The Indian Caste System and The British –
Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India
By Kevin Hobson
The men charged with the governing of British India in the 19th century were creations of the society that they had left behind in Britain. That society had become increasingly intrigued with methods of social management and improvement. Moreover, as the 19th century progressed, it progressively appeared that the British were destined to lead the world. Victorious in the Napoleonic wars and with an empire growing at an unprecedented rate, the British became ever more confident that their destiny was to lead the way to civilization and raise up the lesser races. The British Empire was believed to be the natural heir to the classical Roman Empire. From this mix of belief in their superiority and fascination with methods of social management and improvement, came a variety of so called sciences. These included such things as phrenology and eugenics but at the heart of any of the movements to study either man or society was statistics.
The term statistics can be traced to the 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and was defined as a “word lately introduced to express a view or survey of any kingdom, county, or parish.” This definition gives no indication of any kind of methodological approach being used as would be evident at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Rather, the word statistics seems to have been used to indicate a simple compilation of raw numbers used to describe the demographics of a given geographic area. However, while a strict methodological model would not develop for many years, it did not take as long for individuals and groups to begin to collect data on a wide variety of interest areas. By the 1830s statistics were being gathered on everything from crime and occupations to sewage systems.
None of this work, however, was done by individuals who were professional statisticians. Indeed, statistics was not recognized as a science and was not taught in any of the universities in Britain. Rather, these figures were collected by politicians, economists, government officials, physicians, and a few mathematicians. The object of all of this data collecting was to obtain information about the society that would be politically useful and would indicate new means of social improvement and control. Within this framework developed the London Statistical Society. This society had as its goal, the furtherance of statistics as a science and among its many endeavours it gave advice to the government on the types of information that the society felt should be collected as part of the various censuses that were done periodically in the British Isles.
One of the main points that the Statistical Society repeatedly recommended be included in the census was a question regarding religious persuasion as may be seen when the Society stated that: “An accurate knowledge of the religious persuasions of its people is requisite for every state. The ascertainment of it we see to be neglected by few claiming a high rank in civilization; and England ought assuredly not to be of that number.” While this question was included in the Irish census, it was never included as a mandatory question in the English census. In 1851 religious persuasion was asked during the census but there was no requirement that this question be answered under the law and the data thus gathered was published separately from the rest of the census. It can only be assumed that the government felt that it would not be politically expedient to include this question as an integral part of the census. In any case, among the recommendations forwarded to the government with regard to the British census of 1871, there was once again a call for a question on the matter of religion. Once again this recommendation was rejected by the government. Interestingly, as with the Irish, the government had no qualms about including religious questions on the Indian census. Perhaps the most valid explanation of this apparent contradiction is that both the Irish and the Indians were conquered people and as such did not have the political power to affectively raise any complaint against the asking of religious questions in the census. If this was indeed the case, another piece of evidence has definitely come to the fore in favour of treating the history of the Irish as part of the greater history of the British Empire. As subjugated as any other people and obviously just as desirous of independence. This question, however, is outside the scope of the present paper. In India, the British found themselves governing a greater number of people than anywhere else in the Empire. Amazement and disbelief at the shear number of people can be found throughout the writings of the British of the period. In part, the illusion of numbers was caused by the physical lay out of the towns and cities of India. Unlike their European counterparts, Indian urban areas did not display wide streets and thoroughfares in there business or market districts. Rather, there was a propensity for building narrow lanes and pathways which were surrounded by two and three story buildings. This created a feeling of crowding and led to the perception that the population of these towns was much higher than was, in fact, the case. This is not meant to imply that the population of India was not high during the 19th century, it was. But due to the visual effect of the urban centres the British tended to overestimate. Benares, for example, was estimated to have a population of 582,000 in 1801 while later censuses showed that the figure was probably more like 152,000. This type of error was, in part, also due to the method used in many of these early censuses. A count was made of the number of houses and this was multiplied by an assumed figure of seven inhabitants per house. The problem was that defining what constituted a house was difficult, which resulted in shops being counted as houses, and that the number of people per house was greatly over estimated. The point is that the British came to believe that they ruled over a far greater population than was in fact the case. To make matters worse, these early estimates were perpetuated by their use in later estimates and consequent compounding of the original errors. In any case, the British administrators were, understandably overwhelmed by these figures and felt obliged to find a way to compartmentalize chunks of population into manageable groups. The most obvious way to do so was through the use of India’s unique caste system.
The caste system had been a fascination of the British since their arrival in India. Coming from a society that was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the caste system to the class system. As late as 1937 Professor T. C. Hodson stated that: “Class and caste stand to each other in the relation of family to species. The general classification is by classes, the detailed one by castes. The former represents the external, the latter the internal view of the social organization.” The difficulty with definitions such as this is that class is based on political and economic factors, caste is not. In fairness to Professor Hodson, by the time of his writing, caste had taken on many of the characteristics that he ascribed to it and that his predecessors had ascribed to it but during the 19th century caste was not what the British believed it to be. It did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation and social level of a given group and it did not bear any real resemblance to the class system. However, this will be dealt with later in this essay. At present, the main concern is that the British saw caste as a way to deal with a huge population by breaking it down into discrete chunks with specific characteristics. Moreover, as will be seen later in this paper, it appears that the caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British.
