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Registration and RecognitionDocumenting the Person in World History$

Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265314

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265314.001.0001

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Identity Registration in India During and After the Raj

Identity Registration in India During and After the Raj

(p.299) 11 Identity Registration in India During and After the Raj
Registration and Recognition

Ravindran Gopinath

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter is essentially a history of an absence — the absence of individual identity registration in pre-colonial and colonial India. The main question that it attempts to answer is the apparent contradiction between the colonial Indian state's encyclopaedic attempts at statistical recording and the absence of individual identity registration. The colonial government, while counting and recording virtually everything from people to property to natural resources, somehow did not feel the need to register individual identity. For the Indian population, social aggregates such as caste, despite official misgivings, continued throughout the colonial period to be a proxy for individual identity. It was only with the establishment of a democratic state based on universal adult suffrage after Independence that individual identity registration developed slowly and partially.

Keywords:   India, caste, colonial, registration, pre-colonial India, Mughal, UID

THE KEY QUESTION that this chapter attempts to answer is the apparent contradiction between the colonial Indian state’s encyclopaedic attempts at statistical recording and the absence of individual identity registration. The colonial government while counting and recording virtually everything from people to property to natural resources somehow did not feel the need to register individual identity. For the Indian population social aggregates such as caste, despite official misgivings, continued throughout the colonial period to be a proxy for individual identity.

Understanding the absence of individual identity registration in a regime obsessed with counting and recording requires an investigation of the long-run neglect of individual identity registration from the pre-colonial period to the end of colonialism. The ascription of identity and its registration, ubiquitous objectives of modern state policy, has had a long though historically and geographically varied trajectory. A variety of states in their attempts to maximize surplus extraction have tried to control and therefore attempted to fix their actual and potential resources, human or inanimate, both spatially and socially. However, such strategies of enumeration exhibit a great deal of variation across cultures, polities and political economies. In the context of India, registration of identities has played a crucial, though not exclusive, role in the construction/reconstruction and development of social identities.

This chapter is a broad survey of practices of registration in colonial India. Though the main part of this chapter deals with the colonial period in Indian history, we begin our discussion with the pre-colonial period as a baseline to highlight the changes that occurred in enumerative practices with British conquest and subsequently under the colonial administration. Similarly, the last section of the chapter looks at identity registration in the post-colonial period, culminating with the currently ongoing project to enumerate the entire population of India using bio-metric technologies of registration.

Registration is merely the act of listing someone or something by an institution that commands authority or legitimacy. States and non-state institutions such as (p.300) religious bodies and communitarian groups often registered individual constituents as well as properties and larger social aggregates. For instance, the Ain-i-Akbari, the administrative gazetteer and manual produced during Akbar’s reign in the sixteenth century, required the accountant ‘to record the name of each peasant, together with that of his ancestor’ with the assessment details (Habib 1999, 271). A similar directive is found in the last major Mughal emperor Aurangazeb’s reign, where village assessment is fixed after individual assessment (Habib 1999, 271). According to Irfan Habib, this individual assessment and recording was often fictitious (Habib 1999, 273). Similarly, Susan Bayly remarks that the basis of later colonial caste demarcations began as exercises of caste enumeration for ‘popularizing older guru networks and holy places’, which were later institutionalized as fixed categories in the enumerative statistics of the colonial census (Bayly 1999, 140). She thus suggests that initial objectives of the aggregation of people into castes clearly diverged from the later colonial categories of statistical enumeration and grouping. Emphasizing the modern character of caste associations, Rudolph and Rudolph have commented that they acted as modern collective organizations with their head office, publications, list of members and organizational chart (Leonard 1978; Wallerstein 1966, 140; Rudolph and Rudolph 1966). The extent and completeness of such registration of castes, especially in the case of state-sponsored listings, exhibited a long-term secular increase, but does this suggest more thorough enumeration or did the impetus to such change derive, rather, from the accumulation of a succession of qualitatively different notions of people and of the distribution of resources held by different systems of government?

On the basis of the Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a classical treatise on government and economics written some time between the fourth and second centuries BCE, it has been asserted that early Indians conducted censuses and kept detailed registers of individuals right down to the level of villages. Village accountants, or Gopas, each responsible for five to ten villages, acted as census takers. They recorded the adult population, and household income and expenditure and details of merchants and artisans (Shamasastry 1915). Though the record-keeping and registration prescribed in the Arthashastra is of an extremely high level, given the vastness of the Mauryan empire of that period, it appears that this manual was likely to have been largely prescriptive in nature. The minuteness and detail of record-keeping described and recommended in the Arthashastra cannot even be achieved by the twenty-first-century Indian state. Further, in the absence of any surviving evidence for such enumeration and registration, it appears that this may have been only a prescriptive manual of best practices. However, similar practices have been suggested for Zhou China, another iron age empire, where there is stronger surviving evidence (see von Glahn’s description of Shang Yang’s reforms and enumerations 361–338 BCE in Chapter 1 in this volume).

In the Indian case, the first documented evidence that technologies of registration were not only well known but also practised occurs in the sixteenth century. At (p.301) this point there was, however, apparently a very limited registration of Indians as individuals, despite the fact that enumeration exercises in the post-colonial period represent a continuity with an already-established practice in the pre-colonial period under a constantly expanding and powerful bureaucratic apparatus at that time. A related issue which therefore demands attention is whether caste and other communal groupings may have been perceived in both pre-colonial and colonial periods as providing a convenient and satisfactory proxy for individual registration, resulting in very limited attempts at listing individuals.

Identities are always manifold, compound, historically contingent and continuously re-constructed. The identity ascribed by the colonial state always coexisted in tension with multiple other identities, traditional or forged in opposition to the colonial state. Investigation of a theme as large and complex as identity in India is beyond the scope of this chapter, which will therefore limit itself to discussing the registration of identities and rights that the state considered to be true and legitimate.

