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Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India, 62(2) : (805-820), 2013

Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe

by the Census of India

Sumit Mukherjee*

Abstract: Indian census organization, acclaimed as one of the largest and most
elaborate data bank on Indian people, has contributed much in classifying one of the
most variegated spectrums of civilization in the world. Since the very first census in
1872 the British ruler inquired along the horizontal and vertical extents of the race,
religion and caste with an obvious objective of keeping a stronghold on their colony.
The evolution of categorizing and defining Indian population by a group of European
administrators, in spite of all genuine efforts, has ever been marred with confusions
and contradictions. But their pioneering ventures have provided a strong foundation
and maiden database towards conceptualizing and scheduling the people of
independent India. The official listing of the Indian people on the basis of the long
existing latent social hierarchies of caste and tribe have attributed both towards
developing an immensely useful systematic information and a catalyst for separatism
and fission among the conglomerated communities of India.
Keywords: Scheduled Caste; Scheduled Tribe; racial group; Census; enumeration.

Census remains the largest premier source and a systematic guide to social, economic
and political information and issues in India. Indian census is also acclaimed world
wide as the largest single contributor to the study of ethnology and even
anthropology in India housing a few thousand different population groups. The
decennial serge of data before independence and floods of census tables and reports
since 1951 are the most popular data bank most frequently cited by administrators,
politicians, academicians and intellectuals. If one looks at how modalities of Census
enumeration evolved since its beginning under a supreme authority of a foreign
ruler, the trend of grouping and identification of Indian population and the objective
thereof will be clear. That the act of keeping records of people indicates a good
King (Ruler) was understood and advised by Kautilya, in his book Arthasatrstra as
early as third century in India.
The process of conceptualization of Indian tribe, or so to say the constitutional
definitions of those, owes its foundation in census enumeration formulated and
launched by the British colonial administration. Therefore, it is implicit that the
present day recognition of a tribe or Scheduled Tribe in Indian constitution is the
Address for correspondence: Dr. Sumit Mukherjee, Anthropological Survey of India, 27, Jawaharlal
Nehru Road, Kolkata 700016, E-mail:
806 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

perpetuation of the British colonial legacy. Other than the antiquarian interest at
the early phase British administrators had a variety of concerns and emphasis for
the decennial operations shifted with time and region. Matters on ethnography and
religion received much attention in earlier reports giving way to economic and
industrial aspects later on in 20th century. In course of evaluation and retrospection
of the process of categorizing the Indian population through census enumeration
this essay would attempt to narrate both contextual and textual perspectives of the
It will be rather interesting here to look into the world perspective on the
evolution of the concept of counting and recording people. In the 18th century
Europe two main demographic issues seemed to act in motivating several countries
towards one or the other form of human population census. Firstly, to measure the
extent of poverty and number of poor people in want of relief, as in case of Iceland
(1703) and later in England. The other reason was to estimate the population loss
in the extensive war ravaged Denmark and Norway. By the end of 18th century
census enumeration became more systematic and a regular national event for several
countries. The first official census of the United States in 1790 is accepted as the
beginning of the modern national census operation.
The issue of population growth and related food shortage drew much importance
with the publication of “An Essay on Population” by Thomas Malthus in 1798. In
England, though, much debate brewed over the first proposal of a national census
by Mr. Potter, a member of the parliament, in 1753. This bill was finally passed in
December 3, 1800 in the House of Commons with a lot of downsizing of the
proposed scope and extent to count and record the increase or decrease of population.
Only the demographic and economic data was gathered during early period. But
the first British census was conducted on March 10, 1801 and every ten years
thereafter (Barreir, 1981).