One of the main tools used in the British attempt to understand the Indian population was the census. Attempts were made as early as the beginning of the 19th century to estimate populations in various regions of the country but these, as earlier noted, were methodologically flawed and led to grossly erroneous conclusions. It was not until 1872 that a planned comprehensive census was attempted. This was done under the direction of Henry Beverely, Inspector General of Registration in Bengal. The primary purpose given for the taking of the census, that of governmental preparedness to deal with disaster situations, was both laudable and logical. However, the census went well beyond counting heads or even enquiring into sex ratios or general living conditions. Among the many questions were enquiries regarding nationality, race, tribe, religion and caste. Certainly none of these things were relevant to emergency measures responses by the government. Further, neither the notion of curiosity nor planned subterfuge on the part of the administration suffices to explain their inclusion in the census. On the question of race or nationality it could be argued that these figures were needed to allow analyses of the various areas in an attempt to predict internal unrest. However, there does not appear to have been any use made of the figures from that perspective. With regard to the information on religion and caste, the same claim could be made but once again there does not appear to have been any analyses done with the thought of internal disturbance in mind. Obviously there had to be some purpose to the gathering of this data since due to the size of both the population and the territory to be covered, extraneous questions would not have been included due to time factors. Therefore, there must have been a reason of some sort for their inclusion. That reason was, quite simply, the British belief that caste was the key to understanding the people of India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to classify all of the various groups of indigenous people according to their ability, as reflected by caste, to be of service to the British.
Caste was seen as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. It was, therefore necessary to include it in the census if the census was to serve the purpose of giving the government the information it needed in order to make optimum use of the people under its administration. Moreover, it becomes obvious that British conceptions of racial purity were interwoven with these judgements of people based on caste when reactions to censuses are examined. Beverly concluded that a group of Muslims were in fact converted low caste Hindus. This raised howls of protest from representatives of the group as late as 1895 since it was felt that this was a slander and a lie.H. H. Risely, Commissioner of the 1901 census, also showed British beliefs in an 1886 publication which stated that race sentiment, far from being:
a figment of the intolerant pride of the Brahman, rests upon a foundation of fact which scientific methods confirm, that it has shaped the intricate grouping of the caste system, and has preserved the Aryan type in comparative purity throughout Northern India.
Here is a prime example of the racial purity theories that had been developing throughout the 19th century. Here also is the plainest explanation for the inclusion of the questions on race, caste and religion being included with the censuses. Thus far this essay has dwelt almost entirely with British actions to the exclusion of any mention of Indian actions and reactions. This should not be taken to mean that the Indians were passive or without input into the process. Any change within a society requires the participation of all the groups if it is to have any lasting effect. The Indian people had a very profound effect on the formulation of the census and their analysis. However, Indian actions and reaction must be considered within the context of Indian history and Indian culture in the same way that British actions must be considered within British cultural context. For this reason, it has been necessary to postpone consideration of Indian reactions and contributions to the British activities until the next section of this essay which will then be followed by a more in depth examination of the development of British attitudes. Finally, the results of the combination of both Indian and British beliefs will be examined with a view to reaching a consensus on how they affected the compilation of and conclusions reached through the censuses.
The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word casta which means race,breed, race or lineage. However, during the 19th century, the term caste increasingly took on the connotations of the word race. Thus, from the very beginning of western contact with the subcontinent European constructions have been imposed on Indian systems and institutions. To fully appreciate the caste system one must step away from the definitions imposed by Europeans and look at the system as a whole, including the religious beliefs that are an integral part of it. To the British, viewing the caste system from the outside and on a very superficial level, it appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes. What the British failed to realize was that Hindus existed in a different cosmological frame than did the British. The concern of the true Hindu was not his ranking economically within society but rather his ability to regenerate on a higher plane of existence during each successive life. Perhaps the plainest verbalization of this attitude was stated by a 20th century Hindu of one of the lower castes who stated: “Everything lies in the hands of God. We hope to go to the top, but our Karma (Action) binds us to this level.” If not for the concept of reincarnation, this would be a totally fatalistic attitude but if one takes into account the notion that one’s present life is simply one of many, then this fatalistic component is limited if not eliminated. Therefore, for the Hindu, acceptance of present status and the taking of ritual actions to improve status in the next life is not terribly different in theory to the attitudes of the poor in western society. The aim of the poor in the west is to improve their lot in the space of a single life time. The aim of the lower castes in India is to improve their position over the space of many lifetimes. It should also be borne in mind that an entire caste could rise through the use of conquest or through service to rulers.Thus, it may be seen that within traditional Indian society the caste system was not static either within the material or metaphysical plane of existence. With the introduction of European and particulary British systems to India, the caste system began to modify. This was a natural reaction of Indians attempting to adjust to the new regime and to make the most of whatever opportunities may have been presented to them. Moreover, with the apparent dominance exhibited by British science and medicine there were movements that attempted to adapt traditional social systems to fit with the new technology. Men such as Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda, and Ramkrishna started movements that, to one degree or another, attempted to explore new paths that would allow them and their people to live more equitably within British India. Roy in particular sits this description with his notion that the recognition of human rights was consistent with Hindu thought and the Hinduism could welcome external influences so long as they were not contrary to reason. While it is granted that the present paper is not the appropriate venue to explore such movements, they must be noted so that an impression of Indian submissiveness in the face of British intrusion may be avoided. There was a dynamic interplay between the British and Indians that had a profound effect on both societies. More appropriate to the task at hand, however, are the reactions of various groups within India to the census itself.
