Census Capers….
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

People generally are aware why census operations are conducted and enumerations are done. We are familiar with enumerators normally engaged to prepare polling lists constiruency-wise so that those in the eligible criteria can exercise their voting rights. A Census is bigger and more vast an exercise, meant to compile social statistics in respect of the entire population numbers-wise and its various aspects and attributes and categorisations for an administrative purpose of more efficiently matching state resources to social needs.

In India though, not every one is comfortable with the idea of parting information for the purpose, always suspecting the motives of the establishment or agency that undertakes such an exercise. Like for instance, motives were read into even the Delhi Police exercise conducted purely from the crime control and law and order point of view to do house surveys – for purposes of tenant or servant verifications, or to ferret out possible hideouts of anti-socials in a given area. Such surveys conducted after the godhra riots in Gujarat attracted tremendous flak with the general beilef that the information was being gathered only to identify and target members of the minority communities like Christians and Muslims.

This tendency to suspect motives of the government’s ‘information collectors’ in India, is nothing new – going by the anecdotal accounts recorded by the British of their experiences from such an exercise held during the first ever census of India between 1865-75. Here are some extracts from this first census report of over a century plus three decades ago:

“The idea that the Government would incur the labour and expense of such an undertaking (census) without having in view some direct pecuniary profit was foreign to the native mind. A poll-tax was the form in which the imposition was in general anticipated, and the census paper went by the name of the "tax-ticket".

“In Orissa, where it was rumoured that the Government intended to reimburse to itself the cost of the famine, it was variously supposed that the tax would fall on those who trod on the village-path, who swung an arm, who carried an umbrella, or who fed Brahmins. One man objected to enter his brothers' names, saying that "it will be very hard to make four brothers pay when the tax comes;" and another withheld the entry of a baby on the ground that it was too young to be taxed”.

“The prevalent feeling that the population would be found excessive led in many instances to a belief that recourse would be had to compulsory emigration, either to Mauritius or Assam, in order to reduce the numbers; in Moorshedabad it was stated that the surplus population was to be blown away from guns; in Chittagong it was thought that a certain number of heads were required to pacify the Looshai (Mizo) Chiefs, or that coolies were needed for the Looshai campaign, or soldiers to fight the Russians”.

“In other instances it was the women who were wanted, to supply wives for the troops; and at Noakhally the report ran that all the females of a certain age were to be sent to Calcutta for "the General Sahib" to see”.

“The idea of compulsory vaccination seized some minds; in one village forcible conversion to Christianity was feared; and many were kept at home on the night of the census by the belief that an ill wind would cripple all who stirred abroad. In the census of Berar taken in 1867, the motive of the ‘Sircar’ in counting the people at night had been found to be altogether beyond their comprehension”.

“In the North-West Provinces, where people had to some extent been familiarized with the idea of a census with two previous exercises, the names of all males were entered, not merely that of the head of the household; and, where it could be done without offence, the names of the females also were recorded”.

“In British Burma there was a general absence of bribery or extortion on the part of the agency employed, and the people were too well accustomed to the annual capitation returns to be alarmed at the more detailed census”.

“In the district of Benares, where some travellers, returning from a pilgrimage, declared that they did not belong to those parts, and objected to have their names and ages recorded. There was, however, a general opinion among the lower orders that the measure was a preliminary to some new mode of taxation; and in Mynpoory the rumour ran that there was to be a forced conscription to assist in fighting the Afghans and Russians if they should invade the Punjab”.

“Similar fears prevailed in Oude in 1869, when it was rumoured that one male from each family, or every fourth man, was to be taken as a recruit, an emigrant, or a labourer on the roads or to build an enormous fort, or that women were wanted for the European soldiers; while one report was that England had suddenly become so hot that the Queen had desired that two virgins might be sent from each village to fan her night and day, and that the census was merely a subterfuge for the purpose of carrying'out Her Majesty's orders. In particular districts there is little doubt that concealment of girls took place to some extent, through dread of the result of the census”.

“In Mysore, rumours of a similar character were afloat only in one or two of the remoter villages. In a few instances the enumerators were found, in their zeal to give complete returns, to have entered the idols as well, with all particulars of sex, age, etc”.

900 words: 07.02.2005: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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