Colonial Concern
It is imperative that the Indian Census, unlike in the western nations, was rooted in
the interest of the colonial government to gather all aspects of the people and the
land under their control. The colonial construction of caste, tribe and race which
preceded the long process of decennial censuses in British India involved several
intricate processes of gathering, processing, and using materials on Indian society.
Though at the ideational and pragmatic levels census were functional imperatives
of the colonial administration.
District level studies in this direction were commissioned by the East India
Company during 1807-11. But much later in 1869 W. W. Hunter on direction of the
then Governor of Bengal Lord Mayo, began the task of Imperial Gazetteers of
India with a fundamentally different objective than the census reports in Western
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Europe. In fact the British Government had contrasting objectives for conducting
census at home and in colonies. Census in Great Britain was largely a secular
institution conducted with a great care and restrain. Only in 1991 ethnicity was
included in the questionnaire though with required prudence. The American census
too remained specific not to ask on religious identity. On the contrary religion,
caste and race were continuously inquired since the first census in India (Bhagat,
The embryonic formation of Indian census is to be traced back in early decades
of 18th century. The British administration out of its experiences in home country
realised the strength of information on the land and people in ruling and expanding
their colonies. The East India Company started such inquiries in some chosen
districts and provinces during the period of 1807-11 but serious works on district
gazetteers was not undertaken until the second half of the 19th century. It was W.
W. Hunter who first took up the task in 1869 by the direction of Lord Mayo, the
then Governor of Bengal. His collection and compilation of comprehensive volumes
of data came out in 1881 as the Imperial Gazetteer of India. The extent of coverage
in these volumes, was from the very beginning reflected the desire and interest of
a colonial government to know and record every possible information about the
people and territory under their control. That explains why no scope for either
public opinion or any representative institution was left open to restrict and restrain
the subject of queries in Indian census enumeration (Jones, 1981).
Much in the similar manner first ever Indian census was operated locally
although on provincial rather than at district level in 1855 in Punjab. Later on the
government launched a nation wide census enumeration scheduled for 1861. But
the first ever complete national census in decennial format was delayed until 1872
owing to the Mutiny of 1857. The Mutiny had its immediate impact resulted in
reorganisation of armed forces by sects and religions expectedly utilising the
enumerated data base. Nevertheless, this was a major revelation of the colonial
tactic of “Divide and Rule” (divide et impera) professed first by the King Louis XI
of France. The first census was conducted without the standardised simultaneous
enumeration and hence it is sometimes referred to as 1871-72 census. The inaugural
volume of decennial census came out in 1872 with a distinct pattern which is still
in existence. The question of caste, occupation and religion was included in the
very first census.
Paradoxically, the British-Indian census had more dissimilarity with its ancestor-
the British census. Though the page format and the tables looked identical but
content wise those were contrasting. The remarkably broader scope of materials
covered from the very beginning of Indian census grew over time. Religion was
one subject where the divergence was most conspicuous. The British census had
shown much restrain and disinterest in religion in contrast with the fact that religion

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808 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

remained for long a fundamental category which expanded further. (Jones, 1981;
Conlon, 1981). Certain complications cropped up particularly while defining
Hinduism for making categories on religion. It is interesting and important to observe
that by the process of identifying non-Hindu population the British administration
sorted out the followers of ancient form of religion among the tribal population.
This was when the question of Hinduisation was discussed which contributed
directly and indirectly towards conceptualising tribes at the level of the colonial
Moreover, in comparison to its ancestor Indian census “demonstrated a strong
ethnological character both in describing the culture of South Asians and to trace
changes in that culture” narrated Jones (1981). In several census ‘sect’ was treated
as ‘caste’ and hence entered under the tabulation ‘caste, tribe and race’ rather than
religion. Eminent historian Conlon (1981) further observed that the difficulty in
such disaggregated figures lies in the fact that the details and criteria of such entries
varies from province to province and from census to census. He pointed out with
some satire that “consistency is not one of the enduring virtues of the Census of
India” from the data users’ point of view.
Whatsoever, that was the beginning of the unbroken chain of decennial census
which will soon become 140 years in length. It should be remembered as a huge
experiment with obvious gaps in coordination and completeness. It was a big start
but with little synchronicity. Keen interest of the colonial rulers in the complexities
of the castes and race of the Indian population was revealed further with the
publication of the ‘Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal’ by Edward Tuite Dalton, a
soldier turned anthropologists who took part in various expeditions against the
frontier tribes of Assam in 1839-1842 and also in places of Orissa and Chotanagpore
regions of undivided Bengal.
Though not under the direct supervision of the British Administration, another
extensive series of investigations during 1879-84, this time by a Hungarian
anthropologist Baron Mezö-Kövesd von Ljfalry, threw some lights on the ethnic
composition of the people of India restricted to Kashmir and West Himalayan region.
The whole of British India was counted (except Kashmir) in a much better
coordinated effort by W. C. Plowden, the Census Commissioner of 1881, which is
designated as the first really synchronous Indian Census. He instructed that all the
district level officers are to collect the list of caste and occupations. Population
was classified by demographic, social and economic categories for the first time
(Martin R.B., 1981). But the obvious effect of such mode of caste classification
has been the unrestricted use of philological terms in the ethnical sense and very
unfortunately the trend lingers even today in many pseudo-anthropological writings
in spite of Federick Muller’s protest long ago. A few major but sporadic efforts by

