Know Thy India : 4635 communities

Author : Sunny Narang

Source : From LinkedIn Archives

Date first published : October 5th , 2015


This is a 1993 report that every Indian should read . It makes the majority of Indian activists , fundamentalists , media , politicians and opinion-makers look illiterate .

Look at the data , stupid. Our most brilliant people , the “process people” I call them , we do not read or understand their work. Sensitive bureaucrats , hard-working public-sector , private-sector and cooperative professionals , those who get their hands dirty and keep their minds open .

Between Indian Hindus and Muslims 97% of the traits among the 776 listed traits matched . 88% communities are meat eaters . 90% communities smoke and more than 50% Sikh communities smoke too . 78% Indian communities consume alcohol and more than 50% Muslim communities drink too. In 83% communities women contribute to the family income .

And on and on .

Can we guys just get real.

This was the largest anthropological study ever done in India .From 2nd October 1985 to 31 March 1992 . They were able to identify, locate and study 4635 communities in all the states and union territories of India, out of the 6748 listed initially. As many as 600 scholars participated in this project, including 19;’ from 26 institutions. About 100 workshops and rounds of discussions were held in all the states and union territories, and in these about 3000 scholars participated.

“And now, Singh is agonising. How does he inform Sikhs that smoking survives in a majority of their communities? Or tell Muslims that they shelter drinkers, and Hindus that many of them eat beef?

In Gujarat, the strongest opposition to the use of wells by scavengers comes from other Scheduled Castes.

The report is categorical. Women contribute to the family income in 83 per cent of all Indian communities. And yet, men have higher status, a monopoly over village councils and decision-making in every corner of the country with the sole exception of Meghalaya.

When Singh decided to study a nation as fractured by religion as India, he listed 776 traits to see how they compared across the religious divide. Then he jumped out of his chair. “Between Hindus and Muslims, the traits matched to the extent of 97 per cent.” That is how different they were.

Finally, Singh was forced to add another section to his growing paper work. Six hundred communities, nearly 13 per cent of the total, believed in dual religion. In other words, they were still one community, though some of them had converted to another faith.

Across the board, ASI found Muslim women wearing bangles and vermilion. Over a third of the Hindu communities believed in burying their dead.
The researchers found Muslim artisans carving the image of Durga in Bengal. And they reported that 252 Hindu communities and 246 Muslim communities believed in the cult of Pirs, who held out the same message and hope to followers of different faiths.

How does he break the news that whole populations of Rajputs, known to the world as upholders of sati, actually believe in widow remarriage? In an atmosphere surcharged with religious snobbery and casteist chauvinism, every scholarly observation is viewed as an attack on somebody and the retorts are bound to be swift and predictable.

“After all these years I now wonder whether the effort was worth the while,” says Singh.

The problems are only natural considering that there has never been a study more exhaustive in scale or conception. Five hundred sociologists handpicked for their knowledge of local communities were sent to the field with an army of 3,000 researchers.

After eight years, they had definite answers about the existence, or otherwise, of 776 traits among each of the 4,635 communities in the country. This is the first time that India knows the number of castes and communities it has.

Nearly 88 per cent of India’s communities count themselves among the meat-eaters, though they are not particular about the type. In areas around the Vindhyas, many communities devour field rats. In Karnataka, along the Cauvery, they feast on baby crocodiles, civets and jackals.
And in Bengal, there are many who eat fish but insist they are vegetarian. For, Indians are snobbish about their eating habits. Food is a status symbol here.

Regarding drinking, the Government’s prohibition drive has obviously flopped. The study shows that nearly 3,600 communities (78 per cent) freely hit the bottle. This includes more than half the Muslim communities, 15 per cent of which drink regularly while 39 per cent insist that they do so on birthdays and funerals only.

Ninety per cent of Indian communities (nearly 4,000) smoke. The hookah remains a symbol of status and social acceptance in the villages, though nicotine is now flowing more freely through bidis.

Singh’s team has also found that smoking survives in 73 (56 per cent) Sikh communities.

The finding was so startling that it was re-checked more than once and then consciously underplayed in the monographs.

