Such were the wider concerns in which Beverley’s efforts were embedded and acquired significance (Beverley 1874).4

Conducting the census in Bengal involved a range of difficulties hitherto unanticipated. The province presented a seemingly insurmountable list of challenges, of primary importance being the limited extent of literacy. Unlike precedents in Western Europe, the census-form could not simply be deposited at each household and recovered later on. A detailed house-to-house enumeration was thus required, raising, as one might imagine, a host of subsidiary problems in a physical and social environment as diverse and complex as in Bengal, especially given the technical premium placed on simultaneity. Additionally, as it was not as rich as other provinces, in “official and indigenous agencies” there was the problem of expenditure, migrant and “floating” populations living on boats and the decision to conduct a census itself had met with what seemed to be fairly stiff resistance within the corridors of power (Beverley 1874: 108).5 Implementing the census thus emerged out of considerable constraints and exigencies, and encountered any number of obstacles. Beverley hoped to combine a “maximum of statistical accuracy” with the “minimum inquisitorial oppression” (Beverley 1874: 74).

For these reasons, his move to identify the relative success (albeit with repeated acknowledgement of various limitations and qualifications) of the census with “the people” is most significant.6 As he put it: “The census was effected for the most part by the people themselves” (Beverley 1874: 74). Two or more “respectable residents” in each village were selected as enumerators and they received letters addressed to them by each district magistrate with necessary instructions. Their services were expected to be gratuitous, but the legislative council had passed a brief act which invested those appointed enumerators with the necessary authority and prescribed penalties for misconduct or neglect. They were chosen with assumptions of the confidence they garnered in their neighbourhoods, even as the supervisors’ presence was presumed to check exuberance, instruct ignorance and secure uniformity. One imagines that the question of whether the unavoidable and near absolute reliance on such “indigenous agencies” might not have sullied the evidently desired scientific precision of the proceedings, was persistent throughout.

On the contrary, and presumably in rebuttal to sceptics, Beverley noted that the “success which attended these arrangements exceeded the most sanguine expectations” (Beverley 1874: 74). Likewise, Campbell (1893: 221) recollected how the “… returns came in with a facility which we thought almost suspicious.” The enumerators did their work “willingly and well, manifesting a zeal and interest in the proceedings, for which they had hardly been given credit.” The competition for the unpaid and onerous office was keen. Appointment letters remained treasures in family archives, “evidence
of respectability.”

The result was that the census was carried out with marvelously little opposition or excitement … with one single exception, no violent outbreak took place—a result which, as Sir George Campbell observes, goes further than anything that has occurred in recent years, to show the strength of our political position in the provinces … the manner in which the registers and returns were submitted to me for compilation, enable me to bear witness to the evident care and thoroughness with which the business was conducted, both on the part of the enumerators and of those whose duty it was to supervise their proceedings.7 (Campbell 1893: 75)

Was this merely the rhetoric of colonial rule? Certainly, Beverley had every reason to depict his project as one enjoying public enthusiasm and consent to his receptive audience. And the government had indeed attempted experimental enumerations in 1869 and gone to great lengths to allay apprehensions of various kinds. But even while accounting for his embellishments and the assurances of benign intentions, we are still left with having to explain why the people of Bengal did not, for instance, riot and rebel (as they did in other colonies of the empire and elsewhere in the world), and rather, seem to have found the measure for the most part unobjectionable, and in the case of more than a few enumerators, endured considerable personal hardship and expense for no palpable benefit to themselves (Beverley 1872: 54–55).8 Campbell, for his part, recalled that in spite of his own considerable doubts, the general unavailability of executive machinery, the many objections to the exercise urged by his immediate predecessor, as well as abiding apprehensions in official circles about the measure,

… in the course of the undertaking the Bengalees exhibited an unexpected amount of public spirit. The best men in the villages not only accepted the post of unpaid enumerators, but there came in many districts to be even a kind of competition for the post, as a kind of honour, and an office recognized by Government. (Campbell 1893: 220)

Who were these enumerators?