Unlike its predecessors in England, the census of India attempted not only to count, but to define and explain. As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society. As a result, Indians of many levels of society reacted to the census in attempts to gain or maintain status. In 1895, Fazl-i-Rabb wrote a book that attacked H. Beverly, Census Commissioner of Bengal for the 1871-72 census for stating that the Muslims of Bengal were converted low caste Hindus. It was Fazl-i- Rabb’s belief that Muslims were being held up to ridicule by this report and that this was a grievous wrong that should be corrected. Whether this accusation was true or false is irrelevant for the present purposes. What is important is the fact that more than twenty years after the 1871-72 census, the documents associated with that census were still having an effect on people within India. Group identity was based on a perception of the group’s heritage and history and any threat to that perception was a threat to the very identity of the group itself. This identity appears to have had a much deeper significance for the group members than heritage had or has for people in the west. While individuals or families in the west may take pride in knowing the histories of their ancestors or in the case of the British, may have used family histories to claim certain privileges, in India there seems to be a much stronger and deeper meaning. In fact, it is not uncommon for people in the west to take a certain pride in coming from humble or even notorious ancestry. It is interesting to note that this complaint is coming from a Muslim group since Muslims, theoretically, should not be concerned with their ancestry to any greater or lesser degree than Christians. However, in this case they certainly appear to have taken great umbrage at the statements made by Beverly twenty years earlier. One cannot help but wonder whether this was caused by their long association and cohabitation with Hinduism. Rabb’s demands reinforce this suspicion when he states that the British Government should:
repair the wrongs done to us Musalman subjects through the public writings of Mr. Beverly and [we] solicit the question at issue; viz., that our origin and ancestry, be thoroughly enquired into with the help afforded by history and [that] the results of such investigation may be placed on record.
This is virtually a call for a public enquiry into what most westerners would consider a relatively minor matter of very limited concern.
A further example of Indian reaction to judgements made within the censuses becomes apparent from the claims of castes that they should have higher ranking following the census of 1901.One claim in particular, that of the Mahtons, is of particular interest for the present paper. The Mahtons claimed that they should be granted the status of Rajputs because of both history and the fact that they followed Rajput customs. Therefore, since they had not received this status in the 1901 census, they requested the change to be affected in the 1911 census. Their request was rejected, not on the basis of any existing impediment but on the basis of the 1881 census which stated that the Mahtons were an offshoot of the Mahtams who were hunter/scavengers. Thus, it appears that the census system had become self reinforcing. However, after further debate the Mahton were reclassified as Mahton Rajput on the basis that they had separated themselves from the Mahtams and now acted in the manner of Rajputs. Interestingly, it was at this point that the reasoning behind the claim became evident. Some of the Mahton wanted join an army regiment and this would only be possible if they had Rajput status. The Mahton, a rural agricultural group, were fully aware that the change of status would allow their members to obtain direct benefits. In and of itself, this definitely shows that the actions of the British in classifying and enumerating castes within the census had heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that in doing the censuses, Indians were used as both census takers and as advisors regarding the caste system of hierarchy. Since it is very likely that individual census takers filled out most of the data themselves, without consulting each individual in the area, the possibilities for self serving activity was immeasurable. Moreover, those Indians who were used as advisors certainly had more than ample opportunity to act in a manner that suited their own or their group’s agenda since precedent was based on interpretations of the writings of the various Hindu holy texts. To even a marginally cynical mind this would suggest immense possibilities for graft and corruption. This, in turn, suggests the possibility that the British were manipulated, at least to some degree, by their mainly Brahman informants.
Contrary to what the British appear to have believed, it seems doubtful that the Brahmans were dominant within the material world in pre colonial Indian society. A cursory examination of any of the ruling families quickly shows a dearth families of the Brahmin caste. Rather, one finds that the majority, though by no means all, of rulers were Kshytria and occasionally Vashnia. This suggests that although the Brahmin caste had power in spiritual matters, their power and control within the material world was limited to the amount of influence that they could gain with individual rulers. No doubt there were instances when this was quite considerable but there is also little doubt that there were times when Brahman influence was very weak and insignificant. With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where, Brahmans, seeing the ascendancy of British power, allied themselves to this perceived new ruling class and attempted to gain influence through it. By establishing themselves as authorities on the caste system they could then tell the British what they believed the British wanted to hear and also what would most enhance their own position. The British would then take this information, received through the filter of the Brahmans, and interpret it based on their own experience and their own cultural concepts. Thus, information was filtered at least twice before publication. Therefore, it seems certain that the information that was finally published was filled with conceptions that would seem to be downright deceitful to those about whom the information was written. The flood of petitions protesting caste rankings following the 1901 census would appear to bear witness to this. To fully understand how the British arrived at their understanding of Indian society it will now be necessary to look at where British society was during the 19th century in both its concepts of self and of other.
