In the first article of this series (Democracy in India – 1) we had highlighted the importance of the introduction of elective governance in India by the British, the choice of separate electorates based on religion, and its negative impact on communal relations.
The following quote from the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930 showed how religion was turned from a social distinction into a political one that mattered in terms of who got what:
So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up.
Thus “while the goal of achieving independence from British rule was never a point of disagreement, the distribution of political power between the Hindu and the Muslim communities in a future, free India became a continuous ‘apple of disord’.” We quoted the historian K.M. Pannikar as saying that “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.”
The question that was left unaddressed in the above exposition was the logically prior one of identity. How and why did individuals in Indian society come to see themselves primarily as members of religious meta-communities, how did they understand the implication of their numerical strengths, and why did they fixate on religion as the most important marker of their identities?
In short, in trying to understand the history of politics in India we have arrived at the absolutely critical question of the dynamics of identity formation. It is critical because the understanding of identity was instrumental in both the modalities of electoral politics when it was introduced, and in how individuals reckoned their potential interests in the subsequent electoral game.
It is here that we make a surprising discovery and see how a seemingly innocuous administrative instrument like the census had such a profound influence on Indian history.
In his very insightful book (The Idea of India) Sunil Khilnani mentions that the British introduced the decennial census in India in a limited form in 1871. He describes how the census “expanded perceptions of the social scale of communities: individuals and groups living in far corners of the country could now conceive of themselves as being members of a single, large community”:
This made it possible for the first time to imagine a common nation of Indians. But the enumeration and classification of individuals into categories of caste and religion, and the introduction by the Raj of electorates divided along communal lines, also solidified exclusionary identities… Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity.
Khilnani elaborates on this point:
After all, before the nineteenth century, no residents of the subcontinent would have identified themselves as Indian. There existed intricate, ramified vocabularies of common understanding, which classified people by communities of lineage, locality and sect; but ‘Indian’ would not have figured amongst its terms. Subcontinental society was hardly static, yet most people never ventured beyond their own or neighbouring localities. They knew little about each other and were uninterested in learning more, preferring to remain distant strangers in a land peopled in their imagination by marvelous and absurd ‘others’.
This is followed by an explanation of the emergence of reified meta-identities:
The Muslims of British India did not form a monolithic community with a single ‘communal’ identity or interest any more than the Hindus did. Class and region divided as much as religion might unite, and beliefs about community and interest varied between provinces where Muslims were in a majority and those where they were not. (The terminology of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was itself an inescapable imposition of the political accountancy of the Raj.)
It is interesting to think what the nature of national politics in India might have been without the census. And how might national politics have evolved if the census had not collected information on the religious preferences of the inhabitants of India.
This is a sobering thought for social scientists who think of survey instruments as harmless devices available to collect all sorts of useful information about a given set of respondents not fully informed about how that information might subsequently be used.
We will continue our investigations into the role of the census in British India in a subsequent post.