This chapter will argue, on the basis of evidence from registration related to population, demography, anthropological investigations and landed property, that the overwhelming concerns of the state and the practical limits to governance imposed by geography, demography and the absence of popular traditions of individual identity registration defined the trajectory and the very partial nature of registering individuals in India while simultaneously developing an elaborate arithmetic of social aggregates.

From populousness to population

Populations, or at least the numbers of some groups of people, were counted by governments long before the development of modern states. Despite this apparent continuity in practice of counting people, Foucault makes the important point that ‘Population is undoubtedly an idea and a reality that is absolutely modern in relation to the functioning of political power, but also in relation to knowledge and political theory, prior to the eighteenth century’ (Foucault et al.2007).Drawing upon Bruce Curtis’s article on Foucault’s concepts of governmentality, I argue that, though enumerative practices had pre-colonial antecedents, the important distinction to make is that a shift occurred from the earlier concept of ‘populousness’ to the modern concept of ‘population’ (Curtis 2002). Whereas population is dependent on the establishment of practical equivalences among subjects and one common abstract essence, the logic of populousness centres on the hierarchical differentiation of essences. If this distinction between populousness and population is accepted in the apparently absolute form proposed by Foucault then a direct descent from one to the other cannot be made. In fact, the ‘discovery’ of population constitutes a rupture rather than a continuity from earlier modes of enumeration.

(p.302) Recent historical writing on India has argued that enumeration in colonial India was not an alien imposition but that it was built upon earlier practices of counting both peoples and things (see Peabody 2001; S. Guha 2003). In India there has been a close association between enumeration and registration. The registration of individuals, i.e. individuals as constituents of population, though rare and infrequent, was preceded in India by the enumeration of territorial or caste populations. It is indeed true that enumeration was not unknown in India even before British rule. The Mughals regularly maintained identity registers of nobles and soldiers. Miniature portraits were maintained of nobles while the paymaster of the army verified the identity of troopers by distinguishing bodily marks (Zaidi 1982). Emperors and rulers sporadically ordered larger-scale enumerations of houses, looms, ploughs and even heads of households, with some of these survey findings being categorized in terms of important castes.

Notable examples of such enumerations from northern and western India include Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari or The Institutes of Akbar (c. 1595), Munhata Nainsi’s Marwar ra Pargana ri Vigat (c. 1666) and Ali Muhammad Khan’s estimates for Gujarat in 1761 in Mirat-i-Ahmadi. Just about everything, including gods, fruits, revenue, agriculture, wages, prices, ornaments and metrology, is discussed. What is notably absent is any figure for the population size of the territory or region being discussed. For example, the quantitative information on the province or subah of Allahabad reads as follows:

This Súbah contains ten Sarkárs, and 177 Parganahs. Revenue 21 krors, 24 lakhs and 27,819 dáms (Rs. 53,10,695-7-9) and 12 lakhs of betel leaves. Of these Parganahs 131 pay revenue from crops charged at special rates. Measured land 39,68,018 bighas, 3 biswas, yielding a revenue of 20 krors, 29 lakhs 71,224 dáms (Rs. 50,74,280-9). The remaining 46 Parganahs pay the general bigah rate. They are rated at 94 lakhs, 56,595 dáms (Rs. 2,36,424-14). Of this, 1 kror, 11 lakhs, 65,417 dáms (Rs. 279,135-6-6) are Suyúrghál. The province furnishes 11,375 Cavalry, 237,870 Infantry and 323 elephants.

(Abul Fazl Allami 1891, 160)

There is no evidence whatsoever in the Ain that the Mughals at the height of their power were interested in counting the population of their realm.

Turning to the other much discussed enumeration carried out by Nainsi for Marwar, we once again find the mention of caste and listing of houses and inventories of tools and implements, but this should not be mistaken to be a proto-census attempting to count people (Bhadani 1979; Peabody 2001). In our enthusiasm to find continuities between the pre-colonial and the colonial such enumerative exercises that were carried out for ascertaining the productive and revenue-paying capacity of the land should not be confused with the logic of the colonial census. From what we know of the Mughal state and its semi-autonomous dependencies, it is indeed difficult to argue for an organic and internal connection between their enumerative practices and that of the colonial state in India.

(p.303) Different groups of people, defined by occupation and caste, became important for these states only insofar as their activities and numbers had a bearing on military recruitment, mobilizing capabilities and the payment of revenue (Perlin 1993, 36–58). Though individual identity registration was not practised or even mentioned as an objective of government, systematic enumeration of entire town populations, as opposed to the recording and counting of soldiers and nobles, had become more frequent in the pre-colonial period. While the early colonial state, too, initially began tentative enumerations that shared much in common with pre-colonial enumerations, what was significantly new was a count of population divided by sex and age and into different religious, ritual and occupational classes. This was unprecedented in the enumerative history of India. Thus the early colonial censuses mark a definite break from the sporadic head counts and khanashoomaries (literally, house lists) of the earlier regimes. As the British East India Company expanded its territorial control over the Indian subcontinent, annexing kingdoms and indirectly controlling vanquished kings and princes, it simultaneously embarked on a massive project of first gathering information and then ordering it.

The map and the census were two important technologies of registration introduced and developed by the colonial state in India. The significance of these innovations lay in their scalability. From the small-scale map which showed subcontinental and regional geographical, economic and social patterns, one could zoom right into the village with large-scale, sixteen-inch cadastral maps. The map, in parallel with the all-India census, allowed the state to aggregate and disaggregate with ease at desired administrative levels, geographical spaces and social aggregates.

Within just ten years of the British East India Company’s first major victory at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757, James Rennell was appointed the first Surveyor-General (Rennell 1781, 1792). As early as 1817 the Great Trignometrical Survey of India was established and even before its formal establishment the triangulation of southern India had been started by William Lambton, who was to become the first Surveyor-General of India. Apart from cartographically registering the newly acquired territories of the East India Company in India, the Survey, inspired by scientific curiosity, measured a section of the Great Arc. Early colonial cartography not only mapped territory but also played an important role in enabling the possibility of registering private property and revenue liabilities of Indian peasants and landlords.