Dr Kumar Suresh Singh has just finished his report. The mammoth document runs into 46,000 pages, give or take a thousand. It covers every rite, every custom, every habit of every single community in the country. And his problems have just begun.

For, Singh, who treads the middle ground between scholarship and administration, has unknowingly assembled a bomb.

To be fair to the cautious bureaucrat in him, that was not Singh’s intention. All he had wanted was “to record the life of our people as truthfully, as honestly, as we can”. The Life of the People of India, as Singh called his project, turned out to be very different from anything anyone had ever imagined.

A good bureaucrat would have couched the truth in palatable homilies. But sheer, startling numbers and statistics are facts that cannot be easily concealed.”…/survey-discove…/1/302013.html

There exists a huge information gap on a very large number of communities in India, and the information that exists on them is scanty or needs to be updated. The Anthropological Survey of India (A.S.I.) launched a project on the People of India on 2 October 1985. The objective of the project was to generate a brief, descriptive anthropological profile of all the communities of India, the impact on them of change and development processes and the links that bring them together. This was in accordance with the objectives of the A.S.I., established forty-five years ago in December 1945. The A.S.I. has been pursuing bio-cultural research among different population groups from its eight regional centres. Its objectives have been redefined in the policy resolution adopted in 1985, which commits this organization to the survey of the human surface of India.

The identification of the communities and their listing have a long genealogy starting from the early period of our history, with Manu. Regional lists of communities figured in Sanskrit works. Medieval chronicles contained a description of communities located in various parts of the country. Listings in the colonial period were undertaken on an extensive scale after 1806. The process gathered momentum in course of the censuses from 1881 to 1941. In our compilation of the lists of communities of India under the People of India project we drew upon ethnographic surveys, the lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes drawn up by the Government of India, the lists of backward classes prepared by Backward Classes Commissions set up by various state governments, and the list that exists in the Mandal Commission Report. We were able to put together about 6748 communities at the start. This list was taken to the field, tested and checked, and finally 4635 communities were identified and studied.

Unlike surveys in the colonial period, which covered British India and a few princely states, our project covers the whole country, bringing within its ambit such parts as had not been ethnographically surveyed earlier or where the survey had been done in a perfunctory way. Each state and union territory was treated as a unit of study. It was decided to start with an investigation of the least-known communities, and then move on to a field- study of the lesser-known and better-known ones. Investigators for the survey were identified for each area on the basis of their experience and expertise. Teams of investigators of the Survey, as well as local scholars, were set up for each state and union territory to plan the surveys, seek the co-operation of local scholars, generate and evaluate findings, etc. etc. Later, editorial boards consisting of local scholars-one or more of these were nominated as co-editors for each local volume-were set up for each state and union territory. We sought the co-operation of the state governments in implementing the project, and this we received in ample measure, particularly from the welfare and backward classes departments of state governments, local officers of the Census of India, tribal research ‘institutes, university departments of anthropology, other departments of local universities, etc. Local scholars participated enthusiastically in our project as well as in the discussion at seminars held by us.

Kumar Suresh Singh (1935–2006) was an Indian Administrative Service officer, who served as a Commissioner of Chotanagpur (1978–80) and Director-General of theAnthropological Survey of India. He is known principally for his oversight and editorship of the People of India survey and for his studies of tribal history.

In 1984 he was appointed Director-General of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) and also Director of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (National Museum of Mankind) in Bhopal.

Although Singh retired from the ASI in 1993, he remained General Editor of the People of India series until his death on 20 May 2006. He completed the final volume just before dying, having previously suffering partial paralysis from a stroke. He was a National Fellowof the Indian Council of Historical Research at the time of his death. Muchkund Dubeysubsequently commented that

Kumar Suresh was a kind of a rare person among Indian civil servants. He was of a scholarly bent of mind right from his university days. He had a deep knowledge of a number of disciplines. His monumental contribution People of India will remain as a kind of tribute to his multifaceted talents. His empathy for and commitment to the weaker sections of society will always be remembered. He was among one of the three intellectual fathers in the creation of Jharkhand.
Aside from his writing, as author and as editor, in volumes related to the People of Indiasurvey, Singh also wrote and edited other works, a selection of which are: