Objectification of Religious Identity and Census in British India

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Objectification of Religious Identity and Census in British India

The need for objectification of the various religions in British India originated when the colonists decided to carry out the Indian Census in the 18th century and every ten years thereafter. It started off out of the intellectual curiosity of a few British officers. They believed that collecting systematic information about caste, religion, language, education, means of subsistence etc will help them know the natives better and lead to better governance. Overtime they realized that this comprehensive statistical database can be used to win political, cultural and religious battles (Cohn, 250).

The question of religion, caste and race was a fundamental category of classification in the Indian census and it was published without any restraint (Bhagat, 4352). In a country as religiously diverse as India there were no clear boundaries between the communities. The social ignorance of these “fuzzy” communities was disrupted by the census. From my readings of Bhagat, the primary argument of my essay is that the 'fuzzy' communities had been turned into enumerated communities and further into political communities by the ‘divide et impera’ rule of the colonialist power which eventually constructed communal divisions in India (Bhagat, 4353).

The census officials attempted to classify the Indian population into homogenous and mutually exclusive communities but they encountered various problems because the identities of the religions had never been so demarcated until the census was carried out. Oberoi says that the religious beliefs and practices were so blended and inter-mingled that it was impossible to objectify them into different units (Oberoi, 9). Bhagat and Oberoi share the same view about the indefinite religious identity of Indians and it can be seen through the examples they provide. For instance, in early 19th century Punjab, many Hindus regularly took pilgrimages to Muslim shrines and...
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