Democracy in India – 5

In this series of posts we have thus far highlighted the following propositions:

  1. The census introduced by the British in India (around 1870) classified people by religion. This was unlike the practice followed by the census in Britain itself.
  2. Instead of using the religious beliefs as reported by the respondents themselves, the census classified them into the broad categories of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.
  3. A complex social reality that comprised of many mixed traditions, practices, and beliefs was simplified into set of broad overall categories.
  4. When religious identity moved into the political domain with the adoption of separate electorates the rigid classifications assumed a new importance because one group could only gain at the expense of others.

In this post we shall see with the help of Kmaljit Bhasin-Malik’s text how this new reality and realization affected the behavior of different groups and the impact it had on the nature and development of electoral politics in British India.

The existence of the census and the emergence of representative politics marked the emergence of competition between different social groups over access to employment, education and power. This competition was set off by the existence of the census and very naturally led to attempts to influence the census by sharpening social and religious distinctions.

Thus ‘Arya Samajists wanted all Hindus to return themselves as Aryas’ while Sikhs began to stress their distinct identity because till the 1901 census only Khalsa Sikhs were defined as Sikhs. The Singh Sabha came out with a tract titled Ham Hindu Nahin or ‘We are not Hindu’.

The Arya Samaj launched a vigorous campaign to convert low-caste Muslims and Sikhs through its shuddhi movement spurred by a concern over a declining Hindu population revealed by the census – ‘any demographic decline was seen as having political consequences in an age of growing democratization’. Hence ‘Hindu reformers reacted violently to the suggestion that the 1910 census should both widen the category of ‘Sikh’ and eliminate Untouchables from the Hindu category.  Religion was being gradually politicized.

This purification extended to shared social practices that had marked pre-census life in India. Thus Arya Samaj writings sought to ‘convince our Hindu brethren that it is repugnant to their religious doctrines and authorities – nay it is a sin – to pay homage at [Muslim] tombs and shrines’. Similarly the Tat Khalsa ‘tried to root out the attachment of Sikhs to Hindu rituals, Brahmans and the worship of saints and pirs’.

Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik concludes that while the narrative sections of the census were quite comfortable with ‘fuzzy’ and ‘fluid’ religious boundaries and eclectic and syncretic religious traditions, the statistical tables of the census were unable to deal with these sorts of overlaps and ambiguities. The census employed religion as a fundamental category and mapped, counted and compared religious communities in endless tables dealing with issues ranging from population, civil condition, occupation, language, to infirmity.

Also, the census definition of what it meant to be Hindu or Muslim was something new. Muslim identity, for instance, was viewed as an ethnic category… all Muslims regardless of social status, geographic location, and linguistic orientation, were viewed as constituting a unified whole…. Similarly, the census established ‘Hindu’ as a unified category and imputed a rarefied unity to Indic religious orientations and practices that had not previously existed.

The data tabulated in the census became the basis for the distribution of political power and government patronage. Religious communities were always measured in terms of numbers and numbers were equated with political power. The fusion of religious identity and numerical strength as symbolized by the enduring categories of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ and that in turn with political power was heightened by constitutional reforms. In 1910 the British introduced separate electorates for the Punjab Legislative Council…. This meant that while making claims for political power, individuals had to represent themselves as the ‘natural leaders’ of their particular community, and as speaking for the interest of the entire community.

While the census did not ‘invent’ the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ and ‘Sikh’ it changed their definitions, enumerated them, and also made them the basis for political power and patronage as symbolized by the separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. The census not only invested religious categories with new forms of social, economic, legal and political meaning, but also exercised a growing catalytic effect. It established a cycle of description, action and change, followed by another description. The census was drawn into the world it described and became one more arena for conflict and manipulation. This can be illustrated by the campaigns of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabhas to influence census categories and definitions. The census grew increasingly intertwined with political decisions like the Partition of the subcontinent along religious lines. The boundaries of the two new nation states of India and Pakistan were drawn by relying on the data generated by the decennial census.

We will conclude this set of posts with what we hope would be an intriguing twist to the theme of political development in British India.

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