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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Census operations in India


“Census operations’ mean an official periodic count of the population and gathering of related statistcs, e.g. age, sex or social caste, carried out by an authentic authority, in order to know the demography of a nation and then accordingly decide the rules of governance.

In ancient India, Manu had stratified the Indian population into four groups on the basis of attitude, aptitude and occupations – Brahmins (Indian Intelligentsia), Kshatriyas (Warriors), Vaishyas (business community) and Shudras (Service community). It was based on the principles of ‘Varna, Dharma and Karma’.

In modern times, during British rule in India, Census operations were started by British rulers. Census operations divided Indian population in a fundamental way. The older order of four Varnas, embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold, took the shape of five new unbridgeable compartments – Backward castes, forward castes (caste Hindus), untouchables or scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and minority only for political purposes. Through legal process, they gave each one a new separate and distinct identity officially. Socially, common-men still have the faith in older ‘Varna’ system, followed by caste-system.

Through legal process, periodic Census operations at the beginning of each decade, gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. It instigated caste consciousness, caste animosities and made caste a tool in political, religious and cultural battles that Hindus fought amongst themselves. from now onwards without any sign of relief even as of today.

Demography of India during ‘ancient’ and ‘medivial’ periods 

The assimilation of multi-ethnic migrants into Indian society makes its ethnic diversity a striking feature. These multi-ethnic migrants came to India in waves. In due course of time, they assimilated into Indian Society as its integral parts. These groups were the following, who preserved their distinct dialects, beliefs, values, customs and traditions, which are intact even today.

  • Negritos – the earliest men coming probably from Africa, now represented by tribal population in some interior jungles of South India and Andamans.
  • Proto-Australoids – considered being the original builders of the Indus valley civilization. They had settled in the hilly and forest tracts of Central and Southern India and in the lower strata of North India.
  • Mongoloids – coming from China, they settled mostly in Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal, Assam and the North Eastern States.
  • Mediterranean – Fairly civilized people coming from Southwest Asia around 2000 BC. They are believed to be the bearers of the earliest form of Hinduism and were the architects of later Indus Valley Civilization. Later, they were pushed to the Ganga plain and down the Central and South India. Today they constitute the bulk of population in South India and bulk of scheduled castes in the North, including Punjab.
  • Alphinoids, Dinarics and Armenoids – Coming from South Europe, now they are found in the Coorgis and the Parsis.
  • Nordics – They came to India around 2000 BC. Their concentration is now in Northwest India and among the upper castes of North India.

Ancient India

Start of collecting information about people for official purposes- In ancient India, most of the time, there was decentralization of power. Most of the time, India was divided into several princely states, some of them big and some small. The whole of India was united for a brief periods especilly durind Mauryan, Gupta or Mughals rule. As early as third century B. C., information about the population was collected during Mauryan rule, but only for administrative purposes. Kautilya in his treatise ‘Arthshastra’ pointed out that for taxation purposes, collection of population statistics was required. He mentioned about methods of collecting population and about agricultural and economic statistics.

Each local area, self sufficient in itself – 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. Local character of Indian society politically and socially made the task easy for rulers to know well their subjects. Each political unit, except for a brief period was small, self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people locally. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of ancient society. It was practically impossible for any group to provide everything by itself. People were dependent on each-other for fulfillment of all their needs. Every regional area produced enough to fulfill the basic needs of its people. The society had control over its natural resources.

Caste, a major force – 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.

Medivial Period

During medieval India, extensive records of land, production, population, famines etc were maintained. With the decline Mughal Empire, for sometime, this practice was discontinued.

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

Not much Disparity – There was not so much disparity in the economic status of various social groups – between forward or lower castes. 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 social groups, which was acceptable to all concerned. This, itself, gave a large element of fluidity in the system.

Floating communities – Alternative ideologies and styles of life were available to people in India, who did not have faith in ‘Varna-system.There were many floating communities as well like Kayasthas or Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, which did not belong to any Varna and remained outside Varna/caste system. 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.

Automatic system of checks and balances – The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. 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. 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 . 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.

No monopoly of any caste group over any occupation – Despite a close association of a social group i.e.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.

Immense influence of caste over public mind – 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.

Nation free from caste-conflicts – Despite having deep influence of caste over public mind, 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.

After British rule

Beginning of modern system of census- operations – After consolidating its position, initially the British Government in India made an effort to know about the people, whom they want to rule and chalk out strategies for the colonial governance. British anthropologists worked very hard to collect data and to catalogue various castes and tribes. They started collecting full record of all people of India, caste-wise, class-wise, community-wise, age-wise, or gender-wise, or habitation-wise, of rural-urban population and collects primary data at ward, village and town level. Detailed information about demography, literacy, standards of living, birth, mortality, and languages spoken etc were collected. First modern census was conducted between 1865 and1872 in different parts of the country. 1872 is dubbed as the year of first population census in India. In a synchronous way, census operations started once every 10 years from 1881 onwards.