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individual officials demands mention like that of Denzil Ibbetson in Punjab during
1881 census and his successor Rose in 1901.
The decade next was eventful particularly with respect to the process of
identifying caste, tribe beyond linguistic and religious categories. Several very
important and far reaching innovations were introduced in the census by the direct
influence of J. A. Baines, the Census Commissioner (Martin R.B., 1981). A further
coordinated and systematic effort under the direct instruction of the then Governor
of Bengal Sir Rivers Thompson was taken up by Sir Herbert Hope Risley to classify
population of the whole of Bengal (Bihar, Orissa, Assam and Bengal) corresponding
to the census enumeration of 1891 by anthropometric measurements. Sir Risley,
Secretary of the Judicial and Public Department of British Indian office later became
the President of Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland based
on his interest and pioneering contribution in the field of anthropology of Indian
races and tribes though he hailed from Indian Civil Service. In fact in 1885
C.J.Ibbetson, John C. Nesfield and H. H. Risley postulated a 27 point format of
what later came out to the first ethnographic survey of India. After several articles
in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal he published ‘The Cates and Tribes
of Bengal’ which was extended all over the country during Census 1901 enumeration
resulting in publication of ‘The People of India’ (1908). His ‘Manual of
Anthropometry’ (1909) remained the basic guide for population identification for
the British Indian government for next three censuses. Doubtless to say that
introduction of exact measurement method by Risley must be referred as a land
mark in the study of man in India. He also professed that a study of the custom and
rituals of the aboriginal people is as necessary for the administrators as a conducting
a cadastral survey and the record of rights of its tenants of the whole country. No
body would still dispute Risley’s view India where custom overrides law.
The 1911 census presented very extensive tables on linguistic and ethnographic
data. But for 1921 enumeration the government ordered to restrain on highlighting
the linguistic and ethnographic information (Martin R.B., 1981). Instead, more
emphasis was put on the industrial and economic statistics perhaps in an effort to
pacify the Indian population and political leaders involved in freedom movements.
Dr. J H Hutton, as a trained anthropologist turned administrator and Census
Commissioner, made it a point to count all the ‘hill and forest tribes’ during 1931
census “whatever, their numbers and irrespective of the percentage provision for
individual tabulation of caste” under the head ‘Primitive tribe’ accepting the
difficulty in assessing their level of primitiveness. The result was a spectacular
jump in the tribal population from 15 million in 1891, 16 million in 1921 to 24.6
million in 1931 [including Ceylon(Sri Lanka) and Burma(Myanmar)], sharing 6.9
percent to the total population of 352 million(Hutton, Rep.1996). Just after his
assumption of the Office of Census Commissioner of India in October 1929 Hutton

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810 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

