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Arbitrariness in the Colonial Census of Ethnic Groups

A M Shah

Even today the administration of the census during the colonial era is highly regarded. But actually chance, luck, caprice and idiosyncrasy played a major role in the census classification of tribes and castes during the colonial regime.

A M Shah ( is former professor of sociology at the University of Delhi.

any Indian intellectuals have high respect for the census of castes, tribes and religious groups conducted as part of the Census of India by the British colonial government, and this respect goes up on the eve of every decennial census. However, very few of them try to know how the census was conducted, especially how the census enumerators entered the primary information in the census schedule and how this information was processed at various levels in the census organisation, ending finally in the publication of figures in the census r eports. An article written by a senior census official, published in 1923 in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (XII, 4: 389-402)1 gives us an insight into how arbitrariness prevailed at various levels in the census. The article, Is the Retention of the Term Animism as a Main Religion Head in Our Census Tables Justified? was written by L J Sedgwick, superintendent of census operations in Bombay Presidency in 1921. He was at that time the president of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, and the article was the text of his presidential address delivered on 25 January 1922. It is worth noting that most of the Bombay officials were fairly wellinformed about castes and tribes in the presidency, because of three main reasons. First, the celebrated Bombay Gazetteers compiled by James Campbell in the latter half of the 19th century provided valuable e thnographic information. Second, the Ethnographical Survey of Bombay Presidency set up around 1901 in Poona under R E E nthoven widened and deepened this i nformation. It produced a large number of monographs on castes and tribes, which seem to have been the main source of Enthovens monumental threevolume work, Castes and Tribes of Bombay (1922). Third, many Bombay o fficials p articipated actively in the activities of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, established in 1886.

Sedgwicks article discusses with adequate documentation and cogent arguments the general issue of classification of Animist versus Hindu with reference to ethnic groups in Bombay Presidency. This was an important issue since the Animist/Hindu distinction was essentially the tribe/caste distinction at that time.2 Sedgwick states that, as regards almost all other questions in the census schedule (such as sex and age), the enumerator is bound to accept the reply of the individual [respondent], except insofar that he may explain to him what is wanted, should he think that the question has been misunderstood. However, as regards the question about an Animist, the enumerator was left to decide whether any member of a forest tribe was a Hindu or an Animist. In case of doubt, the enumerator could call the villagers together to find out whether a particular respondent was an Animist or Hindu. However, this exercise was impossible for every respondent. Sedgwick concludes, Consequently it is a matter of luck what the numbers returned as Animists will be (p 391, emphasis added). Sedgwick mentions a further, and more serious, problem: To the chance of being returned or not returned as such by an enumerator is to be added the chance of being classified or not classified on the ground of caste by the head of the Abstraction office (ibid). Apparently, at the 1911 Census the Abstraction Office in Bombay had classified the Bhils of Rewa Kantha political agency in Gujarat as a Hindu caste.3 However, Sedgwick reports, Mr [later Sir Edward] Gait, the Census Commissioner [of India], when visiting this Presidency on tour, converted 70,000 Bhils in Rewa Kantha from Hindus to a nimists by a stroke of pen (ibid, emphasis added). Sedgwick goes on to write f urther about the caprice of the enumerator and idiosyncrasies of the Abstraction officers. Thus, although the provincial census officials had arrived at a decision about the Bhils on the basis of their know ledge of the ground situation, it was overruled in a rather high-handed manner by the highest census official of India who had practically no direct knowledge of the area. Why did Gait behave the way he did? Possibly, he had a theory about Animism versus Hinduism in general and about the


november 27, 2010 vol xlv no 48 EPW Economic & Political Weekly


Bhils in particular. Or, was there a policy of the colonial government to inflate the figures of Animist population? Also, why did a provincial official reveal his criticism of the imperial official on a public platform? Only intensive research on colonial archives can tell. It is clear, however, that

chance, luck, caprice and idiosyncrasy played a major role in the census of tribes and castes during the colonial regime. The same can happen today.
1 This journal was established in 1886 and discontinued in 1973.

2 It is well known that subsequently the term Animism was replaced by the term Tribal Religion, and most, if not all, Animist groups were designated as tribes, who according to the Constitution of independent India became scheduled tribes. 3 The Rewa Kantha political agency contained six large princely states of Rajpipla, Chhota Udepur, Devgadh Bariya, Sunth, Lunawada, and Balasinor, and 55 small states, in eastern Gujarat. Today most of this area is included in the districts of Bharuch, Vadodara, Panchmahal, Dohad, and Kheda.

Paucity of Data on Indian Higher Education

Eldho Mathews

The absence of vital data and the discrepancies in the existing data constantly pose questions on the credibility of the higher education database in India. An examination of this unfortunate situation with the suggestion of an institutional research model, which would help institutions to engage in a periodic review process to identify the strengths and weaknesses at various levels.

I am grateful to K N Panikkar, Philip G Altbach and Thomas Joseph for their contributions to several of the ideas expressed in this article, and for comments on an earlier draft. I alone am responsible for the views expressed herein. Eldho Mathews ( is with the Kerala State Higher Education Council, Thiruvananthapuram.

fter a long gap, far-reaching changes are being brought about in the governance of higher education in India. But comparatively very little attention has so far been paid by the government and various agencies like the University Grants Commission (UGC) to collect and disseminate accurate data on the higher educational system. How long can we function in the present manner is an important question that needs immediate attention of all, especially the policymakers. Reliable and continuous statistical data are fundamental not only to understand and evaluate the performance of any higher education system, but also to anticipate future requirements. However, the importance of collecting reliable data on higher education has been greatly undermined in independent India. Although the country has been investing heavily in higher education sector during the past few years, there is no mechanism currently in place to provide policymakers with the required data they need to make more informed decisions. As a result, various agencies of the government and a majority of Indian higher educational institutions lack detailed information on the sector. This is evident from the scanty data the state and its various agencies have on higher education system. Data on private higher educational institutions have become increasingly scarce as private institutions, especially in the for-profit sector, are not always willing to disclose details about their functioning. At present the UGC and the Planning, Monitoring and Statistics Division of the Ministry of Human Resource Development

(MHRD) are the agencies that are involved in the collection and compilation of statistics on Indian higher education. However, the present state of our higher educational statistical system is very dismal. The official website of MHRD itself is an indication of this sorry state of affairs. It could provide statistics till the year 2005-06 only. Different estimates of basic indicators such as gross enrolment ratio (GER) by different agencies are another reflection of this pathetic state, not to mention qualitative data, particularly in the area of teaching-learning process. This is perhaps not surprising as for many in India collection of educational statistics is still an academic exercise undertaken haphazardly by individual researchers. The department of higher education under the MHRD had constituted a review committee on educational statistics under the chairmanship of S Sathyam, former secretary to the government, in 2006 to revamp the existing system of collection of educational statistics in the country. The committee submitted its report in 2009, and in the same year, Vijay P Goel, the then deputy director general of the MHRD, in a letter addressed to the state education secretaries, sought comments on the report and information regarding institutions, coursewise enrolment, teaching staff, details of students, etc, on higher education. The lackadaisical attitude of the majority of our state governments has proven to be a major hindrance for achieving the stated objectives of this initiative. Only a few states like Kerala have been actively cooperating with this project. This underlines the fact that more co-ordination among various states, universities and affiliated colleges in the country is essential for the harmonious and prioritised development of this goal.

Questions on Credibility
The absence of vital data and the discrepancies in the existing data constantly pose questions on the credibility of the higher

Economic & Political Weekly EPW november 27, 2010 vol xlv no 48