Indigenous Agency’

As in his address to the SSL, Beverley explained that the choice of “indigenous agency” identified for the enumeration was made “from among the people themselves” in his Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872(Beverly 1872: 9). This was hardly knowledge that was reliant on exclusively Brahmin or caste-elite informants of the textualisation-of-tradition variety identified with the early 19th century, nor those consulted in matters of hierarchical precedence. Beverley (1872: 9) and his associates believed that by choosing one or more persons in each village, and by “vesting them with a certain official importance, they would be sufficiently gratified at the distinction shown them to undertake the duty of enumeration without any further prospect of reward.” Such assumptions proved sound. The office was “sought after and coveted, many of those who were passed over or rejected having represented the circumstance to the district officer as a grievance. The sunnuds of appointment will probably be treasured by those who are fortunate enough to possess them, and they will doubtless be handed down to posterity as heirlooms in the possessor’s family” (Beverley 1872: 10). In his view, the success of the census was largely the result of the judiciousness of this choice. “No measure was probably better calculated to allay the suspicions to which the idea of a census invariably gives rise, than to employ the people themselves in the work” (Beverley 1872: 46). This was the search for and the extension of the badge of respectability to those outside well-worn channels of collaboration, a move seemingly met with eager enthusiasm.

A Conduit

As Beverley advised in the conclusions to his chapter on the manner of taking the census and the agency employed, important lessons lay in the discovery. For in the figure of the village headman, he saw “an inexpensive and truly valuable local agency” (Beverley 1872: 47). If the landlord’s stewards could no longer be relied on due to their duplicity and conflict of interests with the state, the census proved that it was possible to “work through the people themselves” (Beverley 1872: 47). A conduit between the district officer and the mass of the people, he speculated: “… it seems as if in the village munduls we have exactly the material required out of which to mould trustworthy, popular, and autonomous system of self-government” (Beverley 1872: 47). Beverley was clearly convinced of their contribution to his work, as well as their potential in future administration.

Of all the various agencies employed in the enumeration, it was indeed the mundul who stood out as its very condition of possibility, its hero, as it were.9 The work itself was “…most laborious” involving “… wading in the mud from village to village under the heat of the sun or in the drenching rain” (Beverley 1872: 12). Enumerators sustained injuries, which in some cases, proved fatal. They worked during the monsoon, the “unhealthy season.” Consider the logistical coordination required in identifying varied characteristics of all the people of Bengal in 1872 under such circumstances. This was no task to be primarily entrusted to the bhadralok (Beverley 1872: 16).10 Taking the census required mobility over the entire social and physical terrain of Bengal, and it was the munduls who emerged as its exemplary enumerators. Theirs was an “enumerative labour” of a kind that they were peculiarly well-suited to accomplish.

This is clear from the reports that the district-level officials forwarded to Beverley, on which he drew to compile the census. While zamindars, naibs, students, teachers, gomastas, and others undoubtedly joined in and some even voluntarily came forward and cooperated in the taking of the census, the munduls were accorded near unanimous praise. There were also instances when “landholders, as a rule, gave no assistance whatsoever,” and small zamindars “really got the work done by their servants” (Beverley 1872: 17). The actual labour of the census was therefore best disposed of by village headmen, “most of whom have cheerfully and zealously done the work, and have done so without remuneration” (Beverley 1872: 18). They performed the work “creditably and without any difficulty” (Beverley 1872: 20). The district magistrate of Dinagepore E E Lowis, found the village munduls “hard at work in the most natural manner” and their cooperation “heartily given,” making the census a “comparatively easy matter” (Beverley 1872: 20). The collector of Bograh, Bignold, said that the interest the vast bulk of the 7,469 unpaid mundul enumerators in his district took in their work exceeded all expectation: “… so much so that in many cases, on detecting an error in the returns they had rendered, they trudged into the thannah (police circle) to correct it” (Beverley 1872: 22). They evidently valued the dignity the work conferred, as disputes arose amongst them about their due responsibilities and the sunnuds issued (Beverley 1872: 22). W V G Tayler likewise reported that the “actual enumeration” in Pubna was enacted by about 5,508 unpaid and indigenous agents, the great majority of whom were munduls (Beverley 1872: 22).

