Objectification of Religious Identity and Census in British India The need for objectification of the various religions in British India originated when the colonists decided to carry out the Indian Census in the 18th century and every ten years thereafter. It started off out of the intellectual curiosity of a few British officers. They believed that collecting systematic information about caste, religion, language, education, means of subsistence etc will help them know the natives better and lead to better governance.
Overtime they realized that this comprehensive statistical database can be used to win political, cultural and religious battles (Cohn, 250). The question of religion, caste and race was a fundamental category of classification in the Indian census and it was published without any restraint (Bhagat, 4352). In a country as religiously diverse as India there were no clear boundaries between the communities. The social ignorance of these “fuzzy” communities was disrupted by the census.
From my readings of Bhagat, the primary argument of my essay is that the ‘fuzzy’ communities had been turned into enumerated communities and further into political communities by the ‘divide et impera’ rule of the colonialist power which eventually constructed communal divisions in India (Bhagat, 4353). The census officials attempted to classify the Indian population into homogenous and mutually exclusive communities but they encountered various problems because the identities of the religions had never been so demarcated until the census was carried out.
Oberoi says that the religious beliefs and practices were so blended and inter-mingled that it was impossible to objectify them into different units (Oberoi, 9). Bhagat and Oberoi share the same view about the indefinite religious identity of Indians and it can be seen through the examples they provide. For instance, in early 19th century Punjab, many Hindus regularly took pilgrimages to Muslim shrines and several Muslims had adopted Hindu religious practices in their routine. And similarly Sikhs also visited Muslim and Hindu sacred places.
Another example given by Oberoi is of the Meherat Rajputs who did not belong to any specific predefined category. They were the descendents of Prithviraj Chauhan, a great folk hero of the region, who was seen as the defender of Hinduism against encroaching Islam so they were assumed to be ‘Hindus’. Although the male Meherats underwent circumcision and their dead bodies were buried according to the Islamic rites. At the same time they knew little about the Quran and prayed to the saints Tejaji and Baba Ram Deoji.
The Meherats were considered to be ‘confused’ about their identity like many other people from different parts of India like the ‘Panchpiriya’ cult, ‘Matia Kunbis’ and ‘Sheikhadas’ communities from Gujarat etc. But in reality the confusion was only taking place because of the necessity to classify as strictly ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ (Oberoi, 10-11). Because of this confusion the census tried to formulate definitions for the different religions and categorize people according to that.
The Vedas were considered the Central Hindu Identity the way the Quran is for Islam and the Bible for Judeo-Christianity. But the Vedic texts do not contain any dogma of Hinduism. In fact the term Hinduism was never used in any of the ancient religious texts like the Vedas, Ramayana and Bhagavat Gita because it was only in the 19th century that the term Hinduism was coined. They had also prepared a list of 10 criteria to check whether a person conforms to the Hindu identity. But there were people from different parts of India who only conformed to some of the qualifications.
It is therefore rightly said by Oberoi that it is not without reason that Indian languages do not possess a noun for religion as signifying a single uniform and centralized community of believers (Oberoi, 12). Even the census commissioner agreed that religions in India were not that finely divided and therefore not at all mutually exclusive. But it was the only way to make the divide and rule policy work which was crucial for the sustenance of colonialism in India (Bhagat, 4355).
The British strategically conducted the population count based on religion to spread the fire of communalism in India and to sustain their reign. Because of the census figures of population the concept of majority and minority in religious terms germinated in the minds of the Indian public at large. The British told the Hindus that they were a majority in India and tried persuade them to act as a uniform community regardless of sect, caste or class affiliation (Bhagat, 4353).
Before the census the Indians were ignorant about the identity and vastness of their community partly because they did not have the means to carry out such a tedious survey and also because they did not feel the need to (Bhagat, 4353). The census figures were also used to create geographical concentration and demographic strength of religious communities particularly among Hindus and Muslims. Several examples pertaining to this can be found in the pages of Indian history during the British Raj.
The division of Bengal based on religion in 1905 is one such example where a new province called East Bengal was created with dominance of Muslims. Another prominent example of their policy was demonstrated when the British left India in 1947 dividing the country into two nation-states Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India. This catastrophic decision led to dreadful violence and internal dislocation of humanities of an unparallel size and scale among the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Its repercussions can be felt till date in the Indian politics .
Other examples of instilling communalism include political instruments of separate electorates where in religious minorities were given separate seats in the legislative bodies according to their proportion of population in the provinces. Even the seats in government medical college Lahore was distributed in the ratio of 40:40:20 amongst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab (Bhagat, 4353). From my readings of Bhagat I can conclude that the main argument of his essay was that the seeds of communalism were sown by the British through stringent census classifications of the otherwise “fuzzy” religious identities of India.
I got a better understanding of Bhagats work after reading the details given by Cohn and Oberoi. Cohn’s essay gives a detailed anthropological account of the census as a means of objectification. Oberoi mainly discusses how the religious identities in India were ‘intermingled and blended’. Essentially the three writers discuss the same central issue but they cover different aspects of that issue in detail in their own style.
Also, I personally feel that even though the Census exercise that had demarcated the Indian society along religious lines and sub-served the colonial interest through communalism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, in a way is a gift to India from its colonists, it is a useful instrument that has helped a large nation like India conduct the world biggest statistical survey and formulate development strategies and policies for growth in the 20th and 21st century. In other words, the utility of the British census methods has transcended over the eras. (Words: 1194) Works Cited Bhagat, R. B. Census and the Construction of Communalism in India. ” In Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 36, No. 46/47, pp. 4352-4356, Nov 2001. Oberoi, Harjot. “The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition”, pp 1-23. University of Chicago Press, 1994. Cohn, Bernard. “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia” In An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays, pp 224-254. Oxford University Press, 1987. Davis, Richard. “Introduction: A Brief History of Religions in India. ” In Donald J. Lopez, Religions of India in Practice. Munschiram Manoharlal, 1995.