called upon Dr. B. S. Guha, Anthropologist, Zoological Survey of India. He

expressed his desire of taking the measurements anew and to publish the results in
connection with the Census Operations of 1931. A detail proposal was formulated
for taking Anthropometric measurements of selected tribes and castes and was
placed before Hutton. Dr. Guha was attached to the Census Commissioner as a
trained anthropologist with the support for Mr. R B Seymour Swell, Director of
Z.SI. (The Racial Affinities of the People of India, C.O.I. 1931 Vol-III, Introduction).
Hutton was emphatic about the fact that tribal population in particular, if not the
exterior castes (scheduled castes) formed a distinct element in the Indian population.
In contrast to other British administrator Hutton was perhaps the only exception
who believed that a clear strategy of intervention by the Indian government is
required to protect the rights and promote welfare of the tribal communities. On
the other hand Hutton pleaded for withdrawing the caste census to alleviate an
avoidable financial burden for a job the department is not legally competent. He
remarked on Risley’s classification “all the subsequent census officers in India
must have cursed the day when it occurred to Sir Herbert Risley, no doubt in order
to taste his admirable theory of the relative nasal index, to attempt to draw up a list
of caste according to their rank in the society. He failed, but the result of his attempt
is as troublesome as if he has succeeded, for every census give rise to a pestiferous
deluge of representations, accompanied by highly problematic histories, asking
recognition of some alleged facts of hypothesis….” Among others, Ghurye (1979)
dwelt at length on Risley’s caste ranking in the heat of the controversy itself: “It is
difficult to see any valid public reason for this elaborate treatment of caste in the
Census Report...” The conclusion is unavoidable that the intellectual curiosity of
some of the early officials is mostly responsible for the treatment of caste given to
it in the Census, which has become progressively elaborate in each successive
Census since 1872 (Ghurey, 1969).

Definitions and Counts

In the process of transforming population into statistical tables and narrative
paragraphs census enumeration puts identity tags or labels to individuals. These
tags and labels are then defined and definitions are used in reshaping the people
into categories of definite order. It had to be the perception of the ruler on which
was rooted the origin of the definitive categories of Indian population.
The Imperial Gazetteers of India in 1891 first defined a tribe as a “collection
of families bearing a common name, speaking a common dialect, occupying or
professing to occupy a common territory”. The prime objective of reaching a
classification on religion basis was achieved by recording all people who said they
were Hindus, Muslims or Christians, etc and those who did not profess to any
recognised major religion were entered under the name of their caste or tribe. As

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most of the castes, whatever low their position, show religious practices closer to
Hinduism and hence tribes have been sorted out as most distant ones from any
major religions including those who follow animism and ancestor worship as
prominent religious activity.
Since racial characters dominated the mind of colonialists, it was used as first
order classification of Indian population followed by religion and caste/sects. The
following is the scheme of classification adopted in Indian censuses during the
colonial rule.
I. Indo-Aryan
A. Hindu: (a) Hindu Brahmanic, (b) Hindu (Arya-Vedic Theists), and (c)
Hindu (Brahmo-Eclectic Theists)
B. Sikh
C. Jain
D. Buddhist
II. Iranian
A. Zorosastrian (Parsi)
III. Semitic
A. Musalman
B. Christians
C. Jews
IV. Primitive
A. Animistic
V. Miscellaneous
Interpretation of race as used for this was that of Sir Flinders Petrie’s definition
of it “a group of human being; whose type has become unified by their rate of
assimilation’s exceeding the rate of change produced by foreign elements” given
in the guide for enumerators (Hutton, 1931). Hutton himself, like other census
officials of colonial era, identified castes with the racial types and believed that the
Mediterranean people “contributed most to the physical contribution of the people
of India, and perhaps also to its culture.” Such assumptions are mostly discarded
as the morphological studies of castes (and tribes) have shown a considerable
differentiation and heterogeneity among the caste groups and that neither jati nor
varna could be identified with a single racial or physical type, and that the
correspondence between physical types and social categories are highly problematic
(Porter, 1931). M. N. Srinivas in his forward of the book ‘People of India – an

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812 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