 The first volume of Man in 1901(the Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute) noted, “The entire framework of native life in India is made up of castes and tribes and status and conduct of individuals are, largely, determined by the rules of the group, to which he belonged”. It was Census commissioner Risley, who for the first time recorded numerous castes existing in India in 1901 census and put them in hierarchical order. Risley’s efforts, in 1901 census, of recording and putting in order numerous castes in hierarchical order like modern Manu had fossilized, imparting it a solidity, it did not have earlier. (Das Veena and Kagal Ayesha, Through the Prism of Clerkdom, Times of India, dated September 16, 1990, p2) Census operations codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines.

Pigeonholed all castes and communities – 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…The government’s act for labels and pigeon-holes had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic caste, was really very fluid under indigenous rule. “Therefore, 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.

Census enumerationm, far from neutral – 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.

Disintegration of Indian society – The rulers used this information in such a way that it instigated caste consciousness and caste animosities. Caste and its ranking became a tool in political, religious and cultural battles that Hindus fought amongst themselves. It started a cut-throat competition between various castes for scarce positions of power and prestige under British Raj. Brahmins were kept at periphery. They were pinpointed as oppressors of lower strata of society. Rulers instigated non-brahmins to raise voice against Brahmins, whom British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists considered as the potential threat to British Rule,

Last census on caste basis was done in1931. After it, data had not been collected caste-wise. With the intensification of national movement, the practice of collecting caste-wise data stopped. From 1941 onwards, data is compiled pertaining to SCs and STs only.

Attention drawn towards diversities of Indian population – For the first time, the Census operations drew the attention of the rulers, intelligentsia and public to the diversity of Indian society and multiplicity of castes and sub-castes throughout India.

After Independence

Like modern Manu, Risley’s “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.

Loosening of traditional caste barriers – Because of the efforts of reformers of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, good intentions of constitution-framers, spread of education, process of modernization, industrialization and increasing awareness of people, gradually the traditional caste barriers and evil practices developed into the system started breaking slowly but steadily after the Independence. Caste system has become more liberal and less restrictive. The system allows its members a greater degree of freedom in all walks of life. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes means little, while, earlier it meant complete social ostracism. In metros and cities of almost all the states in India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. The old style of authority and power of caste-elders in every day life has already diminished.

In all the metros and cities throughout India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Earlier caste related issues were – who ate with whom? Or who married whom? The traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are loosing its importance slowly but steadily with the spread of education and awareness of masses.

Seeds of disintegration sown by British Imperialists flourished in full – The seeds of disintegration sown by British rulers and adverse opinion about caste-system have flourished in full in the politics of Independent India. In present politics, Caste-ism has found a new lease of life in different form. It has become the single most important factor in politics. Lower castes are more tenacious on the subject of their caste than the higher. Many castes belonging to lower strata of society grouped together and increased their numerical strength. At present, these groups have become very vocal and assertive. Politicians find it easier to sway emotionally the opnion of lower strata of society on grounds of caste and fear to annoy them. Of late, Dalits, backwards and Muslims are being wooed with vigor by all the political parties. Even Naxalite groups find in Dalits the allies, as most of their action squads are formed of Harijans. All political parties today concede to their demands openly or discreetly, while in power.

Pressure on Government to hold caste-based Census operations – Now there is a pressure of different political parties on Government of India to hold the 15th census of 2011 that it should collect caste-wise data of the population, as no authentic data for other castes (which are usually based on sampling surveys) including OBCs is available. The supporters of census on caste-basis argue that 80 years of not having caste censuses has not been able to abolish caste system. Caste is a social reality in India, therefore census for 2011 should have census on caste basis. A large section of society fears that seeing the present scenario, it would further widen caste divide and inter-caste/intra-caste rivalries. Shrewd politicians and pressure groups would try to reap the maximum benefits. For their vested interest, they would pursue more vigorously sectional- interests, divide the people for creating vote-banks for themselves.

For the 15th census of 2011, the government intends to do recordings by using new age technologies. For the first time, a comprehensive database (known as National Population Register-NPR) of all usual residents of the country is aimed to be made. After finalizing the database, every citizen will be given a Unique Identification Number (UID) and an identity card containing basic details.

Two ‘ends’ of governance – First Backward class Commission’s Chairman Kaka Kalelkar had very wisely commented in mid fifties, that “National solidarity in a democratic set up demands Government to recognize only two ‘ends’ – the ‘individual’ at one end and the ‘nation’ as a whole on the other. Nothing should be encouraged to organize itself in between these two ends to the detriment of the freedom of the individual and solidarity of the nation. All communal and denominational organizations and groupings of lesser and narrower units have to be watched carefully, so that they do not jeopardize the national solidarity and do not weaken the efforts of the nation to serve the various elements in the body politic with equity. Mutual help, mutual respect and mutual trust are the touchstone, on which all communal and denominational activities will be tested.”


August 23, 2011 - Posted by | General |

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