The commissioner of Pubna did not hesitate to stress that without indigenous assistance, the census “could not have been taken at all” (Beverley 1872: 24). It had not cost the government a pice and came “without absolute compulsion”11 but he qualified that help came willingly. The zamindar may have done so, but he felt that in the case of “gomashtas, putwaris, and munduls” who worked without pay: “And so we count because we must, and not because we would” (Beverley 1872: 24). This view was not shared by Beveridge, collector of Backergunje, where, as in other cases, the “real stress of the work fell upon the village enumerators,” the “backbone of the affair” (Beverley 1872: 26). They had “put themselves to great personal inconvenience, and even occasional personal danger from snakes and tigers, in taking the census, and they also in many cases incurred expenses for boat-hire…” (Beverley 1872: 26). Beveridge felt the task required intimate knowledge of the mofussil, patience, tact and indeed, “could not be accomplished without a good deal of physical fatigue” (Beverley 1872: 26).

Why does it matter that by all accounts the census of 1872 depended critically on the munduls of Bengal and that they took to the work as they did? The uncanny and disarming identity between the global theoreticians of the census and its agrarian practitioners seems significant not merely because it seems to have escaped specific recognition, barring casual speculations about the enumerators’ presumably cavalier approach to their work, as with Cohn—they appear, on the contrary, to have been entirely mindful of exactitude and precision. But also because it confounds some of the notions dearest to extant historiographical norms and sentiments: that the census was something the British did to the Indian people in order to divide and rule them; that in cases where they did have any say, overwhelmingly, social elites amongst the colonised appeared as historical agents playing a critical if ultimately marginalised role in the processes of colonial governmentality such that colonial rulers could only ever inadequately grasp what was communicated by them about the true complexity of Indian society and culture; and perhaps most importantly, that the subjectivities of Bengal’s peasantry were seemingly pickled in a pre-capitalist and a-modern aspic such that their religious-cum-communitarian attachments thwarted their engagement with or expression of modern forms (Chandra 2016: 69–98).12 Indeed, it was the mundul, a figure essential to the movement of agrarian capital by virtue of his intermediation of the complex loyalties between zamindar and ryot, who ushered in the birth of enumerative rationality in colonial Bengal. The census was fundamentally reliant on their discerning, and as such was an instance of an imbrication with modern method, belying distinctions between elite collaborators and subaltern resisters of colonial and capitalist modernity. Taking a decentralised and disaggregated view of the matter, the 1872 enumeration was in a certain sense a compilation of their social observations. Considering their place in society, and considering the census as a composite of the munduls’ verification of their neighbours’ identifications might allow for a deeper appreciation of the significance of their role as enumerator par excellence. Who was the mundul?

A Brief History of the Mundul

At the turn of the century, Samuel Rousseau, a teacher of the Persian language, in a dictionary compiled to better acquaint the East India Company employees with the various vernacular terms they would encounter, defined the “mundul” as follows:

An officer corresponding with the tithing-man, or head-borough of a parish in England, the chief ryot of a village, chosen usually from among the oldest and most experienced of the inhabitants. His duty is to collect the rent from the ryots, and pay them to the currumchary, to act as a mediator between them and the petty collectors of the revenue, to assist them in felling their crops, in raising money to pay their rents, and in settling the little disputes which arise in the neighbourhood. He may be said to hold his office at the pleasure of the ryots; and his influence and services depends solely upon the good opinion they entertain of him, it is not the interest of the zemindar to remove him, as long as he retains their confidence. (Rousseau 1802: 171)

Extracts from Harington’s Analysis of the Bengal Regulations cut a darker figure. While undoubtedly “useful,” munduls had “contributed to the growth of the various abuses now existing, and to have secured their own advantages at the expense of the zamindar, landlord, renter, and inferior ryots. Their power and influence over the inferior ryots is great and extensive” (Office of Superintendent 1866: 256). J H Harington found that attempts to check their abuses were met with their urging the ryots to complain, and to resist. A recent effort to equalise assessments of the ryots in Birbhum, for instance, had resulted in such immediate opposition that the government had been “obliged to interference with a military force to anticipate disturbances, and at present the ryots are apparently averse to an arrangement proposed for their benefit, and upon principles calculated to ensure it” (Office of Superintendent 1866: 258). Previously, munduls had collectively prevailed on a zamindar of the same district to forego plans towards a general and equal assessment. In Purnea, they exercised sufficient influence so as to “interrupt the powers and duties of the collector” (Office of Superintendent 1866: 258). In an especially arresting turn of phrase, the collector of Rajshahi claimed that the head munduls have “become the real masters of the land” and thus, the first object of a zamindar should be to effect a gradual reduction of their power (Office of Superintendent 1866: 258). As P J Marshall’s research confirmed, munduls were indeed able to fend off threats to their intermediary yet privileged status (Marshall 1987: 153). They seem to have elicited a curious combination of both consent to and fear of their authority, a mediatory locus of power in a world where the zamindar’s writ was all.

