Democracy in India – 3

We pick up where we left off in the previous post (Democracy in India – 2) on the subject of the introduction of the census in British India and its implications for the trajectory of political developments.

The objective is to show that the use of an administrative mechanism like the census is not neutral but has a definite purpose, is based on prior prejudice, and can have severe unintended consequences. For this interpretation we rely on the most recent writing available on the topic – In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007 ( 

The census was symptomatic of the Victorian urge to ‘know’, ‘classify’ and ‘count’. Census operations were not reserved just for the colonies. They were instituted in almost all European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries and were usually prompted by concerns about depopulation and increasing poverty. In Britain, the census was instituted… in 1800… [and] stressed two objectives. Firstly, to know accurately the current size of the population, and secondly, to know the trend of the population… in order to provide ‘correct knowledge’ of increasing or decreasing demands of subsistence’.

Significantly… the census in Britain never recorded data on religion, apart from one survey in 1851. This was despite the fact that in early nineteenth century Britain, religious affiliation mattered intensely… Until well into the nineteenth century the state awarded the right to vote on the basis of religious affiliation. Yet, however much religion may have informed British life, it was never imagined… as having the power to shape the entire society into opposed ‘communities’. One could argue that the project of nation-building that Britain was involved in at this time encouraged an emphasis on homogeneity and themes that united Britain.

In direct contrast to this, India had come to be understood as a land of ‘many nations’, and of ‘various and varying races’, as Disraeli described its people… As an article that appeared in The Times proclaimed, the basis of a ‘right understanding’ of Indian government ‘must be exact knowledge of the population not only as a whole, but in its manifold ethnographic, communal and geographic divisions; and this can be obtained only by a full and careful periodic enumeration.

This colonial understanding of India and Indian diversity, which gave centrality to religious community and caste, was institutionalized in the census.

We shall continue in the next post by documenting how religious categories were defined and the outcomes of this assignment of centrality to religion in the Indian census.

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