The registration of property

The Permanent Settlement of land revenue in Bengal in 1793 marks the first crucial and significant break from earlier forms of Mughal revenue administration under-taken by the East India Company. The Permanent Settlement, inspired by ideologies and theories ranging from mercantilism to physiocracy and laissez-faire,broke with earlier practices of revenue collection and land rights by formally declaring private (p.304) property in land and fixing land revenue in perpetuity. It was hoped that the Permanent Settlement would foster rapid economic growth by transforming the Bengal zamindar, now invested with private property rights and shorn of all extra-economic powers, into a class akin to the English improving farmer. This class, it was believed, would also become staunch supporters of British rule, once the benefits of these changes became evident (R. Guha 1982, esp. ch. 1).

However, subsequent history clearly showed that the Bengal zamindar remained a rentier rather than being transformed into a capitalist farmer. The agrarian economy of Bengal declined, without either the state or the actual cultivator benefiting in any way. This state of affairs prompted the government to jettison the Permanent Settlement for a variety of temporary settlements in the rest of the country. What is significant is that as the colonial state began to extend its reach from the top of the Indian class hierarchy into the villages, it attempted to directly extract land revenue from the cultivator (the Ryotwari settlement) or the dominant village coparcenaries (the village or Mahalwari settlements) (Baden-Powell 1892).

This shift was accompanied by the development of Utilitarianism into the dominant ideology of the new colonial state by the third decade of the nineteenth century. Based on the Ricardian theory of rent, the state attempted to scientifically estimate the land revenue with the actual cultivator. This entailed a massive survey of agricultural landholdings, estimating the output and fertility of soils, and registering the revenue-paying cultivators of the country, most importantly in cultivator-based or Ryotwari tenurial systems. The Ryotwari settlement was most prevalent in the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay and in Assam.

The British, after abandoning the initial Permanent Settlement model of land revenue, began paying attention to cadastral detail first in the Salem district of Madras Presidency in 1793–1798. In 1904, cadastral surveys were transferred to the provinces, resulting in two broad methods of survey which were based on (i) the village map system, and (ii) the field measurement book (FMB). The former was prevalent in northern India where the Mahalwari and zamindari systems were important, whereas the southern Madras province and Bombay adopted the FMB system (Kumar 2005, 242).

Under this system a cadastral survey was carried out and this was to be updated through revising re-surveys. After the cadastral survey a title register detailing the name of the holder or holders, the field’s identification number and the tax liabilities was produced. The survey department maintained cadastral records in the form of field measurement books or FMBs and village maps along with lists of revenue particulars of each survey field and village sub-division. The revenue department maintained the register of rights, which was known by different regional terms, where ownership and possession were recorded. The registration department kept a record of land transactions through sale, purchase and gifting in the form of notarized deeds.

In the village-based settlements of the North-Western Provinces and the Punjab, village bodies were responsible for the payment of revenue. When the village was (p.305) largely under the control of one big landlord the settlement resembled the zamindari settlement, whereas when there were many smaller farmers, the revenue collection arrangements were closer to the Ryotwari pattern. In permanently settled zamindari tracts, where the government revenue was fixed in perpetuity, not much attention was paid to land records. Even in temporarily settled areas, very often the title deed was executed with the larger landed magnates and not the actual cultivator. The coverage of land registration focused on agricultural lands to the exclusion of marginal lands and forests. While the latter did support people, for generations the users of these lands were denied any legal ownership title.

The details of the village map and the FMB along with the register of rights and the registration of land deeds would suggest that there was indeed a highly developed system of registration where the individual and his private property in land were being recorded on a substantial scale.1 Revenue records mentioning individual names and tax obligations also existed in Mughal India. Despite the existence of these records it would be erroneous to mistake them for individual identity registers. The centralized Mughal state in medieval India as well as the colonial government under the British were primarily interested in such record-keeping for purposes of revenue collection and revenue maximization. Large sections of the population that did not have direct relationship to revenue-paying agricultural production were not covered by these tax registers and cadastral maps. Smith (2004, 169) comments that ‘the culture of mapping did not extend to a heuristic use of field maps, for instance the use of the pattern of holdings as evidence of right’.

Further, as David Washbrook pointed out of the Anglo-Indian legal system, because it was located against the

background of a state-dominated economy and an agrarian society in which the possession of land was a function of the political system, the Anglo-Indian law begins to take on a different set of meanings. Its main purpose, so far from protecting the private rights of subjects, may be better seen as providing a range of secondary services for the Company, both as ‘state’ and as ‘shield’ for European business interests, which helped to translate political power into money.

(Washbrook 1981, 668)

The contradiction between public law designed to further individual freedoms and unfettered private property, on the one hand, and the social constraints of personal law, on the other, continued throughout British rule. Thus, the revenue and land records of both the Mughals and the British colonial state were essentially registers of the claims of the state over the social surplus, and only much later were some of these records used as evidence of private property.

(p.306) The registration of revenue obligations and tenurial terms of a section of the population did not provide an alternative register of individual identity. This is evidenced by the fact that neither the colonial state nor the independent government of India turned to the revenue registers to ascertain population and individual identities.

Counting and classifying Indians: census and vital registration

Early population enumerations commenced as the East India Company began to expand and administer their newly conquered lands in India. Though these enumerations were limited to towns and specific localities, the important fact is that population as a whole was first estimated and then counted. No longer was enumeration restricted to land controllers, military chiefs and economically important occupations. In the early nineteenth century, Francis Buchanan made rudimentary but important surveys in southern India and Gangetic eastern India (Hamilton 1925). In 1824 Lieutenants Ward and Conner were entrusted with the survey of the recently acquired territory of Malabar. In Malabar a subsequent series of quinquennial censuses was preceded by population enumerations in 1821 and 1827 (Ward 1828a, 1828b). The first relatively comprehensive set of population estimates was presented to the House of Commons in 1857. This was entitled ‘A Return on the Area and Population of Each Division of Each Presidency of India, from the Latest Inquiries’. The population counted here amounted to about 43–44 per cent of the population estimated between 1881 and 1901. This data is supposed to have been collected with the help of revenue officials in the early 1850s but the methods of collection remain unknown (Visaria and Visaria 1983, 467).