Tayler observed that their primary duties consisted of dispute resolution, as the representative of villagers in all transactions with “zemindars or other outsiders” (Marshall 1987: 153). They settled scandals and infringements amicably out of court. Indeed, the munduls seem to have occupied an exceptionally complex node in the dynamics of production in agrarian Bengal. Consider this resume of activities: they accompanied parties to cutcherries (courts) when the zamindar tried a case to have a voice in the matter; they assisted tehsildars in realising rent, raising cess or subscriptions on the zamindar’s requisition; and secured the attendance of ryots when summoned to the cutcherry or thana. In parts of Serajgunje, they intervened in disputes between the zamindar and ryots such that it was “through the advice and instrumentality of the headmen that the ryots have acquired this power, and the latter, sooner than lose their assistance, allow them to do much as they wish” (Marshall 1987: 23). Ryots considered themselves “kidnapped” if taken alone before the zamindar to face accusations, but were generally willing to do so if accompanied by the mundul. In disputes over rent rates or illegal cesses, they “take the ryots’ side and defend them against the zamindars, and if the dispute grows hot, the landlord’s power in the village ceases and that of the headmen becomes supreme” (Marshall 1987: 23). They had then to raise a cess to pay expenses for litigation, and often organised the ryots “with a view to physical resistance” (Marshall 1987: 23). In short, the mundul was a key mediator between raja and praja (subjects of a kingdom), with seemingly unambiguous allegiance to the latter.

Consider the papers regarding the village and rural indigenous agency employed in taking the Bengal Census of 1872, compiled on under-secretary W C Plowden’s notice to all commissioners that April. The opportunity to show the government “what indigenous institutions so much survive that active and thorough Collectors have been able to make use of them, whether they be munduls, village punchayets, putwarees, chowkidars, or any others” was not to be lost (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 1). They were to explain what assistance had been derived from landholders or their agents, as well as their class and character. As with Beverley’s report, the mundul received the pride of place, and was now perceived with far greater sympathy as compared to the Bengal government’s characteristic delegitimising several decades earlier.

Nearly all respondents confirmed that his duties were threefold: the mediation and resolution of matters between landlord and tenant, the management of social disputes amongst villagers and the provision of assistance for the detection and punishment of crimes. His position was hereditary and typically followed primogeniture. He was initially elected from amongst the villagers themselves (the zamindar had no say in the matter, and typically did not receive salami [honorary salutation] on appointment or succession), such that his authority derived from the recognition of his moral stature and social standing. The mundul, though in many cases better off than his neighbours, “is himself one of the laboring classes and is entirely identified in interests and feeling with those classes. Whatever he may have been in old days, he is now the representative of the lower orders,” and “part of the people” (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 19). The question of origins is a most interesting one. Various theories postulated by official respondents on the basis of consultation with “general tradition or report,” range from being “a very ancient institution” allegedly coterminous with the so-called “Sanskrit village-communities,” to being traceable to “the time of the Mohamedan government,” to a title conferred by Raja Krishna Chundra Roy of Nuddea in the 18th century, to an institution whose authority derived over the course of time from a social and moral basis (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 23–25). There was evidently no agreement about their history.

