1881: the first full census in British India

As we completed the Census 2021 in the UK today, it made me think back to the first Census that was undertaken in British India in 1881. Actually, the first full census was supposed to take place in 1861 but due to the rebellion of 1857-9 and “due to the sensitivity which the British had developed to what, at least in North India, might be constructed as undue interference in the life of the people, the census was postponed until 1871-2” (Cohn, 324). In 1987, Bernard Cohn was perhaps one of the first to put forward the argument that the colonial census played an important role in constructing identities, thinking about their own numerical strength and the possibilities that this presented in a competitive imperial state.

“The actual taking of the census was a two-step affair. Enumerators were appointed by circle supervisors, who were usually government officials. Supervisors were patwaris, zamindars, schoolteachers, or anyone who was literate. They were given a form with columns on which was to be entered information about every member of a household. The information to be collected was name, religion (e.g., Hindu, Muslim), sect, caste, subdivision of caste, sex, age, marital status, language, birthplace, means of subsistence, education, language in which literate, and infirmities. There was a one-month period before the actual date of the census in which the enumerator was to fill in the forms, and then on the day of the census he was to check the information with the head of the household. As an aid to achieving standardization in the recording of information on caste and subcaste, lists were prepared as early as the 1881 census which gave standard names with variations for the castes. The supervisors were supposed to instruct the enumerators in how to classify responses. The lists of castes were alphabetically arranged giving information on where they were to be found and containing very brief notes” (Cohn, 329).

Cohn notes that the most “complex” and problematic question for the census takers was on the issue of caste. He references the work of Srinivas and Ghurye who raised important questions about the relationship between the census and caste, putting forward the question, why did the British officials record the caste of individuals? Was it perhaps curiosity or part of a design by the British? That is, as some nationalist Indians believed, “to keep alive, if not to exacerbate, the numerous divisions already present in Indian society” (Cohn, 327). The second question is to what extent did the census effect people’s notion of who they were? There arguments and connection have subsequently been advanced by many others about the importance of the census in creating and essentialising identities at a time when communalism was taking root. This period of enormous socio-economic change, and politicisation of identities is further entrenched with the enumeration of people and which religion they belong to. Kenneth Jones, in his work on the socio-religious reform movements in British India, highlights that fact that

“Traditionally, Hinduism lacked a conversion ritual. After the introduction of a decennial census in 1871, religious leaders began to focus their attention on the issue of numerical strength. For Hindus the census reports pictured their community as one in decline, its numbers falling in proportion to those of other religions. Christian success in converting the lower and untouchable castes furthered Hindu fears and led the militant Aryas to develop their own ritual of conversion, shuddhi. Initially shuddhi was employed to purify and readmit Hindus who had converted to Islam or Christianity” (Jones, 100).

Indeed, Gopal Krishan, in his study on the demography of the Punjab, highlights that

“The most fascinating demographic feature of the colonial Punjab was the religious composition of its population. While it represented an evolution of a cultural diversity in history, it became a new and divisive force in polity over time. It was on the basis of religion that the British India was partitioned; and more pertinently the partition was specific to only two provinces, Punjab and Bengal. These two provinces were marked by not only a sensitive composition of the Muslims and non-Muslims (essentially Hindus and Sikhs in the case of Punjab) but also by regional segregation of the two religious’ groups, by and large. In Bengal, the Muslims were in overwhelming majority in the eastern segment and the non-Muslims in its western counterpart; in Punjab, the picture was in reverse, with the Muslims in a large majority in the western wing and the non-Muslims in the eastern” (Krishna, 83).

When it finally came to the Partition in 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was using what are considered to be out-dated figures from the Census conducted during World War Two in 1941. However, the lines between two countries were drawn based on this information.

Bhagat Ram B. ‘Census enumeration, religious identity and communal polarization in India.’ Asian Ethnicity, 2013, 14:4, 434-448, DOI: 10.1080/14631369.2012.710079

Bhagat, Ram B. ‘Census and the Construction of Communalism in India.’ Economic and Political Weekly (2001): 4352-4356.

Bhagat, Ram B. ‘Caste Census: Looking Back, Looking Forward.’ Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 21 (2007): 1902-905. Accessed March 21, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4419628.

Cohn, Bernard. ‘The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia’, in Sarkar, Sumit, and Tanika Sarkar. Caste in Modern India (Orient Blackswan, 2018).

Jones, Kenneth W. Socio-religious reform movements in British India. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Krishan, Gopal. ‘Demography of the Punjab (1849-1947).’ Journal of Punjab Studies, 11, no. 1 (2004): 77-89

Singh, Joginder. ‘The Sikhs in the British Census Reports, Punjab.’ Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 46 (1985): 502-06. Accessed March 21, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44141395.

Yengde, Suraj. ‘Adivasis are not Hindus. Lazy colonial census gave them the label.’ The Print, 9 March 2021.

The 1881 Census is digitized and available via: The Government of India or Digital South Asia Library.


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