Census of India prior to independence

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The Census of India prior to independence was conducted periodically from 1865 onward to 1947. The censuses were primarily concerned with administration and faced numerous problems in their design and conduct ranging from absence of house numbering in hamlets to cultural objections on various grounds to dangers posed by wild animals to census personnel. The censuses were designed more for social engineering and to further the British for governance rather than to uncover the underlying structure of the population. The sociologist Michael Mann says that the census exercise was "more telling of the administrative needs of the British than of the social reality for the people of British India." The difference of the nature of Indian society during the British Raj from the value system and the societies of the West were highlighted by the inclusion of "caste", "religion", "profession" and "age" in the data to be collected, as the collection and analysis of this information had a considerable impact on the structure and political overtones of Indian society.


  • “It is curious how markedly for evil is the influence which conversion to even the most impure form of Mahomedanism has upon the character of the Panjab villager; how invariably it fills him with false pride and conceit (…) and renders him less well-to-do than his Hindu neighbour (…) When we move through a tract inhibited by Hindus and Musalmans belonging to the same tribe, descended from the same ancestor, and living under the same conditions, we can tell the religion of its owner by the greater idleness, poverty, and pretension, which marked the Musalman, it is difficult to suggest any explanation of the fact.”
    • Census Report 1881, Province of Punjab vol. I (p.103-4), quoted from A History of Sikhs by Hari Ram Gupta, and by Sarvesh Tiwari

1901 Census of India

  • The dividing line between Hinduism and Animism is uncertain
    • EA Gait, 1901 Census report on the Lower provinces of Bengal and their feudatories in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • [Hinduism was itself] “Animism more or less transformed by philosophy”, “no sharp line of demarcation can be drawn between Hinduism and Animism”.
    • Sir Herbert Hisley, Commissioner of the Census 1901 Quoted in [1]
  • [Besides, wherever Muhammadan rule existed slavery was developed,] “and during the centuries of misrule and oppression, through which Bengal passed, slavery was accepted by the Hindus as a refuge for their troubles. Delhi court obtained not only its slaves [in thousands, as for example under Firoz Tughlaq] but also eunuchs from the villages of Eastern Bengal [a wide-spread practice which the Mughal Emperor Jahangir tried to stop). The incursions of Assa¬ mese Maghs, the famines, pestilences and civil wars...drove them in sheer desperation to sell their children as Musalman slaves”. ... [The Census of India Report of 1901 says that ] “the tyrannical Murshid Kuli Khan enforced a law that any Amal, or Zamindar, failing to pay the revenue that was due...should, with his wife and children, be compelled to become Muhammadans"... “The present Raja of Parsount in Darbhangn is descended from Raja Pud Singh, who rebelled against the Emperor and became a Muhammadan by way of expiation. The family of Asad Khan of Baranthan in Chittagong, has descended from Sjam Rai Chowdliari who was fain to become a Musalman....The Diwan families of Pereana Sarail in Tippers, and of Haibatnacar and Jangaibari in Mymcnsingh, the Rinnans of Majhauti in Darbhangha [all sprang from old Hindu houses.]
    • Census of India Report, 1901, quoted in K.S. Lal , Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India (1973) 175 ff.

1911 Census of India

  • [Converts from among the four tribes - Oraons, Mundas, Kharias and Santhals-] account for nearly nine-tenths of the Indian Christians.
    • 1911 Census report on Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Sikkim. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • There is little to distinguish the religious attitude of the Gond or the Bhil from that of a member of one of the lower Hindu castes. Both are essentially animistic…. It is obvious, therefore, that the term Animist does not represent the communal distinction which is the essence of the census aspect of religion. ... the “Vedic religion” [is also equally] “essentially animist”.
    • J T Marten, Commissioner of the Census 1911, Quoted in [2]
  • Swami Shraddhananda quotes from the 1911 Census Report (para 172 ff.) to show the reasons why the Muslim populat­ion is growing faster than the Hindu population, whose per­cent­age of the total population is steadily declinin­g. The Census Direc­tor had writ­ten: "The number of Muham­mada­ns has risen during the decade [1901-11] by 6.7 per cent as compared with only 5 p.c. in the case of Hindus. There is a small but continuous accession of converts from Hinduism and other religions, but the main reason for the relatively more rapid growth of the followers of the Prop­het is that they are more prolific."
    • Swami Shraddhananda quoted from Elst K. The Demographic Siege (1997)