Probably the first census in India to classify the enumerated population by sex, age, caste and dwelling units was Henry Walter’s 1830 census of Dacca city (Srivastava 1983). This however did not record individual identity and was not an identity register. Though a number of provincial and local enumerations were carried out in different parts of the country in the second half of the century before 1871, the census of the North-Western Provinces taken on the night of 31 December 1852, with a reference date of 1 January 1853, was the first census conducted on modern lines (Natarajan 1971, 1). In 1849 the government of India directed provincial governments to conduct quinquennial population enumerations on the lines of those that were to be carried out in the North-Western Provinces by revenue officials. The Board of Revenue in a circular to all Collectors asked them to follow the North-Western Provinces’ pattern, with due attention to local specificities, while conducting the proposed quinquennial censuses (Board of Revenue 1850). As Madras was the only Presidency to implement this directive in full, regular five-yearly censuses were peculiar to the Madras Presidency.

Before the beginning of the quinquennial censuses, apart from population enumerations of smaller areas, two province-wide censuses were conducted in (p.307) 1821–1822 and 1836–1838. All these censuses were plagued by marked under-registration of females and severe undercounting. The first Madras census held in 1822 counted the population at just under 13.5 million (13,476,923).

Madras, in contrast to other Presidencies, had an early-established history of population enumeration. Here the Board of Revenue required each district head to make quinquennial returns of the population of his district. The methods employed in the enumerations of 1821–1822 and 1836–1837 are not known (Census Report 1872). In 1849, the government of India decided to conduct five-yearly population counts employing revenue officials. This resulted in quinquennial censuses in Madras between 1851–1852 and 1866–1867. The fifth quinquennial census, of 1871–1872, was merged with the first imperial census. Village magistrates and accountants who had conducted the earlier censuses were deputed as enumerators for the first all-India census.

Population enumeration which had started sporadically and in geographically limited areas, spurred by immediate revenue needs and a desire to cartographically define acquired territories, had thus developed by the last two decades of the nineteenth century into a definite and regular enumerative institution. The decennial all-India census, especially from 1881, was fairly reliable in terms of total population coverage and did include reasonably comparable serial data on occupations, marital status, caste, language, migration and diseases, in addition to the standard demographic data on age, sex and population. However birth and death data were not collected by the decennial census, and, importantly, individual details cannot be found in the decennial censuses.

Births and deaths

Unlike the population enumeration, the first instance of recording births and deaths comes from Delhi, in 1833 – Selected Statistics relating to the population of Delhi, outside the Royal Palace, 1833. This gives an age–sex distribution of the population and vital rates for males and females. The frequent epidemics, scarcities and famines and the consequent high death rate provided the context for the recording of first deaths and then births. Concerned with the high mortality of its European troops, the army played an important role in developing and commenting on the methods of recording births and deaths.

The history of vital registration can be dated in India from the middle of the nineteenth century. Village-level revenue officials – and in some provinces the police – were entrusted with the work of recording deaths and later births. Sanitary Commissioners of the different provinces of India collated their monthly returns into annual reports which were then sent to the Sanitary Commissioner for the government of India at the centre. However, the varied forms in which the statistics were collected and the severe under-enumeration of deaths led the government of India to order a more standardized collection of mortality figures that would (p.308) immediately show the relative mortality of different geographical and regional units.2

The system of civil death registration that was in practice was criticized by the army Sanitary Commissioner who advocated that the British practice of registration should be introduced in India (Gopinath 2010). This was resisted on the grounds that Indians were still not ready for such registration and that this would have to wait for the enactment of legislation requiring compulsory registration of deaths. While the government of India was still concerned only with the counting of deaths, the province of Berar pioneered the registration of births in 1866.

The Bengal Births and Deaths Registration Act was passed in 1873 and this was subsequently adopted by the contiguous states of Orissa and Bihar. Military cantonments made the registration of deaths and births within twenty-four hours of occurrence mandatory. By 1875 the provincial governments of Bengal, North-Western Provinces and Punjab had selected areas for strictly supervised registration of deaths. In Bombay and Madras death and birth registration was carried out in the municipal towns. Concerned with the problem of severe under-registration, the government, while still not making birth and death registration compulsory, asked provincial governments to take steps to make registration more efficient. In 1878 the government directed local authorities to conduct spot checks in areas of unusually high or low birth and death rates. Consequently, in the 1880s and 1890s, Punjab, the Central Provinces, Bengal and Madras took legislative and executive measures to strengthen birth and death registration (Natarajan 1971, 6).

The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed India being ravaged by unprecedented famine deaths. The colossal toll of human life claimed by these not entirely natural calamities forced the government to set up the Indian Famine Commission. The Indian Famine Commission of 1878–1880 published draft codes for administrative action to prevent and mitigate famines. These draft codes which were circulated to the provinces as model codes did not find general acceptance, prompting the Revenue and Agricultural Department of the government of India to issue a ‘provisional’ code. The final Famine Codes were a combination of the ‘draft’ and ‘provisional’ codes (Natarajan 1971, 5–6).

