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Census and Floating Communities in India


Before Census operations began in 1901, there were many floating communities like Kayasthas or Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, which did not belong to any Varna and remained outside Varna/caste system. The government’s attempts to label and pigeon-hole all such communities along with others into one or the other group had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which till now was really very fluid under indigenous rule.

As late as the eighteenth century, there was no fixed hierarchical social order over large parts of the sub-continent. Ranking of different castes was not based on wealth or material gains, but on cultural endowments. Intellectual and spiritual attainments, aptitude, ritual purity and contribution of their work to the welfare of whole of the society formed the basis of their social status.

Usually the position of Brahmins was at the top and that of Shudras at the bottom, but in between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of several castes, which was acceptable to all concerned. This, itself, gave a large element of fluidity in the system. There was not much disparity between forward or lower castes. Ranking of different castes was independent of the government.

Despite a close association of caste with occupation, no caste group exercised monopoly over a profession. It is an established fact of Indian History that Brahmin or even Shudras sometimes became the kings. Khatriyas and Shudra were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers. As leading sociologists pointed out, in addition to their hereditary occupation, agriculture and army were accessible and open to all sections of society. It had accommodated many groups – indigenous or alien. The recruits in Military came from all strata of society including the lowest in the ritual terms. Once recruited, there was no discrimination in treatment of soldiers on the basis of caste. Rajput status was given to soldiers.

All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of the slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring” for each other. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers.

Caste acted as a major force, through which Hindus retained their cultural identity, while living under an alien political order for centuries, whether it was Mughal, Portuguese or British. It was the major force for the failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway in India even after mass conversion.

Influence of caste was immense on public minds before census operations. The local character of caste made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. All castes, living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes. Still each caste group enjoyed freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles. Decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode in the social, political, and economic life of the country.

The nation was more or less free from caste wars or class clashes. Not a single caste group was identified as very strong, dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. Laws remained unmodified and flexible enough to adapt to local customs and situations.

Alternative ideologies and styles of life were available in India. The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Non-Kshatriya peasant community provided leadership to many armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasants was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India.

Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed and Many communities were floating communities. The learned community of Kayasthas gave a tough competition to Brahmins, which helped in controlling the arrogance of Brahmins. Similarly groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput were so strong that they terrorized and kept a check on settled agriculturists for centuries. Forests, which competed with arable land in size and importance, till the 18th century, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society.

The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. Teachings of Shri Chaitnya, Nanak, Kabir, Bhakti and Sufi saints gave some breathing space to the rigidity of caste system, whenever it suffocated the society during medieval India.

After Census Operations, British rulers codified all the castes and standardized the system by placing them into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. So far, Hindu Society was classified into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold. Later on, earlier British rulers and now politicians of Independent India have divided it into five new unbridgeable compartments by census operations – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untouchable or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, they gave each one a new separate and distinct identity.

It changed the older system drastically, giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. All this was done in a piece-meal and with due regard to the safety and perpetuation of British domination as long as possible. The process of Census enumeration was far from neutral. The British retained the distinctions between different sub-castes, relevant to them for organizing labor and homogenized all those sub-castes, for which they had no use, therefore, no interest. All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained out-side caste system were fused into one. The Census operation kept Brahmins on top of hierarchy. British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists, pinpointed them as the potential threat to the British and instigated other castes against them.

Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, “We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems. But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste. Caste, in itself, was rigid among the higher castes, but malleable amongst the lower.” This way, the Census operations destroyed the flexibility of caste system, led to an all-round hardening of social-system and to frantic effort by each group-for upward mobility.

 Like modern Manu, “The census operations divided all the castes and communities into following groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes”. This division remains a by-word even for the present leaders of Independent India.


May 19, 2010 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |


  1. Very good post. I am dealing with many of these issues as well..

    Comment by inch santoku sheath farberware | March 26, 2015 | Reply

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    Comment by Arnold Blong | March 25, 2016 | Reply

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    Comment by Rosana Peyer | March 26, 2016 | Reply

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