1921 Census of India

  • In the case of all other religions there is one main underlying difficulty, namely the difficulty of saying where Hinduism begins or ends, for all these religions represent either off-shoots from Hinduism or the great outlying mass of tribal religions from which by insensible degrees converts to Hinduism are continually being recruited.... Persons who are certainly Animists join in Hindu festivals, but persons who are equally certainly Hindus and even Muhammadans join in propitiating the local spirits through aboriginal priests....
    • PC Tallents, Census of India 1921. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • The classification 'Animist' has never been satisfactory and it would be much better if it were to disappear altogether. It is never possible to say where the Animist begins and the Hindu ends ...... It would be an advantage if this very indifferent classification ('Animists') was to vanish ... The return is too artificial to be useful....
    • CE Luard, Census of India 1921. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • [There is a] “difficulty of distinguishing a Hindu from an Animist”... “I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that Animism as a religion should be entirely abandoned, and that all those hitherto classed as Animists should be grouped with Hindus in the next census”.
    • P C Tallents, Commissioner of the Census 1921, Quoted in [3]

1931 Census of India

  • It is well known that the primitive tribes of the province furnish the most fruitful field for Christian missionaries... In 1931 these four communities [Oraons, Mundas, Kharias and Santhals] provided as much as 88 per cent of the total number of Indian Christians in Bihar and Orissa, and in 1921 the percentage was almost exactly the same.
    • 1931 Census report quoted in Paths of Mission in India Today. CBCI. quoted from Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • Fluctuations in the figures of earlier censuses show how much the proper classification of tribal religions has depended upon the whim of the enumerator.
    • WH Shoobert, Census of India 1931. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • The Hinduism of the Central Provinces is largely tinctured by nature and animal worship... there are usually a number of village gods, for the worship of whom a special priest belonging to the primitive tribes called Bhumka or Baiga is supported...
    • Central Provinces Gazetteer, in WH Shoobert, Census of India 1931. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • Again, the problem of determining how far the various religions of India are mutually exclusive and how far they overlap one another - above all, of deciding where Hinduism begins and where it ends - has always been well-nigh insoluble.... it is largely a matter of chance how the religion of these primitive and semi-primitive tribes is recorded in the census schedules, and little value can be attached to the statistics.
    • WG Lacey Census of India 1931. in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994
  • The final segregation of the aborigines in the Census of 1931 from the main body of the Hindus considered along with the recommendations of the Simon Commission which were incorporated in the Government of India Act, 1935 apparently set the stage for the demand of a separate State of Jharkhand on the lines of Pakistan.” ... “This attempt of the Adiwasis, initiated by the Christian section thereof is a feature which is common to the developments in Burma, Assam and Indo-China among the Karens, Nagas and Amboynes. This is attributed to the spirit of religious nationalism awakened among the converted Christians as among the followers of other religions. But the idea of change of religion as bringing about change of nationality appears to have originated in the Missionary circles… Thus while the Census officer isolates certain sections of the people from the main bodies, the Missionaries by converting them give them a separate nationality so that they may demand a separate State for themselves.”
    • About the 1931 Census report
    • Madhya Pradesh Report on Christian Missionary Activities (1956), quoted from Madhya Pradesh (India), Goel, S. R., Niyogi, M. B. (1998). Vindicated by time: The Niyogi Committee report on Christian missionary activities. ISBN 9789385485121
  • Every stratum of Indian society is more or less saturated with Animistic conceptions….
    • Commissioner of the Census, J A Baines, in the census report Quoted in [4]
  • The line is hard to draw between Hinduism and tribal religions.
    • J H Hutton, the Commissioner of the Census 1931, Quoted in [5]