At the beginning of the 19th century, society in Britain was still attempting to come to terms with the social structure that had developed within the British Isles. Symptomatic of this phenomenon was the variation in terminology with reference to levels of societal existence that was extant at this time. Phrases such as “gentlemen of wealth and property” and “the lower ranks from labour to thinking” were used to describe levels within society. While this is not meant to suggest that the British did not recognize that there were stratifications within there society, it seems to indicate that there was an absence of the modern notion of class and class structure. Instead, there appears to have been a linguistic shift occurring in which the various levels of society were being described in a variety of ways. Even within the two short phrases quoted above, there is description of three different attributes; social standing, economics and intelligence. This may be seen as a reflection of the mobility that was being experienced within Georgian society itself as non aristocratic, non landed groups moved up in the social order through the increase in industrialization. The use of the word “rank” itself indicates that the language had not entirely rid itself of feudal notions of high and low birth. It is also interesting to note that the connection between social status and mental ability had been made at this point in time. This tends to point toward the determinism that would later be seen in the works of phrenologists such as Spurzheim in which the inheritance of a given skull shape determined the entire character and ability of both individuals and nations. In turn, this deterministic attitude meshed well with later statistical ideas that human behaviour was caused and controlled by unvarying social laws and that free will was of little or no consequence in the grand scheme of human progress.Therefore, it can be seen that as the British became increasingly entrenched in India, three distinct but inter-related intellectual movements converged to provide the basis for British extrapolations and interpretations of Indian society. In this way, the British construction of Indian society was as much a reflection of their own attempts to understand their own society as it was an attempt to reach an understanding about another society. The main key in the evolution of all of this was the use of statistics.
Statistics was initially used as a tool to understanding the present state of European society so that power structures could make optimum use of resources during times of crisis and, in the case of Britain, as an attempt to avoid the societal unrest that dominated Europe during the first half of the 19th century. “Statistics, by their very name, are defined to be the observations necessary to the social and moral sciences, to the sciences of the statist, to whom the statesman and the legislator must resort for the principles on which to legislate and govern.” Thus, at the turn of the century, statistics were used to accommodate manpower demands for the armies to fight the continental war against Napoleon and later during the 1830s, as a part of an attempt to control the population and avoid the turmoil that had engulfed the European mainland. Initially, statisticians confined their activities to the collection of raw data that was then used by others to form or confirm social theories. However, there was a desire on the part of statists to go further and to ground there new science on the same sort of constant that the universal law of gravity had provided for astronomy. This inspired the French statistician Quetelet to formulate a model of probability that he believed would give social scientists that same grounding.
Henry Thomas Buckle took this idea one step further. He believed that it was possible to gain access to the rules that operate the human mind through the use of statistics. Moreover, it was Buckle’s belief that all human behaviour was caused by unvarying social laws and that moral causes were inherent to the nation, not to individuals. Buckles concept of mankind was shaped by the belief that there was no place for chance or supernatural intervention in accounting for the history and progress of mankind. All of history was the result of the universality of law. Within this viewpoint, Buckle saw corporate entities such as the church or political institutions, as interfering with the function of universal law and causing disfunction within society. This was because they attempted to direct society for their own ends rather than allowing the laws of human activity to play themselves out naturally. Buckle pointed to the fact that no matter what any corporate entities did within society the suicide rate remained constant. He also pointed out that when Charles III of Spain attempted to emancipate his people from the oppressions of the Spanish clergy, the people turned on him because they were not enlightened enough to appreciate what he was trying to do. All of this led Buckle to the belief that:
No great political improvement, no great reform, either legislative or executive, has ever been originated in any country by its rulers, every great reform which has been effected has consisted, not in doing something new but in doing something old. Law givers are nearly always the obstructors of society, instead of its helpers.
In one sense this way of thinking totally disempowered all of mankind. If history was controlled by universal laws, as indicated the regularities of statistics, then the actions of individuals or corporate entities were of little consequence. Moreover, according to Quetlet and Buckle, the fact that social scientists could not give a detailed prediction of individual behaviour was of no consequence since the laws of probability would even out all individual actions over the long term. This challenged the entire concept of human free will however, and by the late 19th century the notion of randomness was introduced in order to bring free will back into the equations.
In considering the theories that were promoted by both Quetlet and Buckle, it must be remembered that they were not accepted without challenge and were, in fact, subjects of controversy throughout the 19th century. However, notwithstanding this caveat, these theories did have an effect on the way that the British viewed mankind as a whole. The social sciences were the only avenue available to the administration that offered any options for social control other than brute force. Since force was always expensive, it seems reasonable that administrators would attempt to control society without its use to the largest degree possible. Notions that the behaviour of large groups of people could be predicted through the use of statistics would have been particularly attractive to the British in India where they were faced with the task of ruling millions. Moreover, these millions were very foreign in their ways of conceiving the world and for this reason posed a far greater problem of control than would an equal number of Europeans. Some kind of an overarching understanding of their newly acquired subjects was necessary.
The most obvious, widespread feature that was available to the British was the institution of caste. However, this institution in and of itself, was outside of British experience. Therefore it was necessary, if this key was to be used, that an understanding of caste be attained. The tools at hand were the social sciences and the apparent key to the social sciences was statistics. Among the social sciences that were popular in the 19th century were phrenology, physical anthropology and later, sociology and eugenics. Each of these areas of study had effects on each other and each of them, to some degree, affected the development of colonial policy as it referred to the control and maintenance of populations. However, due to the relatively late arrival of both eugenics and sociology, the present paper will concentrate on the effects of phrenology and anthropology.