W H Verner, joint magistrate of 24 Pergunnahs, who submitted perhaps the most elaborate reply, included a table showing that of 3,543 village munduls of “Hindu or quasi-Hindu religion” in the district, there were only nine Brahmans and four Kayasths (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 19). The position was clearly not associated then with the socially dominant and caste-elite of Bengali society. As the commissioner of the Presidency division observed: “…with very few exceptions, all the Hindu munduls belong to low castes” (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 12). This association was evidently the case elsewhere as well. The magistrate of Bancoorah, for instance, noted that the position existed in almost all villages barring those entirely or almost entirely inhabited by Brahmins, Kayasthas, and Baidyas. In Hooghly, they were chosen from “Sutgopes, Talees, or Gowalas” whereas in Howrah, they were chosen from the “class of Kybortos, Bagdees, Chundals, and Mahomedans” (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 4, 7, 12–13). Throughout the Presidency division, they were regarded “not only representatives of the lower classes, but chosen by those classes from among themselves (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 12). The same was true of Rajshahye division, where munduls were similarly privileged as the key “indigenous agency” of the census operations (Bengal Government Selections 1873: 26–34). Munduls, thus, seem to have been a caste-subaltern subject though clearly composed of individuals of “middling” caste-status as well. Nearly half a century later, sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar would thus associate the title and its system of management with “… the Podas and similar low-class people…” in whom he perceived such promise for his vision of a regenerated race and nation (Sen 2015: 71). The point being that they by no means constituted the indigenous caste-elite. Rather, they appear to have been from amongst precisely those communities today designated as a class-combination of Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Muslims.

As to their influence and functions, Verner found that they commanded little authority with the upper classes, and that their power increased with the distance travelled from towns, high roads and waterways. It was in the “more purely rural tracts” that they held sway, deciding boundary disputes, quarrels between village-cliques, and domestic tensions over jointly-held property. Nonetheless, they had “little separate authority” and typically called on the respectable persons within the village: “the mundul has no way of enforcing his decisions but the public opinion of the village” (Sen 2015: 20). Their authority disposed of a “large number of small cases” such that resort to the civil or criminal courts was jettisoned. It was hard to document the precise nature of their “interference” as fear prevailed about the unsanctioned status of their authority under British colonial rule. Disclosing the mundul to government was seemingly undesirable to those they served.

Interference or Helpfulness?

While munduls generally assisted the police forces, some officers complained of their unhelpfulness, thwarting, meddling, and circumvention of the law. Dum-Dum’s sub-inspector, an “efficient police officer” observed that “he is so identified with the villagers that he often looks to their interests more than to the interests of justice” (Sen 2015: 21). His counterpart in Sultanpore was less charitable, for Verner, even “severe” (Sen 2015: 21). The latter felt that munduls interfered in domestic tensions, concealed evidence in cases heinous and petty, excited peasant anger and fear, with the result that he “achieves his object after harassing both sides” (Sen 2015: 21). Nonetheless, the “lower orders generally blindly follow the village mundul and his associates already mentioned, and even though they be led to jail or other ruin by them, will not blame or disobey them. The budmashes (rogues) are generally subject to the village munduls, through whose help alone they are able to digest their ill-got gains” (Sen 2015: 21). The sub-
inspector suspected deliberate misleading and diversion: “with their co-operation the police could easily discover the real facts, but against them they are often powerless to do so” (Sen 2015: 21).

For Verner, such impressions only confirmed the prospect of drawing them into “closer accord with our executive administration” (Sen 2015: 22). His catalogue continued: the mundul stood security for a villager accused by the zamindar of petty crime, rendered assistance in the attachment of property by order of civil courts, and was not known to be fined by the zamindar in his capacity. He was a distinguished guest during festivals, oversaw the punyaha (the first rent-day of the year), and generally a man of distinction to be invited to feasts and ceremonies. As an institution, the mundul was “widely rooted among the people” such that the position continued to appear in new villages as well (Sen 2015: 22). This was not an opportunity to be lost. The irony of Verner’s extolling the mundul’s virtues and capacious knowledge of his environment was a feature of his existence, which almost all respondents remarked, probably also brought about his decline and likely demise. This was not due to the rise of the zamindar (as many others clearly thought), but in Verner’s view, the “form of executive administration that has grown up under British government. It is probable that by degrees his shadowy power, such as it is, will disappear, and then the name will fade away likewise, and village munduls will be at last unknown. Our police and judicial systems, as at present constituted, are hostile to him and his influence” (Sen 2015: 22). In his reckoning, the state came late in its appreciation and potential summoning of their decentralised authority.