introduction (Singh, 1982) opined that the investigation of caste/tribe and grouping
them within varna hierarchy was driven by their orientalist’s perception of
communities and that the distinction between tribe and caste was not understood
until 1901.
According to the Government of India (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1936, read
with the article 26(1) of the First Schedule to the Government of India Act 1935,
Scheduled Caste means “such castes, races and tribes, or parts of or groups within
castes, races or tribes, being castes races or tribes which appear to His Majesty in
Council to correspond to classes of persons formerly known as the depressed classes,
as His Majesty may specify”. This definition, nevertheless, found a series of
controversies and confusions in the following censuses. Religion was used for
identification of castes therefore, followers of Buddhism or any other tribal religion
were not included in scheduled castes as only Hindu members of the castes and
tribes were scheduled in 1941. It happened so that a tribal Santal was scheduled in
Bihar and not in Bengal. On the other hand Christian Santal and Hindu Santal were
scheduled and had their representatives in the Government of Bengal. This was
amended in 1951 and those excluded earlier were scheduled and such anomalies
were cleared. The process of ‘Hinduisation’ of tribes was highlighted by Hutton
and other census officials as well. Only about one third of the total number of
tribes estimated at 24.6 million returned as adhering to tribal religions with the
majority of the remainder was Hindu. In fact it is evident that the transformation of
tribes into peasants as transfer of technology followed by a kind of cultural fusion
was more important over the common belief of religious transformation at the first
place. Nevertheless, the trend of tribal people returning as Hindu continued and
followers of tribal religions declined from one-third in 1931 to about 6 percent in
1981 census, with Hinduism claiming 87 per cent and Christianity 7 per cent among
tribes. But in practice many elements of tribal religion are as alive as ever and have
not lost its identity. The Fifth Schedules of the Indian constitution has given the
provision for each State of forming special Tribal Advisory Council for identifying
Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes so as to provide proportionate representatives
to the legislative Assembly of each State and other special category benefits to the
In the long and crisscrossed path of categorising population another bout of
confusion was added when the Census Superintendent attempted to prepare a list
of one more category “Depressed Class” during 1921 census. It was to include
those castes who suffered from special disabilities mainly the untouchables and
socially isolated groups many of those were tribal people admitted into the Hindu
fold. But in 1931 Porter launched a detail inquiry to critically examine the criteria
proposed for identification and finally submitted that at least in Bengal any attempt
to distinguish Depressed Class is bound to fail (Porter,1931). It was observed at

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later stage that Depressed Classes or Scheduled Castes are a matter not of definition
but of enumeration. For this reason the list of Depressed Classes or Scheduled
Castes and Tribes varied between wide limits. In true sense it was all upto the
Government to decide who deserve the special protection may that is untouchables
or aboriginal. The expression of ‘depressed’ was not known in Bengal earlier but
after being ordered a list was produced which included several ‘criminal tribes’
(derogatory term not in use at present) and aboriginals. Hutton adopted ‘Exterior
Caste’ to replace Depressed Class which was found derogatory by the next census
and later on named Scheduled Caste. Similarly ‘Hill and Forest Tribe’ was evolved
into ‘Primitive Tribes’ to become ‘Scheduled Tribe’ at a later stage.
The first ever list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe were notified in
1950 in pursuance of Article 341 and 342 of Indian Constitution which have since
then been modified, amended and supplemented from time to time.
Considering the spirit of constitution, the government of independent India,
adopting the principle of secularism and democracy, decided as a matter of policy
that census should not record any person’s caste or race except to the extent
necessary for providing information relating to certain disadvantaged groups
referred to in the constitution such as the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes
in view of the first census after independence in 1951.
As the constitution enjoins that no person professing a religion other than
Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism shall be deemed a member of scheduled caste, it
was imperative on the part of the census to ask a question on religion in order to
determine the scheduled caste status of a person. Therefore, the census has the pretext
for including a question on religion in the name of social justice. social categories
viz. i)The Scheduled Tribe, ii) Scheduled Caste, iii) Socially and educationally
backward classes and other weaker sections, iv) Minorities : linguistic, religious and
Anglo-Indian, have been recognized by the constitution of India in Article 15.
There had been a plethora of controversies, doubts and debates on categorization
of population during the whole length of census enumeration in India with its
recent continuity in different states of India. The Gujjars of Rajasthan asking
vehemently for the status of Scheduled Tribe what they are already enjoying in
Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhnad. In retaliation Bhils or Meenas who are already
in the scheduled opposing that fearing fall in the constitutional benefits they are
enjoying, the process and trend of questioning people and tagging them remained
The question on ‘Nationality’ was asked in 1872 census and after that it appeared
only in 1951 and 1961 Censuses. The major criterion of nationality was ethnic
origin and not citizenship. In 1971 the question was finally dropped. The question
on ‘Caste, Tribe or Race’ was asked from each individual right from 1872, though