In the same way that astrology is related to astronomy, phrenology is related to anthropology. Both dealt with skull shapes and physiognomy and many of the same people who worked in anthropology also worked in phrenology from the beginning of the 19th century to the 1840s. By the end of the 1840s phrenology had waned because of its failure to find a second generation of devotees but many of the collections that phrenologists had assembled were subsequently used by anthropologists. However, at the height of its popularity, phrenology had sixteen societies in Scotland, six in England and two in Ireland. Throughout Europe there were more than thirty societies, about half of which met regularly, had good attendance and were financially solvent. The presence of sixteen societies in Scotland is particularly striking since this was a major center of intellectual thought during the period. This would give credence to the notion that there was a good deal of attention paid to phrenology in intellectual circles though it is granted that this attention was not always favourable. Further, it seems notable that the British Isles had a relatively large number of societies in comparison with other areas of Europe.
Phrenology attempted to define the potential of both individuals and nations based on the shape of skulls. It was contended that the outer shape of the human skull was a reflection of the configuration of the mind that it housed and that various parts of the mind affected the abilities and temperament of the individual. Moreover, it was believed that national and racial characteristics could be discerned from the study of a large number of skulls from any given race or nationality. Each area of the brain was believed to control a specific part of the personality or intellectual ability and the development of the skull in the corresponding areas was thought to indicate the development of the underlying brain. Thus, by simply examining the exterior of the head it was believed that the character and potential of the individual could be ascertained. This appears to have been a real concern of phrenologists as shown by the following except from the Phrenological Journal in 1825:
We trust, also, that this notice will induce some of our readers, going to distant countries, to avail themselves of the facilities which the science affords for the accurate and minute appreciation of character, and to collect skulls in elucidation of the origin, dispositions, and talents of foreign nations.
In examining this theory in relation to colonialism in India, it must be remembered that castes were often considered to be divisions based on race. Therefore, it is quite possible that these theories had an affect on the conceptual construct of the British in India with regard to their attitudes toward Indians of various castes. It is also interesting to note that Quetlet, one of the founders of statistics, while cautiously sceptical about phrenology, wrote Sur lhomme et le developpemment de ses facultes in 1835 in which he described the “average man” physically and intellectually on the basis of cranial measurements. Since Quetlet was very influential in the development of statistical thinking, the possibility that he spread these theories to statisticians is very strong.
As with all intellectual movements however, one must question how wide spread the ideas of phrenology became in the popular sense. Perhaps the best way to gauge this is to examine the amount of printed material that was available on the subject and whether there was any mention of the field in the press. On both accounts, the evidence indicates that there was a wide dissemination of phrenological information. There were journals in Britain, the United States and Germany and by 1836 there were 64000 volumes of writings devoted to phrenology. Further, there appears to have been regular mention of phrenology in the popular press. On this basis it should be safe to assume that phrenological theories were well spread outside of intellectual circles.
When phrenology faded in the late 1840s anthropology took up many of the underlying beliefs that phrenology had promoted. This can be seen by the continued belief that races could be classified and their societal development explained on the basis of the shape of their skulls. While this was primarily seen in the study of Negroid skulls, the theories were equally applicable to all non European groups. In the 1860s James Hunt, a noted anthropologists of the day, stated:
…. we must not shrink from the candid avowal of what we believe to be the real place in nature, or in society, of the African or any other race. It will be the duty of conscientious anatomists carefully to record all deviations from the human standard of organization and analogy with inferior types, which are frequently manifested in the negro race.
This statement shows that there was a belief in not only the superiority of the white races but that the inferiority of other races was believed to be caused by innate physiological attributes that could be observed and quantified. Belief in the innate inferiority of others and in the notion that this inferiority had physical, measurable manifestations was an old European tradition as shown by the following quote from le Comte de Buffon in 1749 as stated in L’histoire naturelle de l’homme in describing Laplanders:
Non seulement ces peuples se ressemblent par la laideur, le petitetesse de la taille, la couleur des cheveux et des yeux, mais ils ont aussi tous a peu pres les memes inclinations et les meme moeurs, ils son tous egalement grossiers, superstitieux, stupides…, sans courage, sans respect pour soi-meme, sans pudeur; ce peuple abject n’a de moeurs qu’assez pour etre meprise…
This long standing deterministic fatalism was, therefore, the same as that expressed by both phrenologists and statisticians. This attitude was legislatively expressed in India by the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the same year as the first full Indian census was being planned. In explanation of the Act it was stated that:
… when we speak of `professional criminals’, we… [mean] a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorial, who are themselves destined by the usages of caste to commit crime, and whose descendants will be offenders against the law, until the whole tribe is exterminated or accounted for in the manner of thugs.
This statement clearly destined large groups of people to be condemned as criminals by birth. Further, it articulates the notion that caste is an ahistorical system that contributes to what the British perceived as a static Indian society. Criminals were not criminals for socio-economic reasons. They were criminals because of the caste into which they had been born. In observing this it should be recalled that caste was also believed to have been responsible for the maintenance of racial types in India. Therefore, there is an intimate connection between caste and race based on which castes intermarried and which did not. Herbert Risley, Commissioner for the 1901 census states that:
…race sentiment…rests upon a foundation of facts that can be verified by scientific methods; that it supplied the motive principle of caste; that it continues, in the form of fiction or tradition, to shape the most modern developments of the system; and, finally, that its influence has tended to preserve in comparative purity the types which it favours.