The registration of vital statistics was emphasized by the Famine Commission as an early warning system for impending famines. The Commission recommended:

  • That the registration of births and deaths should be made legally obligatory in villages as well as towns;

  • That regular monthly publication of the main vital statistics should be enforced; (p.309)

  • That in each unit of registration, the Registrar should be able to read and write, so that this recollection might be supported by a record made at the time the event occurred;

  • That the officer-in-charge of the registration of each group of villages should be supplied with the census population of each village, and also with the numbers showing what in the opinion of the Sanitary Commissioner would be the average numbers of births and deaths in such population, and that any excess or deficiency should be made the subject of a special report;

  • That the Health Officer of the district should at once bring to the notice of the Collector and the Sanitary Commissioner any serious indication presented by these reports, and that in all the cases the Collector of the district should see the monthly vital statistics as soon as they are compiled; and

  • That it should be the special duty of the Sanitary Commissioner to warn the Government of any unusual rise in the death-rate, in order that the cause of such rise might be enquired into.

(Natarajan 1971, 5–6)

Despite the importance attached to vital statistics recording, the government was of the opinion that the time had not yet come to make the registration of births and deaths obligatory. Vital registration was most efficient in the Central Provinces and the Punjab, where there were instances of penal action against defaulters in municipal towns. In Bengal the task of registration was transferred from the police to municipal agencies, resulting in deterioration in recording. Finally, on 1 October 1888 the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act came into force for the whole of British India, providing for voluntary registration of births, deaths and marriages. However, this had little impact on the level of registration as most Indians neither felt the need for such registration nor understood the practice. In the last decade of the nineteenth century provincial governments made renewed attempts to improve registration. Punjab appointed special officers; Bengal reverted to the practice of using the police to collect statistics; and the Civil Surgeon was entrusted with the task of compiling vital statistics in the Central Provinces. By 1897, registration, at least putatively, covered the bulk of the population of British India (see Table 11.1).

The figures in Table 11.1 should not be mistaken for the actual level of registration, conveying only the population where registration was possible. By 1903, nominally, 79.9 per cent of the population of British India was officially covered by vital registration. In 1911, on comparing the increase in population between 1901 and 1911 as returned by the census with the excess of registered births over deaths, it was found that excess births accounted for only 78 per cent of the population increase. Even this figure suggests an exaggerated level of birth registration when set out against estimates of under-registration at the provincial and district levels, which ranged from 20 per cent to 60 per cent for completeness of death registration in the districts of Madras from 1881 to 1911 (estimated from Natarajan 1971, 7). (p.310)

Table 11.1. Percentage of population covered by registration (1897)


Registration coverage (%)





North-Western Provinces and Oudh




Central Provinces










Source: Natarajan 1971, 7.

Recording health in early twentieth-century India

After late nineteenth-century colonial anxieties focused on Indian famine and disease, in the early twentieth century, Indian economists began to address population – specifically in terms of birth and death rates – within a broader rubric of trying to understand Indian poverty and its role as an obstacle to national modernity. During the 1920s and 1930s especially, the nature of the relationship between poverty and population underwent intense scrutiny and contest.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century a general shift took place in the administration of public health and vital registration. Health and vital statistics were transferred to the provincial level of government under the Montague-Chelmsford Constitutional Reforms of 1919; and in 1920–1921 Municipality and Local Board Acts were passed to facilitate the extension of public health according to the requirements of the different provinces (Mushtaq 2009). It was recognized that the existing collecting agencies could not possibly be expected to file plausible returns of the cause of death. In an attempt to provide better cause-of-death statistics, the governments of Bengal, United Provinces and Madras instituted enquiries and decided to introduce supplementary forms to disaggregate and register the previously generic term of ‘fevers’ in more specific disease categories. Similarly, a detailed classification of infant deaths by age was also introduced.

Voluntary registration was still the rule in India, however. In 1930 only Bengal insisted on compulsory rural and urban registration. In the other provinces only in the larger villages and municipal towns was registration mandatory. However, making registration compulsory did not automatically lead to better coverage and reporting. Ironically in the case of Madras Presidency non-compulsory areas reported more complete birth and death rates than areas where registration was compulsory. This was because the local revenue official stopped detailed investigation once registration was made legally compulsory and the people at large did not bother to register.

(p.311) Thus, a variety of official commissions both before and after independence continued to emphasize the crucial need for improved collection of vital statistics. These included the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1924), the Royal Commission on Labour (1928), the Central Advisory Board on Health (1939), the Health Survey and Development Committee (1946), the Vital Statistics Committee (1949) and the Committee on the Pattern of Statistical Units for Health Departments (1960). In view of the variations in the quality and coverage of vital registration, the Bhore Committee also recommended a number of steps to improve the gathering of statistics on vital events in India (Health Survey and Development Committee 1946).

The absence of attention to individual identity

The above discussion clearly suggests that the colonial state wanted to accumulate social information in increasingly standardized and numerical formats that would be amenable to easy comparison across the widely varied imperial possessions. A Government Order of the Madras government in 1871 commented:

His Excellency in Council observes that excessive costliness is not the only unfortunate effect of the want of organization which left each Local Government to invent a scheme of its own, irrespective of what is being done in other Provinces. There was, in fact, no unity of plan or central supervision, and the results did not contain the materials required for the comparative statistics of the Empire.

(Dirks 2001, 198)

It was in this context of unsatisfactory comparative statistics and information that W. W. Hunter, the author of the Annals of Rural Bengal, was tasked in 1869 with preparing a plan for an imperial gazetteer (Hunter 1970). In 1877 Hunter was designated the director of gazetteers, and the all-India census, which began in 1871–1872, formed the basic foundation of the gazetteers project. The gazetteers attempted to provide a compendium of social, economic, historical, geographical and climatic information on the province or district concerned. Information for the administrative unit’s social topography and demography, mortality and fertility was based on census data.

While the work of the editor or compiler of the gazetteer was relatively straightforward and simple, having only to compile information from other existing sources, the census commissioners had to imagine and operationalize categories for mapping the varied and complex social topography of the subcontinent. Caste and religion provided the two main markers of social difference. W. R. Cornish, the Superintendent of Census Operations for Madras in 1871, remarked, ‘A Census Report is scarcely the place for a dissertation on the religious persuasions of the people; but the questions will probably be asked, what are these distinctive sects?’ (Dirks 2001, 201).

