When the State sets about to count its people

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on February 28, 2020

Hello there! The US is set to conduct the census this year   -  Reuters

Census explores the vexed relationship between the individual and the State but is often the only record of ordinary people in history

In 2020, some of the biggest countries in the world will set about an undertaking that is both mundane and extraordinary: The conducting of a census. At the beginning of every decade, Brazil, China, the US, and many other nation-states commit to gathering information on all the people within their borders. (India’s next census will take place in 2021, though that project now sits among other mass cataloguing efforts, including the National Population Register.) Censuses have never been easy or innocent exercises, and though there are many reasons why they are necessary — the correct allocation of state resources, for example, or the better understanding of demographic trends — a census invites us to consider the often vexed relationship between the individual and the State, between personhood and impersonal power.

I live in New York City, where 10 years ago thousands of temporary census workers went door-to-door trying to get information on every household. I marvelled then at my encounter with one of these workers and the census forms they lugged from apartment to apartment. That quick interview was at once personal and entirely abstract, the State manifested in a beleaguered, sweat-stained, clipboard-wielding factotum who saw me as merely another line of information to be fed into the database. I imagined this interaction played out in remote mountain hamlets and towns in deserts, in slums and gated communities, and in countries all over the world. States sent their census-takers scrambling through the sparse and dense corners of the country to attempt the impossible mission of knowing their people.

The census, you can reasonably argue, is the oldest form of writing. After all, writing systems emerged in Mesopotamia over 6,000 years ago for the purpose of accounting. The first recognisable census took place in West Asia around 3800 BC, and consisted of logging with ideograms and pictographs and little clay tokens the estimates of livestock, butter, milk, honey and other agricultural products. Through lists of these kinds, a state not only made sense of its domains, but also ruled through harvesting information and developing the ability to collect taxes and customs duties. The census has always underlined the primordial truism that knowledge is power.

As a result, those at odds with the State have often taken their frustrations out on both these records and the people who made them. In Europe, peasants would routinely storm the manors of the feudal elite and burn the documents that tracked their dues and debts. In the Ottoman empire, rebels, bandits and disgruntled villagers would often target the imperial clerks — or defterdars — who kept the State’s meticulous records, making bonfires of census documents and land registers. Nothing better exemplified the injustice and malice of the ruling elite than its ledgers.

And yet, from the perspective of the historian, these records are sometimes our only ways of seeing ordinary people in the past, of tracing the real contours of a society and not just the more definite figures of its rulers and nobles. One of the more poignant examples of census-making comes from about 1,000 years ago in medieval England. The Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 at the behest of William the Conqueror, the French noble who had invaded and seized England 20 years earlier. Ruling what was effectively a foreign country, he decided it was in the best interests of his fledgling state to get a better grasp of the lands now under his control. Clerks scoured England, counting households and parcels of farmland, assessing their value. The census itself sprung from the earth; the text was written in Latin across 900 sheepskins, with ink drawn from the fungal growths of oak trees.

I remember feeling a strange kind of awe reading extracts of the Domesday Book many years ago. Each itemisation of a community recorded its name, its size, the nature of its land, its slave and free households, the number of cattle-pulled ploughs, and its livestock and other natural resources. It is rare to find this kind of detail about place and people so many years ago. And yet what moved me was not the arcane chronicling of “carrucates” and “virgates” (measures of land) and “cottars” and “bordars” (kinds of bonded peasants, effectively slaves) or of pigs and fishing ponds, but the quiet accounting of devastation.

William’s invasion had ravaged much of England, especially the north of the country. The Domesday Book’s entries for Yorkshire read like an incantation of loss, recalling what had flourished in village after village but now was no more. Three simple words repeat throughout that section like a drumroll: “It is waste.” That phrase was simply meant to note that the land was no longer in use, a measure of how the country had still not recovered from the invasion 20 years earlier. But when reading this ancient text, those words take on a rhythmic, eerie quality, dense with foreboding. “It is waste.” “And it is waste.” “They are waste.” “Now it is waste.”

However inadvertent, the scribes who put together the Domesday Book — and whose activities themselves were expressions of the writ of the State — placed in the heart of their census a reminder that untrammelled power is so often brutal, and that in searching for a country, the State can make a wasteland.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on February 27, 2020

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