It therefore becomes plain that the British and in this case an influential official, saw caste as being motivated by the principle of race purity. From this point it is a very short intellectual leap for the British to equate cast and race. That is, caste as a system created a system that preserved race purity and therefore castes represent that preserved purity. This notion is further confirmed by Hodson in 1937 when he states that class, racial and linguistic groups may be visually differentiated.Moreover, Hodson goes on to define caste as: “mutually exclusive aggregates, the members of which are forbidden by an inexorable social law to marry outside the group to which they themselves belong.” On the basis of this definition and measurements of heads, noses and heights obtained from: “51 racial groups from all parts of India” Hodson goes on to claim that the caste system has created “pure lines”. In fact this is simply an echo of what Risley had said in had said in 1915. In 22 years, very little had changed in the way that the British envisioned both the function and the form of caste. For evidence that the British believed that race was the supreme determinate of human activity one need look no further than Disraeli who wrote in 1844 that: “All is race, there is no other truth” and in 1880 that: “Race is the key to history”.
What seems, however, to have confused the British, was the fact that when they asked Indians to identify the caste, tribe or race for census purposes, they received a bewildering variety of responses. Often the respondent gave the name of a religious sect, a sub-caste, an exogamous sept or section a hypergamous group, titular designation, occupation or the name of the region he came from. Obviously Indian self identifying concepts were quite different from those concepts that the British expected. In response to this problem, those in charge of the census data took it upon themselves to: “begin a laborious and most difficult process of sorting, referencing, cross-referencing, and corresponding with local authorities, which ultimately results in the compilation of a table showing the distribution of the inhabitants of India by Caste, Tribe, Race, or Nationality.” Certainly this leaves a great deal of room for error. It also virtually ignores the fact that many Indians, when questioned, did not identify themselves in the way that the British expected. Rather than ask themselves why this was, the British appear to have assumed that either the respondents did not understand the question or that they were incapable of correctly answering the question. It never seems to have occurred to any one involved with the census that the British may have been asking the type of question that had a variety of correct answers depending upon the circumstances in which the question was asked. It is interesting to note that when modern sociologists posed the same type of question to Indians in the 1960s, they too received a wide variety of responses. The simplest explanation for this is that on a day to day basis caste may not be the most important factor in the life of a Hindu. While it is granted that extremely low groups such as the untouchables who suffer under a constant burden of being ritually polluting were very conscious of their caste and that Brahmins were also very caste conscious, it is questionable whether the majority of the Indian people actually concerned themselves with caste on a daily basis. This notion is given support by a handbill that was distributed by Arya Samaj in Lahore just prior to the 1931 census:
Operations Have Begun
Question You Should Answer Religion Vedi Dharm Sect Arya Samajist Caste Nil Race Aryan Language Arya Bhasha
While it is granted that the group distributing this handbill had a definite political agenda, it should also be borne in mind that they believed that the distribution of this information would influence the manner in which the people answered. Therefore, consideration of answering “Nil” to caste must not have been beyond the realm of possibility for a large number of people. This would tend to indicate that attachment to and self identification by caste was not crucial to the self concept of at least a portion of the population. Moreover, it clearly indicates that this group has identified caste as a means of British control over the Indian people. This may also be coupled with the notion that the British, having constructed their own image of the caste system and forced the people to adhere to that construct through continual identification and extrapolation within the censuses, were now more the owners of the caste system than were the people of India. Moreover, by dismissing the idea of caste as non essential to Indian self identification, Arya Samaj’s action may be seen as indicating that they believed that caste was essential to prolonging British abilities to rule India. Thus, the very institution of caste was now being seen as a tool of British rule rather than as an indigenous system of social organization.
The answers recommended for the questions of sect and race were also clearly designed to frustrate British attempts to continue to rule through their monopoly on knowledge. Arya Samajist would not have fit into British schemes of sect and caste and Aryan was not a specific enough term for race to satisfy their classification systems. This entire action could easily be interpreted as an attempt by Arya Samaj to win back the knowledge that they believed the British were using to maintain their hold over India. Indeed, there is ample evidence to show that the British viewed themselves as the source of knowledge for the Indian people and regarded the Indians in the same way as a scientist regards the subjects he studies.
Risely wrote that: “the caste system itself, with its singularly perfect communal organization, is a machinery admirably fitted for the diffusion of new ideas; that castes may in course of time group themselves into classes representing the different strata of society; and that India may thus attain, by the agency of these indigenous corporations, the results that have been arrived at elsewhere through the fusion of individual types.” In making this statement Risley exposes the British agenda of creating a society that conformed to British ideals through the use of a British interpreted caste system. It is also interesting to note that Risley juxtaposes “individual types” with castes in such a way that it seems that he believed that there was a dearth of individuality within Indian society which could be compensated for through the substitution of caste structures. To Risley caste was not only the essence of Indian society, it was the essence of Indians. The entire meaning of the individual was embodied in caste. Risley’s paternalistic disdain for the Indian people was further illustrated by his belief that: “the factors of nationality in India are two – the common usage of the English language for certain purposes and the common employment of Indians in English administration.” India’s salvation, its only hope of becoming a nation, was through the language and tutelage of the British, according to Risley’s brand of liberal paternalism.
