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

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Politics of Caste as a Census Category in Colonial India c 1871–1941

Numbers as a Means to Power

Historians working on colonial India have often argued that the colonial censuses hardened caste divides in Indian society. Contrarily, this paper showcases that the history of colonial caste census is more complicated than what was assumed by historians who simplistically identify it as a divisive colonial instrument. Caste as a census category was especially crucial for the lower castes. Caste data in the census reports highlighted the marginalisation of the lower castes and was used by them to make their claims for power. These demands of the lower castes were seen by the upper-caste nationalists and reformers as divides created through the colonial censuses. Hence, due to the demands of the upper castes, caste as a census category was dropped for the 1941 Census. This was a massive setback to the lower castes who were using the census figures to legitimise their representation in the public sector.

There have been demands in India for the release of caste census data from the Census of 2011 (Trivedi 2021; ­Alluri and Mateen 2021). Additionally, in the past few weeks many of the backward caste groups have approached the government to include caste in the Census of 2021 (Swaroop 2021; Kumar 2021). However, the most important argument in the news reports against the release of caste census data and the use of caste as a census category is that such data will further create caste divides and be used for divisiveness by political parties (Sarkar 2015). This argument follows from the arguments given by historians that caste as a census category introduced by the colonial rulers created and hardened the caste divides (Dirks 1992; Cohn 1987; Appadurai 1993).1 Historians argue that these caste-based censuses were only challenged in the 1930s when Indian nationalists and reformers “denounced the government’s caste listings as divisive tools of imperialism and urged their readers not to provide the census enumerators with details of their varna and jati” (Bayly 1999: 244). This denunciation by the Indian nationalists and reformers led to the colonial decision of dropping caste as a census category after the Census of 1931, thus leading to the absence of caste category in the Census of 1941 (Bayly 1999: 244).

However, this paper moves away from simplistically seeing caste-based censuses as a part of the colonial structure that created divisiveness and went against the nationalist currents. Instead, it argues that the colonial census formed a critical instrument that could help in understanding the marginalisation of the lower castes. The census figures highlighted that literates of the Indian society were mostly found among the upper castes. They also proved that the upper castes hegemonised the public sector. During the 1920s and the 1930s, when the British government introduced the reforms for self-governance through the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, Simon Commission of 1928, and the Round Table Conferences of the early 1930s, the census data had become useful for the lower castes to make claims for their political representation. However, the upper castes saw the power-sharing claims of the lower castes as threatening to the nationalist movement. Hence, the upper castes indulged in the idea of censuses creating caste divides (an idea that has now found space in the ­recent historiography on caste censuses). Thus, the upper castes protested against caste as a census category. This led to the colonial decision of dropping caste from the decennial Census of 1941. This decision came against the interests of the lower caste groups who used caste censuses to legitimise their claims to power.

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Updated On : 2nd May, 2022
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