Democracy in India – 4

A number of readers have expressed reservations about our comments on the first census in British India (Democracy in India – 3).

It is argued that disclosure of full information is always for the better and cannot but be helpful in the long run.

This misses the point. It is not always the case that pre-existing information is lying unobserved and a neutral process is involved in bringing this knowledge into the public domain.

With the first census in British India, knowledge was actually created. This is what Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik explains in her essays on the census:

The Punjab census illustrates that the census was not a passive data-gathering instrument. It did not merely count what is.  Census officials first had to create categories and define them. But this was no simple process and the realities that census takers encountered collided with their imperial taxonomies, which assumed Punjabi society was neatly divided into separate religious categories.

This conclusion follows from a close reading of the census documents. As an example, Kamaljit refers to Sir Denzil Ibbetson, the author of The Punjab Census Report of 1881:

While laying out the ‘Census definition of Hindus’, Ibbetson began with a preamble, which warned of the ‘absolute impossibility of laying down any definition or indicating any test by which we may distinguish him who is a Hindu from him who is not’. Having said this however, Ibbetson cheerfully proceeded to lay down a definition and offer an explanation for it. ‘Practically’, he wrote, ‘the rule we adopted was this’:

Every native who was unable to define his creed, or described it by any other name than that of some recognized religion or sect of some such religion, was held to be classed as Hindu…

Describing the category ‘Hinduism’, the report of the Census of India1891 said that the ‘clumsy name is only justified by convention…. Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it [Hinduism] is not, and never was. The binding element is only educed by active opposition on the part of some other faith, such as Islam’.

In the chapter on the ‘The Religion of the People’, in the Punjab Census Report of 1881, Ibbettson wrote that ‘Creed is in the Punjab rather a social than a religious institution’, and that it is ‘so difficult in many cases to draw the line between one Indian creed and another; for the distinctions of faith, being based upon and attended by no deep spiritual conviction, are marked by a laxity and catholicity of practice which would be impossible to a bigot or an enthusiast’.

Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik notes that ‘Although the census officials of the Punjab gave detailed descriptions of what can be seen as the ‘syncretic’ nature of popular religion in Punjab, they were unable to conceptualize this syncretism, and took for granted the separate and monolithic religions of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism’.

Today, when we are living the reality that was thus created, we find it impossible even to think that there could have been a category called ‘Hindu-Mahomadan’ that a Bombay census official had recommended but that was rejected as a viable solution to the existence of mixed allegiances.

All the material in this post is from In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007 (

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