Mundul as Condition of Possibility for Census

That the munduls’ indispensability to the census of Bengal in 1872 has remained veiled in extant accounts of its history ought not to surprise. Framed by the critique of orientalism, questions concerning censuses outside colonial India, and who the enumerators actually were or how they performed the work they were called upon to do, have necessarily remained marginal in many such treatments. Rather, the focus has invariably been on how British (mis)perceptions of Indian society moulded subsequent consciousness and conduct. In this historical imagination, the British (insidiously) did something—the census—to Indians. One can only presume that it was in fact the “lower orders” who worked strenuously to gather the knowledge that would one day furnish the very possibility for various demands for rights could not be explicitly registered in this tradition of historical thought.

How does one explain the compatibilities and entanglements between techniques attempted all over the 19th-century world—the “science of statistics” or “social physics”—as I have traced in the earlier sections of this paper, their particular manifestation in the hands of a Henry Beverley, and the distinguished spokesmen amongst Bengal’s peasantry illustrated in the foregoing pages? To be sure, I have not dwelt at length on the question of what munduls themselves made of all this, largely because the sources consulted do not easily permit such an enquiry. Yet, if a wide swathe of the colonial officialdom is to be believed, they undertook the work of the census with assiduity and embraced the exercise because of the badge of respectability such a role extended. Moreover, the point of this paper is to illustrate an affinity or resonance which I believe is important to consider, in the light of broader discussions about the nature of colonial governance and subaltern subject formation in South Asian history. If, to invoke Cohn, the census played a key role in the process of classifying and making objective their culture and society to the Indians themselves, the enumeration undertaken by munduls in the late 19th century supplied a critical component to its unfolding.

In reasserting the possibility of grasping at the contours of their consciousness in a colonial archive in the manner of a critical reading “along the grain,” the foregoing pages indicate that munduls were indeed essential to the census enumeration of 1872 in ways we are yet to fully appreciate. Most certainly, it was the British colonial census authorities who tabulated, classified and ordered the form assumed in the final published volumes of the census, but it was the munduls’ gaze that was enshrined within these statistical tomes. The census, quite literally, was a compendium of their judgment and verification of who was what. They may well have received instructions about what categories of a person’s identification to note down, but in the final analysis, these were mediated and decided upon by their own inherited assumptions, prejudices, and understandings of the social worlds they navigated.13 Mine is a plea for some awareness of the constitutive role they played, beyond being mere obedient instruments, in the making of colonial knowledge. Given what we know of their capacities for organising dissent, their assent to the rationale of measure, as they understood it from the instructions of their European supervisors, as well as their ambitions to respectability, seem to have formed important conditions for its very implementation.

As the preceding pages suggest, munduls were amongst the most complicated figures in Bengal’s notoriously variegated modern agrarian world, whose position entailed the balancing of competing loyalties and required considerable societal interpretability and acumen, that they presumably brought to bear upon the work of the census. The significance of their accomplishments acquires sharper relief if one recalls that eventually, of arguably greater relevance to late-colonial and postcolonial politics under conditions of representative government, was not the issue of precedence in caste hierarchies but that of the numerical and proportional strength of communities.14 Where consultation with caste-elites may have yielded knowledge of gradation, predominantly lower-caste munduls enabled knowledge of the population ratio by enumerating for the first time, the entirety of Bengal.

The aspects that stand most pronounced in the portrait emerging from colonial officials’ descriptions of the munduls’ role and certainly suggestive of their own thinking on the matter, is the gusto with which they were believed to have conducted this intellectual and physical labour, their receptivity to the distinction and respectability the work of enumeration conferred, as well as the awareness that their most meaningful solidarities remained, despite various violations and their interstitial power, sensitive to the moral economy of the “lower orders,” to which they indubitably belonged. These suggest a degree of collaboration largely invisible to historiographical perspectives that posit the colonial state as external if not allergic to the consciousness of the former. The possibility that the thousands of them who fanned out across Bengal in 1872 exercised a critical kind of influence on colonial constructions of community and their political mobilisation, ought not to be ruled out in favour of a reading that sees the census as fundamentally incompatible with and disjunctive to their world view.