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814 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

the type of information collected was different in different censuses. In 1881, caste
if Hindi; sect; if of other religion, were recorded. In 1891 Main Caste and Sub-
division of caste or race was recorded. In 1901 and 1911 censuses, the caste of
Hindus and Jains; tribe or race of those of other religions were recorded. In 1921,
1931 and 1941 censuses, caste, tribe or race of all the individuals enumerated was
recorded. In the 1931 Census, tabulation of figures for individual castes was limited

(i) Exterior castes;

(ii) Primitive castes; and
(iii) All other castes with the exception of:
(a) Those whose members fell short of four per thousand of the total
population; and
(b) Those for which separate figures were deemed to be unnecessary by the
local Government.
Pursuant of the policy of the Government of India to discourage community
distinction based on Caste, the 1951 Census marked a complete departure from
the traditional recording of Race, Tribe or Caste and the only relevant question
on caste or tribe incorporated in the Census Schedule was to enquire if the person
enumerated was a member of any ‘Scheduled Caste’, or any ‘Scheduled Tribe’
or any other ‘Backward class’ or if he was an ‘Anglo Indian’. This was to ascertain
the information for discharging the Constitutional obligations to those
In 1961 and 1971 Censuses the information was collected only for each
Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Census of India). A list of synonyms and
generic names of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was provided to
the enumerators so as to record a person who has returned his/her caste or tribe
by synonyms and generic names, even if the same is not in the given list. Hence
the 1961 census is still referred as the most elaborate in term of Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribe tables. But due to the Supreme Court judgment the Scheduled
list had to follow strictly during 1971enumeration with instruction to make
maximum efforts to avoid any omission. In this process though several unspecified
returns of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been tabulated as
unclassified in the following censuses. Individual Caste and Tribe wise tables
have been published, with an obvious scrutiny and conspicuous delay for both
1981 and 1991 Censuses. The 2001 final tables on SC and ST are the latest
available details.
Let us examine here the following chart showing how the census questionnaire,
the primary tool of census operations had been evolved from census to census:

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Census Year census questionnaire Questions on

1872 House Register Religion
Caste or Class
Race or Nationality or
Country of Birth
1881 Census Schedule Religion
Caste, if Hindu, sect, if of
other religion
1891 Census Schedule Main religion
Sect of religion
Caste or race-Main caste &
Sub-division of caste or race
1901 Census Schedule Religion
Caste of Hindus & Jains,
Tribe, or race of others
1911 Census Schedule Census Schedule Religion
(and sect of Christians)
Caste of Hindu and Jains, tribe or
race of those of other religions
1921 Census Schedule Religion
Caste, Tribe or Race
1931 Census Schedule Religion and Sect
Race, Tribe or Caste
1941 Individual Slip Race, Tribe or Caste
1951 Individual Slip Nationality, Religion and
Special Group
Part (a) Nationality
Part (b) Religion
Part (c) Special Groups.
1961 Individual Slip Nationality
1971 Individual Slip Religion
S.C. or S.T.
1981 Individual Slip Religion
S.C. or S.T
1991 Individual Slip Religion
S.C. or S.T

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816 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

Instead of circulating a fairly long list of caste and tribes among the enumerators
since 1901 till 1971 censuses, when the list in the Fifth Schedule reached somewhat
stability, the volume of ambiguity didn’t show much improvement. Hence it was
believed by a section of census officers in British India that unless the enumerators
are trained in anthropology and are given the necessary freedom to use their
knowledge, judgement and experience and that all doubtful entries are compared
and scrutinised before tabulation an accurate ethnographic database is improbable.