In examining the writings of Edward Dalton, Commissioner of Chutia Nagpur, the nomenclature alone is enough to indicate that the Indian people were regarded as less than human in at least some regard. People are referred to as “specimens” and the only fear expressed over the possibility of bringing various “specimen” together for a display was that: “… if specimens of the more independent tribes fell sick and died in Calcutta or on the journey, it might lead to inconvenient political complications.” It is also in these writings that one sees the type of classification of ability that the British in India have become so notoriously famous for. In considering Rajputs Dalton states that:
. [they] are not the inert sensualists that wealthy Bengalis so often become; they are fully capable of enjoying field sports; they generally ride well, are good shots and keen sportsmen. They are sure to have a good battery of guns by the best English makers, good horses, dogs, elephants, and hawks, and even fishing tackle.
.. Surely a description of the finest of English country gentlemen. However, in describing the Kayasths who often worked as clerks for the British, Dalton states that:
From their appearance we might say that the first selection was made of people with weak bodies and strong intellect, of small courage, but great cunning, and that physical beauty was of less consequence than sharpness of wit.
Needless to say, this description is far from flattering. However, what is more important is the contention that one can determine the character of people based on their physical appearance. This extended, as well, to the type of work that individuals were seen as being fit for under British rule.
Thus Kayasths were seen as being natural clerks and scribes and Rajputs were natural for the military and as a local upper class. However, census data sometimes went beyond attributing occupational abilities to physical build and insisted on the maintenance of “traditional” occupations being listed with the caste groupings in the census.
Such was the case during the census of 1891. In an effort to arrange various castes in order of precedence: “… functional grouping is based less on the occupation that prevails in each case in the present day than on that which is traditional with it, or which gave rise to its differentiation from the rest of the community.” This action virtually removed Indians from the progress of history and condemned them to an unchanging position and place in time. In one sense, it is rather ironic that the British, who continually accused the Indian people of having a static society, should then impose a construct that denied progress. In ways such as this, it is possible to see how the census began to increase the rigidity of the caste system, particulary when one considers the fact that one of the primary ways that a caste could traditionally raise its status was to change its occupation. Once again, the British appear to be creating the situation where their interpretation of Indian society is validated through their own actions. In a similar way, Beverley’s analysis of the 1872 census sought to prove continuity with the past by attempting to identify purity and impurity of race in ways that would fit with British theories of Indian history and British notions of group abilities and temperaments.
As stated above, the British perceived India as being filled with a wide variety of races which had been preserved to greater and lesser degrees by the institution of caste. Therefore, it was quite logical within this construct for Beverley to state that: “A Bengali may, on the one hand, be of the purest Aryan type, or, on the other, he may scarcely differ in ethnic characteristics from the lowest aboriginal.” However, what is not logical is the immediately following statement that: “Speaking generally, they are not a robust or muscular race, yet are capable of greater fatigue and endurance than their purely vegetable diet and moist habitat would lead one to suppose. In active pursuits they are timid and indolent, but in intellect keen and subtle.”Given the prevailing attitude of the linkages between caste and race and race and ability, this statement seems to be at odds with the internal logic of the argument. In this case Beverley has moved away from caste and toward region as the defining factor of the group. He clearly states that: “Bengal proper is inhabited by a heterogeneous race of mixed Aryan and aboriginal extraction, in every possible stage of development.” If this is indeed so, how can any conclusions, even “generally speaking”, be made about Bengalis as a whole? However, in typical British fashion, Beverley forged ahead with his analysis of the Bengalis and in spite of all obstacles made them fit into the popular stereotype that had been attributed to them. In examining “Hinduised aborigines”, Hindus and Hinduism as a whole, Beverley encounters similar problem of internal logic.
After describing the “non-Aryan tribes” of Bengal and describing their interaction with the invading Aryan Hindus, Beverley then admits:
The fact is, it is absolutely impossible to draw the line between the various Hindu races and the aboriginal tribes, so insensibly do they merge into one another. In the first place we have no clear definition of what we mean when we speak of a Hindu. Sometimes the term is used in a generic sense, to denote all or any of the inhabitants of India. Sometimes it is used in a religious sense, to designate the great body of the people who are not Mahommedans. Sometimes again a distinction is insisted on between what are called pure and impure Hindus. But what pure Hinduism consists in, and what is to be the shibboleth by which the orthodoxy of the various races of India are to be tried, has never, so far as I am aware, been laid down by competent authority.
In spite of this admission of ignorance, Beverley goes on to describe the actions and interaction of the Aryans and the tribes that they encountered, and how these interactions have resulted in the variety of levels of civilization that were extant in Bengal. Moreover, he attributes the differences between the Hinduism of the Vedas and that which is presently before him in Bengal as the result of “contamination from aboriginal sources”. It never seems to occur to him that changes in Hinduism could have come from within rather than from without. Thus, Beverley places Hinduism outside of history in a very similar way as the analysis of the 1891 census would place the Indian people outside of history. In essence, India, its people and their religion are portrayed as unchanging except as they are affected by external forces. This justifies the British belief that their role in India is to raise the society to a higher level of civilization and that without their influence India would be doomed to stagnation. Any concept of internal innovation appears to be dismissed without a thought. Even the manner in which Beverley envisions the history of the Aryan invasions betrays his inability to envision change occurring in any other way than that experienced in British history.