While enumerating religious differences was relatively easy, enumerating and ordering castes was an exercise that was fraught with conceptual ambiguities and (p.312) practical difficulties. At the time of the first two all-India censuses of 1871–1872 and 1881 the ascriptive Hindu notion of varna, derived from the Brahmanical scriptures, was employed to classify castes. Waterfield, of the Statistics and Commerce Division of the India Office, was of the view that varna should be replaced by a listing of castes that were important in each region (Dirks 2001, 201). The Madras Census Commissioner, Lewis McIver, disagreed with the use of varna or any single organizing principle for the classification of castes and argued for the use of occupational criteria, especially for the sudra castes.

The exasperation of the census taker when faced with the task of enumerating and classifying the castes of India is clearly evident in the comment made by India’s first census commissioner, W. C. Plowden, in the introduction to the census of the North-Western Provinces:

The whole question of caste is so confused, and the difficulty of securing correct returns on this subject is so great, that I hope on another occasion no attempt will be made to obtain information as to the castes and tribes of the population.

Finally in 1891 the census gave up varna as the basis of caste classification, in favour of enumeration based on occupations (Dirks 2001, 211). However, despite such comments, caste not only continued to be enumerated by the colonial census takers up to 1931, but the number of castes proliferated and campaigns for inclusion and upward mobility in their classification became more vigorous.

By the early nineteenth century, phrenology, which first developed in France after its Viennese creator, Dr Franz Joseph Gall, moved there, rose in popularity in Britain and America (McLaren 1981). This nineteenth-century science, despite its many detractors, was soon embraced by the colonial bureaucracy, both as a classificatory tool and as a forensic procedure. Phrenology and anthropometric statistics collected by the colonial administration suggest the race-caste identification in the colonial constructions of caste and identity in India.

The following paragraph, based on Clare Anderson’s important study, clearly brings out how European colonial powers, even when pursuing a supposed line of scientific enquiry, used different yardsticks in identifying colonial and European crania. The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, one of the many Phrenological Societies of the period in Europe, meticulously examined, described and recorded new skulls, and then preserved them in the ‘National Skulls Cabinet’. Skulls were listed by their provenance and if possible by the character of the individual. In general terms, European crania were viewed as superior to all others.

European skulls were always seen as having belonged to an individual, who was named and described. The so-called ‘National Skulls’, in contrast, were usually represented collectively. We know very few of the micro-histories attributable to these individuals. In 1822 Ram Mohan Roy sent a selection of twelve ‘Hindoo crania’ to be examined by Dr George Paterson, a member of the Edinburgh Society, whose findings, published in the Society’s journal, pointed to the conspicuous (p.313) development of ‘acquisitiveness and secretiveness’ in the Hindu. Nothing was known of the skulls donated by Roy, for instance, except the ‘general qualities’ they revealed about ‘the Hindus’ (Anderson 2004, 18–84).

In 1866 the government of India authorized the collection of skulls for ‘scientific purposes’ (Anderson 2004, 186). While phrenology per se never became a major scientific project of the colonial Indian state, anthropometric investigations, such as the monumental collection of statistical data on Indians categorized by caste and region, received official sanction. The entire second volume of Risley’s The Tribes and Castes of Bengal is devoted to such statistics (Risley 1891). Subsequently a similar exercise was undertaken for the Todas of southwestern India in 1909 (Thurston and Rangachari 1975). Before Thurston we find Marshall conducting a phrenological survey of the Todas in the early 1870s (Marshall and Pope 1873).

Thus what repeatedly emerges from the enumerative strategies of the colonial state in India was that it counted only social aggregates, namely populations divided by religion, race and caste. These putative identities defined variously at different points in time were invested with certain traits which supposedly held good for each of its members. Racial and caste traits included courage, diligence, craftiness, slothfulness and frailty. Caste, race and religion, once established and enumerated, were believed to provide a good guide to individual characteristics. Was this flawed conceptualization born of colonial ignorance and the arrogance of the imperial ruler, or was it a shortcut forced upon the state by the complexities and vastness of its empire coupled with the parsimonious nature of the colonial governance?

Why the individual was never counted and registered in India, in stark contrast to other Asian cultures, such as China or Japan (see Chapters 1 and 4), would necessitate conjecture. Speculating historically, it may be argued that unlike Britain or China and Japan, India never had a religious or secular tradition of registering individuals. Historical evidence for such early forms of individual registration in India was limited to the military. Another possible reason for the absence of individual identity registration may have been the large size of political units. However, this argument is weak as even small kingdoms evidenced no such enumerative practices. A more plausible explanation may have been the ideological consensus that the units such as the village and kin groups constituted units of society, rather than the individual. In colonial India, too, while the village was taxed and revenue villages were created for purposes of taxation, individuals in the village were never registered. Cadastral maps were prepared, but while individual claims to cultivation were recognized, individuals were not enumerated. This was possibly connected to the frequent divorce between individual land rights and the actual cultivator (Bagchi 2009). While the Indian village was definitely not unchanging, socially equal and self-reliant, the village was largely a source of surplus and later of labour, while being relatively small and socially close-knit. Though inequalities and differences existed within the village, the inhabitants were known to each other (p.314) without the need for an identity register. In pre-colonial India, especially Mughal north India, the actual collection of state revenues from the village was the responsibility of the zamindar. The tax-paying cultivators of the village community usually belonged to the caste of the zamindar. The state largely impinged on this rural scene to collect taxes, recruit soldiers and more infrequently to provide tax holidays in times of acute distress. Inter-village and village–town trade existed in Mughal times and this grew substantially with the colonial commercialization of agriculture. However, given the assumed dominance of group identities on the one hand, and the absence of a welfarist state on the other, state intervention at the level of the village, where most Indians resided, was minimal. In such circumstances social and occupational aggregations worked fairly well as proxies for individual identity. Caste and kin groupings, which often overlapped substantially with occupational and class distinctions, worked satisfactorily (for a state whose interests were largely limited to the extraction of surplus) in regions where social change was slow to develop.