1 This paper suggests otherwise, and one look at the table of contents of the memorandum Henry Waterfield, of the India Office Statistics and Commerce Department, sent to Parliament should convince as regards the various classificatory principles used, not just varna. Dirks’ somewhat caricatured depiction of the actual proceedings of the census seems to reduce what appears to have been a far more complex process to a ventriloquist gesture.

2 I find Andrew Sartori’s contention about the possibilities of reading in the colonial archive entirely apposite in this respect.

3 The sentiment found echoes in the memoirs of the contemporary Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, George Campbell (1893: 208) who mused of his experience with the provincial councils, whose purpose he nevertheless lauded: “The difficulty was, and I fear long will be, this—it is easy enough to get representatives of the Zemindars and higher classes, but most difficult to get representatives of the lower masses—the ryots…. It is a very great danger that, on our councils and other bodies, the upper classes may be represented while the lower classes are not—in all class questions that gives a great unfair advantage to the former. British officials must always very carefully guard the interests of the lower classes.”

4 Neither did Beverley seem to unproblematically subscribe to the notion that caste and religion were the sociological keys to India. This was one whose time in India had taught him that “we have no clear definition of what we mean when we speak of a Hindu … what pure Hinduism consists in, and what is to be the shibboleth by which the orthodoxy of the various races of India are to be tried, has never, so far as I am aware, been laid down by competent authority” (Beverely 1874: 74). Beverley also rejected the principle of varna for Bengal.

5 In his appreciative remarks during discussion, General Richard Strachey referred to the “… absolute resistance made to the making of that census. It was said it would be impossible, and all sorts of reasons were given why it would be impossible; but Mr Beverley had shown that it was not so” (Beverley 1874:108).

6 Beverley devoted an entire chapter of his report to assessing criticisms about the accuracy of the census. His awareness of the enumeration’s instabilities and inaccuracies seem belied in later scholarly interpretations that stress the ad hoc, arbitrary, and ultimately false depictions of colonial knowledge forms.

7 Interestingly, fear of enhanced taxation was an anxiety felt by people all over the world when negotiating enumeration.

8 This does not mean however, that the census provoked no apprehension, suspicion, or rumour. Despite such responses nonetheless, “the people submitted patiently, pretending to be satisfied with the explanations given them.” Villagers in Rajshahye evidently exclaimed to the deputy collector upon being informed of the object of the census: “What wonders the British Government has achieved! The Great Akbar never attempted any such thing.”

9 This is by no means to suggest the untenable proposition that munduls alone participated in the matter, nor that their position was uniformly available throughout the province, or that it was by any means homogeneous in sociological terms. Like similarly situated figures (for instance, putwarees, pramaniks, pradhans, matbars, and mukhyas), munduls were certainly differentiated by the salient axes of social identification of late 19th century Bengal. This does not obviate the need for reflection on how and why it was that these village headmen in particular emerged to be so integral to enumeration.

10 In a revealing statement, Oldham, in charge of the Sudder subdivision in Nadia, noted how all the police officers “made the mistake” of securing only respectable cultivators and shop-keepers as enumerators to the exclusion of “zemindars, their servants, and such Brahmans and Kayesths and Munshis as might be residents of the various villages.” In some cases, these excluded caste and class elites expressed their resentment at the appointment letters (due to their polite and honorific address) being “bestowed on mere cultivators” (Beverley 1872: 16).

11 The laws designed to streamline the operations, that is, penalise misconduct by the enumerators or supervisors, apparently encountered little to no breach.

12 This latter stance is so widely diffused in everyday intellectual habit that to identify it too closely with individual scholars is somewhat meaningless. Nevertheless, arguably some of the more pronounced statements to this effect might be gleaned from Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and the works this book inspired. The subaltern, it would seem, was only ever capable of resisting colonial modernity, rather than fundamentally constituting it from within as it were. See Uday Chandra’s reinterpretation of Birsa Munda’s rebellion for an important nuancing of this view in the context of the history and historiography of Adivasis (Chandra 2016).

13 The distinction I am drawing attention to might be considered roughly analogous, and by no means identical, to that between the langue and parole of the census as a system of signs.

14 This argument had been formulated at roughly the same time as the 1872 census, as for instance, in Jotirao Phule’s Gulamgiri.


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Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018


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