In the seventh or eighth centuries of our own era, England, as I imagine, presented a very similar appearance, from an ethnic point of view, to that which we find at the present day in Bengal. The Anglo-Saxon invaders spread themselves over the land, and gave their language, their manners and customs, to the aboriginal Welsh whom they had conquered. Some of these Welsh took refuge in the mountains and fastnesses of Strath-Clyde, Wales and Cornwall, where they still preserved their independence and their native speech. But the vast majority were doubtless absorbed by the victorious Saxons into the English nation. Particular tribes lost their individuality, their differences being merged in one common stream, wide enough and deep enough to embrace all. So in Bengal the aboriginal tribes which remained in the plains are fast losing all traces of their origin, being gradually absorbed in the nationality, if I may use the term, of their Aryan conquerors. Only in the hills and in those primeval forests which proved inaccessible to Hindu and Mahommedan invader alike, do we now find the remnants of those tribes which formerly peopled the whole face of the country. That the great bulk of them have been swallowed up and merged into the nationality of their conquerors, sufficient traces remain to leave no room for doubt.
Within this statement is hidden a need for India’s history to be like that of England. Further, there is a need to equate the original inhabitants with the same qualities as were believed to be in the conquered groups within England. By doing this, Beverley legitimates Britain’s present position within Britain in the same way as the British justified their dominance over various ethnic groups within the British Isles. This allows the vision of the great march of progress, led naturally enough by the British.
Dalton also uses cherished British imagery to describe the Rajput landlords of Western Bengal. In this case it is the myth of the country gentry and the happy peasantry that intrudes on the history of India. The long established landowning Rajputs are described as:
…very good specimens of country gentlemen [on whose estates] the best relations generally exist between the landlord and the peasantry; indeed it will be found that a very indifferent landlord is, in such estates, more respected and beloved than the most indulgent new man. Good or bad, they live amongst their people `like a fine old English gentleman, all of the olden time’. They may fleece the tenants sometimes when they levy contributions for marriages, or to reimburse themselves for some act of needless extravagance, but in whatever tends to the dignity of the family, the people deem themselves personally concerned and give without demur, and it is a satisfaction to them when the duties of hospitality are religiously observed by their chiefs. The objects of their charity are often the reverse of worthy, but still `the poor seldom pass unrelieved from their gates’.
This passage virtually exudes the long cherished belief of jolly old England and all the mythology that the landed gentry surrounded themselves with. One can almost see the emergence of the “sturdy yeomanry”. However, it is doubtful whether Dalton ever actually consulted any of these “contented” peasants to enquire as to their position on all of this, any more than anyone ever asked the English peasantry how they felt about their overlords. But this myth was deeply held by the British gentry and they then projected it onto the Indian people during their attempt to understand Indian society. The conceptual framework within which Indian society was being understood was becoming British rather than Indian. This allowed the British to expropriate the basic concepts of Indian society and Anglicize it in such a way that only they would have the ability to interpret it within the new construct. A major factor in allowing this expropriation was the census system.
The censuses forced the Indian social system into a written schematic in a way that had never been experienced in the past. While the Mughals had issued written decrees on the status of individual castes, there had never been a formal systematic attempt to organize and schedule all of the castes in an official document until the advent of the British censuses. The data was compiled on the basis of British understanding of India. This understanding was deeply affected by British concepts of their own past, and by British notions of race and the importance of race in relation to the human condition. Further, the intellectual framework, such as that provided by anthropology and phrenology, that was used to help create the ideas surrounding the concept of race, was foreign to the intellectual traditions of India. These concepts endured well into the 20th century and affected the analysis of the censuses throughout this period. Risley, for example, used anthropometric measurements, which were directly descended from anthropological and phrenological methodology, in his ordering of castes following the census of 1901. These same notions led to a classification of intelligence and abilities based on physical attributes, and this in turn led to employment opportunities being limited to certain caste groupings that displayed the appropriate attributes. Indians attempted to incorporate themselves into this evolving system by organizing caste sabhas with the purpose of attaining improved status within the system. This ran contrary to traditional views of the purpose of the caste system and imposed an economic basis. With this, the relevance and importance of the spiritual, non material rational for caste was degraded and caste took on a far more material meaning. In this way, caste began to intrude more pervasively into daily life and status became even more coveted and rigid. In a sense, caste became politicized as decisions regarding rank increasingly fell into the political rather than the spiritual sphere of influence. With this politicization, caste moved closer to class in connotation. The actions of the Indian people that contributed to this process were not so an much acquiescence to the British construction as they were pragmatic reactions to the necessities of material life. In expropriating the knowledge base of Indian society, the British had forced Indian society and the caste system to execute adjustments in order to prosper within the rubric of the British regime.
In and of themselves, the physical taking of the censuses did not greatly affect Indian society. The census takers received slighter higher status and prestige within their own communities because of their employment and new found position of authority, but most, if not all of these individuals would have had high status before the censuses in any case. However, the analysis of Indian society that the censuses made possible did have a very strong affect. Without the basic information contained within the censuses the British would not have been able to justify their concepts of Indian society. This would have handicapped their ability to rationalize their presence within India once simple economic reasoning had ceased to suffice. For the Indian people, the censuses acted as a catalyst for an increased consciousness of caste as caste status became an increasingly significant factor in attaining material status. While the original intent may have been to gather data to assist governments in dealing with natural disaster and famine relief, the effect of the analysis of that data went far beyond these goals. Ultimately, the census provided data that allowed the British to have a much deeper effect on Indian society than might otherwise have been possible.
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