The developmental need to count

After independence, in response to the Bhore Committee’s recommendations, the government created the Office of the Registrar General of India in 1951. The work of collecting and compiling vital statistics was once again transferred from the Director of Health Services to the newly created Office of the Registrar General in 1960. In 1969, the Registration of Births and Deaths Act was enacted to standardize and coordinate the registration of vital events across the country. These statistics were then compiled and published annually as the Vital Statistics of India by the Registrar General.

It has been claimed that, ‘[t]he machinery engaged in registration received the rudest shock during World War II when it went completely out of gear and the work was neglected in favour of all-out war efforts. The registration system has been on the downgrade ever since’ (Registrar General 1971). The uncorrected crude birth and death rates registered a fall of 47 and 57 per cent respectively in the period from 1939 to 1945 in Madras. Thus, after levels of vital registration in India had improved in the 1920s and 1930s, the level and coverage of vital registration continued to deteriorate after independence. Though the population in non-compulsory areas constituted only 1.5 per cent of the total population, non-inclusion of data from defaulting registration units reduced the coverage to 70 per cent (Bhat et al. 1984). When compared to estimates of births and deaths derived from the dual-record Sample Registration System (see next section), the vital statistics showed under-registration of between 40 and 50 per cent (India, Registrar General 1964, 213–228); and such estimates of under-registration for the period 1941–1950 were lower than those for the 1960s and 1970s (Bhat et al.1984, 28). This worsening (p.315) of registration has been explained by the increased load placed on the fragile registration agency by the sharp and continued post-war growth of population. Provinces with rapid population growth were marked by sharp declines in registration coverage and levels (Ghosh 1956, 53–68). The territorial reorganization of states in the 1950s also led to some disruption in the registration of vital events, with the transfer of various districts and villages to newly created states. The Registrar General responded to this unfortunate state of the nation’s vital registration by inaugurating the dual-record Sample Registration System.

The Sample Registration System

The dual-record Sample Registration System (SRS) was started in 1964 as a pilot in a few states, and the system was in place nationally by 1969. It consisted of continuous enumeration of births and deaths by an enumerator, and an independent survey every six months by an outside supervisor in a stratified sample of locations designed to be representative of each Indian state. The local enumerator was usually a school teacher who made a listing of houses in the sample area and kept a record of residents present, residents who had left and visitors. He was helped by the village midwife and the village revenue officer in keeping track of the movement of people, pregnancies and deaths. Every January and July an outside supervisor came and counted these vital events. Non-matching or partially matching events were investigated by another official or by both the enumerator and supervisor. However, despite being far superior, in terms of statistical accuracy, to the unknown uncertainties of the fragmented Civil Registration Data, the SRS gives figures only for entire states. Due to the sampling-frame design, reliable data cannot be published separately for sub-state units such as divisions, districts and villages, since the collected data are based on a simple stratified random sample rather than exhaustive collection for all individuals.

In spite of its shortcomings the Civil Registration Data continues to be produced at the state level, with its quality varying widely between states, as can be demonstrated by comparison of its results with the more accurate SRS estimates (see Table 11.2).

What Table 11.2 suggests is that richer states and/or those with better development indices have shown a much better record of implementation of a complete civil registration system in recent times. Without good-quality civil registration data, development planning and the delivery of welfare services at the micro-level become difficult. The absence of development in turn impedes civil registration by a lack of public demand to be counted and allowing the local-level bureaucracy to remain complacent and negligent. (p.316)

Table 11.2. Level of birth registration as a percentage of SRS, 1985–1995







Andhra Pradesh


















Madhya Pradesh















Tamil Nadu



Uttar Pradesh



West Bengal



Note: The level of registration exceeds 100 per cent in Kerala in 1995 because people from the neighbouring states/Union Territories came to Kerala to avail themselves of its better medical facilities and due to the de facto method of registration of all births registered in these states/Union Territories. In the more accurate SRS, such births are accounted at the place of usual residence of the mother.

State disengagement, the imperative to enumerate, and the popular need to be counted

It was in 1951, within just six years of India gaining freedom and experiencing communal violence on an unprecedented scale, that India had its first democratic general election based on universal franchise. This required the generation of a nationwide record of adult Indians who would constitute the electorate. Within two years of independence an Election Commission was established and the Representation of People Act was passed by parliament. Sukumar Sen, the first Election Commissioner of independent India, accomplished the mammoth task of registering the names of 176 million adult voters, of whom about 85 per cent were illiterate (R. Guha 2008, 133). These electoral rolls constitute India’s first identity register.

Whereas civil registration had been dismissed in the early twentieth century as the ‘idle curiosity of an eccentric Sircar’ by the village enumerator, in today’s India state-certified identity is at a premium – whether in the form of a ration card or a voter’s photo identity card (Guilmoto 1988). While this is the case at the level of the individual, the so-called ‘backward classes’ are clamouring to be counted and are demanding in many places a socially lower, constitutional reserved classification because that entitles them to increasingly scarce state welfare services and opportunities. (p.317) With a resurgence of identity politics based on religion, language, region, caste and access to state resources, there is also a countervailing increasing anxiety, especially amongst some of the urban poor (often migrants), to have their citizenship certified. This has led to a great demand on all sides, and for various reasons, for identity certificates, including among the urban poor, many of whom are migrants from the poorest states of India (Rupambara 2007; Agarwal and Taneja 2005).