Debates in Continuity
A close scrutiny of the great Indian Census enumeration at the conceptual and
operational level, from pre to post colonial period, reveals a continuity of heated
debates since it was launched. It seems probable at the first place that owing to its
gigantic character and institutional patronage, this premier databank is seldom
scrutinized or challenged to be rectified at the contextual level to become statistically
healthy and socio-politically ethical to the people enumerated. Though it was
different in mode than that of colour wise apartheid in several colonies in Africa
but the basic motive and or objective was undoubtedly the same in both the countries.
In India numerous communities existed from time immemorial but counting made
this conglomerated population into distinct, discrete and mutually antagonistic
communities. The sense of otherness, hierarchy, majority or minority, whatsoever
existed, was intensified and formalised (Jones, 1981; Bhagat, 2001). One has to be
careful about the fact that though caste, tribe and race were used as fundamental
sieves with successive layers in the enumeration process, most of the controversies
and contradictions whirled around defining castes. Owing to the constitutional
benefits sanctioned the scheduling of subgroups of major tribes gained momentum
and posed a huge problem but studies on anthropometric features, physical traits
and genome studies have been continuously simplifying the basic identity
Caste tabulation was criticized for perpetuating separatism and fission in the
Hindu society by a wide range of nationalist and international personalities. Castes
tables remain in distant past and recent time a powerful weapon for political and
social manoeuvring in the hand of the Government and politicians (Bhagat, 2001).
On the opposite these elaborate census tables has been and till date taken as the
treasure trove and necessity in ascertaining the extent of social disability and
backwardness which is often a function of the relative rank a caste holds in the
social hierarchy. To others it is indispensable for the study of the gradual
disintegration of the tribal organisation and their absorption into Hinduism, a fact,
no doubt, of greatest concern to the ethnologists and to certain extent to
administrators. It is otherwise an acceptable view that Dalton and Risley in one
hand and Gait and others on the other were not conscious demons but great scholars

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and codifiers, with the energy of voyaging explorers, whose works were employed
to articulate the opinion of Government on the position of castes in the political
economy of their time (Mitra 1978). But pointing towards the conflict and clashes
in the castism, Galanter (1968) strongly suggested that “we must overcome all
these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a
fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no
deeper than coats of paint.” The concern of the framers of the Constitution for
ushering in a casteless society is evident from the treatment of caste in the
Constitution. Unlike language and religion there is no protective provision for
caste in the Constitution but certain reservations primarily meant for 10 years only
expecting a dilution, at least the social and economic implications of castes and
tribes. This statement is well supported by the speech of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the
chief architect of the Constitution, delivered on November 25, 1949 on his motion
for the adoption of the Constitution “I am of opinion that in believing that we are a
nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several
thousands of castes be a nation?”
The ethnographic glamour of being a nation state comprising quite a few
thousand distinctive endogamous groups is always being juxtaposed by the ever
multiplying complexity out of constitutionally recognized distinctiveness as per
census returns of India. In stead of recognizing the system of categorization or
dividing Indian population by religion, caste, tribe or language as a colonial legacy,
it is by far the most contentious issue in demographic contest. M. N. Srinivas in his
lecture series on People of India commented that “The concept of unity and diversity
has become a political cliché” and that “we should first of all ask for the acceptance
of diversity in its pragmatic level.” (Singh, 1992).
Growing popularity of census data enhances expectations of quality, reliability
and comparability. Before jumping into the figures and narratives of the great Indian
census a century and four decades old, a few basic questions are to be addressed:
why British took the trouble and expenses, what the rationale from the administrative
commitment was and how enumerated figures and findings are organized in reports.
To answer these requires understanding the evolution of need for counting a nation’s
souls – the census enumeration. The census organisation of India, it is alleged,
does not survey the human surface in its true spirit but just count and label them
and that was the driving force for undertaking (or revising) the task of studying the
‘People of India’ by Anthropological Survey of India towards its original
commitment of researches on social, cultural and physical perspectives. The survey
identified and listed 4635 ‘communities’ as it is coined to denote distinct population
groups of which 635 are Scheduled Tribes who are further defined having in them
278 main communities, 178 segments and 179 territorial units (Singh,1992). Further,
751 Scheduled Castes, 1046 Other Backward Classes and 2203 other (mostly
General) communities were also tabulated. It is interesting to observe that the