The Indian state today, in pursuing a path of neo-liberal growth, seeks to disengage itself from the commitments of the earlier dirigiste Nehruvian model. The state or public sector is being rapidly dismantled to allow the entry of private corporations into basic areas such as health, education, public utilities, etc. The public distribution system, which had previously provided basic food items such as grain, oil and sugar at lower than market prices to the population at large, is now available only for targeted distribution. In the latest Economic Survey, the government hopes to bring about inclusive growth by supporting the very poor by food coupons rather than through subsidies (India. Office of the Economic Adviser, 2011–2012). In this context it hopes that the Unique ID (UID) programme will help reduce leakages and facilitate efficient transfers to the very poor. However, how the UID, which does not ask questions about economic or social status, will help in identifying the rightful recipient of state aid, remains unclear. Thus, the Unique Identity Authority of India, set up by the Planning Commission and headed by Nandan Nilekani, an important software entrepreneur, is the latest in the historic series of enumerative experiments reviewed here that have been carried out in India. It seems paradoxical that when the state is looking to the working of the free market to bring about inclusive growth, advances in technology are being harnessed to create a biometric database of all the residents of the country, with the stated objective of bringing about better governance and lowering inequities. The state continues to count but the question remains as to who is being counted and registered and to what end?


This essay is essentially the history of an absence – the absence of individual identity registration in pre-colonial and colonial India. The pre-colonial state counted its actual and potential taxable resources and its dispersed military assets and possible threats. The population as a whole was not counted, and caste, when recorded, was always within the above logic. While individual responsibility was recognized in theory, and as best practice as far as tax obligations were concerned, in practice, the village as a whole and the zamindars became the minimal primary social units recognized by the state for its various interventions.

The early colonial state, concerned primarily with maximizing revenue, continued with enumerating assets, both actual and potential, but significantly added population to the list of such valued objects of account. Gradually and haltingly, (p.318) the localized enumerations of people were systematized, resulting by the late nineteenth century in the colonial all-India census. The census played an important role in the development of the caste system in India, as it experimented with caste classifications based on ascriptive Brahmanical Hindu scriptures and occupational criteria. With the census attempting a social ranking of caste and its enumeration, caste proliferation soon reached unprecedented levels. The census and its methods of counting in many ways popularized the statistical technology of counting, stimulating subsequent identity registration by caste associations in colonial and, one may add, independent India.

As opposed to the fairly complete and regular all-India decennial census, the registration of deaths and then births was much more incomplete and variable in quality across the different provinces of India. The counting of deaths and births received a new impetus when the colonial state, faced with the huge toll of famine deaths, felt the acute necessity of recording the annual and monthly movements in deaths. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, welfarist and developmental concerns, as well as various Royal Commissions to enquire into industrial labour and agriculture, echoed the Famine Commission’s earlier call for a better and more detailed registration of vital events. Public health measures remained extremely limited for the Indian population, however, and so continuous registration made little sense to both the enumerator and the enumerated when they found that this had little impact on their daily lives.

The colonial state, and, one may add, the medieval Mughal Indian state, were primarily interested in the extraction of surplus. While elaborate procedures of land revenue collection were prescribed by each, there was ambivalence in practice concerning individual agency. While individual responsibilities were repeatedly highlighted and appropriate procedures were developed, in actual practice we find that collective aggregates such as putative village communities and communities of cultivators often became the operational units of revenue realization. Neither state nor temples (which like the church in medieval Europe were important land controllers) counted and registered their individual subjects.

This raises the question of why the individual was not counted and registered in either medieval or colonial India. The tentative answer may lie in the favourable land-to-labour ratio in medieval India, coupled with the huge geographical size of the centralized empire and its large population. The favourable land-to-labour ratio appears to have ensured the relative insignificance of private property rights in land and made usufructuary rights more relevant. Putative communities of caste and village worked as convenient and economical proxies for political control and revenue collection.

The colonial state, despite having more advanced technologies of governance, never attempted individual identity registration, except partially for cadastral purposes, relying on group categories, based on beliefs about caste, race and religion as sufficient identifying attributes.

(p.319) After independence the Indian state greatly increased expenditure on public welfare but only in a few states did state welfare services reach the intended population. Civil registration, which had seen some improvement in the 1930s, had become abysmal during the 1940s and 1950s, forcing the Registrar General to come up with the alternative of the Sample Registration System, which was not a real substitute for continuous individual registration. However, states with a better record of attention to human development were marked by superior civil registration data.

It was only after freeing itself from colonial rule and with its belief in democracy based on universal suffrage that the independent Indian state undertook the unprecedented mammoth task of registering its adult population in electoral rolls immediately after attaining independence. However, this did not translate into a sustained effort to maintain a vital registration system across India.

From the 1990s the state began to abdicate its social responsibilities to market forces. This is also the period when identity politics and more recently the threats of terrorism and armed insurgency have gained ground. The state has been forced to count caste groups once again after this was consciously stopped in 1931. Similarly the latest technology is being harnessed to provide identity registration for those Indians who can establish their identity and want to be so registered. Whether this exercise will include the entire population of India or be limited to the so-called ‘middle class’ remains to be seen. This high-tech UID project will possibly ensure greater security surveillance and an amelioration of the problem of leakages in targeted governmental support schemes, but it cannot provide a socially and politically neutral technological fix for unequal India’s poverty and associated contradictions.


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(1) There are references to cadastral surveys in Indian history going back to ancient history. The southern Indian Chola king, Raja Raja, is supposed to have carried out such an exercise about 1,000 years ago. In the medieval period, Sher Shah Suri classified land by fertility and the crop grown to devise land tax schedules. This was further refined in the reign of Akbar, by Todar Mal. Detailed methods were worked out to estimate the crop output and to commute the state’s share into money rates (Habib 1999).

(2) ‘For sanitary purposes it is indispensible to know the relative mortality in small and, as far as possible, well defined tracts, to ascertain the death-rates in each of these communities; to see how far this arises from preventable causes, and to apply the remedies. It is only in this way that we can hope to acquire accurate knowledge of the circumstances under which the disease arises and to make vital statistics the stepping-stone to sanitary reforms’ (Natarajan 1971).