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818 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

baseline of community identification in this volume was mostly based on 1981

census figures and definitions, and hence not beyond questions.
The continuity of tribe/caste dilemma as well as problems in confusing state of
distinguishing and recording original tribe from segments, sub-groups and territorial
units are evident among the users of census lists and tables on tribe and caste till
today. While mapping the proportionate distribution of Scheduled Tribe in the
districts of India, for the ‘An illustrated Atlas of the tribal world in India’ the
author resorted to compare and crosscheck those with the field studies conducted
by the researchers of the Anthropological Survey of India (Mondal et al., 2003). In
the process nine Scheduled Tribes have not been included out of the total 427
listed in the 1981 census. Though some of the sub-groups have been retained along
with corresponding generic groups, particularly in case of north eastern India, being
most sensitive cases.
The so far less defined communities with low communal consciousness were
turned into enumerated communities through census and later into political
communities by the instruments and mechanism of colonial policy of divide and
rule. As such the demographic divide was brought to the centre stage of communal
politics. Independent India has inherited this legacy and to a large extent continued
the agenda of the construction of religious communities and the consolidation of
demographic communalism. On the other hand example of perpetual regional
disparity in scheduling the communities is numerous. Even it happened so to the
former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who is a scheduled caste in
Kerala but not so in Delhi but he could be recorded as Hindu in Kerala and also a
Hindu in Delhi. This is a result of the process of ‘homogenization’ in terms of
religion, caste and tribe which leaves large number of migrants, both scheduled
castes and scheduled tribes, deprived of their share of benefit guaranteed in the
The comprehensive sieve of enumeration could finally separate the primordial
communities as the residual left after separating religious, linguistic and caste
groups. Since racism prevailed in other European colonies particularly in Africa it
was used as first order classification followed by religion, caste and tribe. But the
concept of Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste, as is evident from above discourse,
has evolved out of the filtration of race and religion during the enumeration process.
This so happened that academic definitions were not considered important as
compared to administrative purposes of the colonial ruler in categorising the Indian
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, in
combination with Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, The Office
of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India and the State Government,
has already completed a nation wide enumeration of caste covering every household
Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India, 62(2) : (805-820), 2013
Sumit Mukherjee 819

under the title ‘Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011’ (SECC 2011). First results
are still awaited. This is the maiden such attempt in the Republic of India after
1931 caste census done by the then colonial government with certain obvious
colonial interests. But, as the name suggests, the census is aimed primarily on
ranking the households based on their socio-economic status to update the Below
Poverty Line (BPL) list while gathering information on the caste-wise break-up of
the population in the country and providing the socio-economic profile of various
castes. This is important for screening and updating the list of beneficiaries for
several government schemes on poverty alleviation and welfare but in the process
implication on revealing Indian caste population anew can easily be understood.
The primary reactions from the opposing groups were full of apprehensions of
negative implications for further encouraging caste consciousness which goes
against the ideal of Indian Constitution. While those in support stressed on the
dyer need to asses the actual number of souls still identify themselves as a member
of a particular caste or sub-caste so as to strengthening the case for compensatory
discrimination policies towards benefiting the really deprived households inducing
progressive social change as an opposite motion to the ‘caste inequality’. On the
hind side, the motivation of this caste census was virtually more political than
socio-economic (The Hindu, 2010). Importantly there is no instruction given for
fresh classification or identification of castes in the methodology. Hence it seems
existing list, baseline 1931 census, will be followed for recording castes in the
individual enumeration slip. But the crux of the problem is how to re-caste the
numerous wrong, absurd, ambiguous and even false return from the people. It’s a
specialised exercise to correct those entries in question, which seems not really a
cup of tea for any of those government departments participating in the enumeration.
The results are awaited even after expiry of two deadlines.
It would have been impossible to abolish caste as an institution, which has
survived for about 3,000 years, by legislation and at a stroke. So, as a testimony to
constitutional pragmatism, the mandate was to ignore it in public life, make its
socially iniquitous, outrageous, stigmatic, and seemingly discriminatory aspect,
and allow it to have a natural, albeit slow, death. The inclusion of caste in the
census will not serve this purpose.
Nevertheless, the academic utility of this largest premier data bank on the people
of India is growing day by day. In fact with the wider availability of census data
ranging from book self (hard copy prints) to desktop computers (soft version) the
scope and extent of usage have crossed all boundaries both horizontally and
vertically. These data are utilized and referred by people from all professions
including an MNC assessing his market potentiality of their product or political
parties scrutinizing their vote bank. Caste and tribe data tables of Indian census
can best be compared with a high utility tool in the hands of the users, which is
equally useful in shaping and disintegrating a nation state.

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820 Conceptualisation and Classification of Caste and Tribe by the Census of India

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