‘Numbering of the people’: 100 Years of Census in Nepal and National Discourse
The state in its various avatars through the ages has always tried to keep a count of its citizens, initially for taxation, labour service, and conscription, and ostensibly for formulating policies and development planning. Census is conducted periodically, generally every ten years. From a superficial level, the census is carried out to make a note of the population dispersed all over the country and to record their socio-economic conditions, which reflects the social reality of the nation, but it also actively constructs that reality. It creates that reality through categorisation of and attribution of characteristics to the people. This construction of reality is prompted by and serves the ‘interest of particular historical and/or social context’.
Through this construction of reality, the state and/or its ruling elite have the means of and an idea about its populations. Without this knowledge about the people, the state cannot speak about them; and when it has the information about them, it creates a discourse about them. Because the state is the most informed institution about its citizens, it has the power to design and lead that discourse the way it wants. The state expresses this power mostly through language and behaviour. Foucauldian ‘relationship between power and knowledge, and how the former is used to control and define the latter’ is useful to explain the behaviour of the Nepali state in and during census periods. In the first three censuses, 1911, 1920 and 1930, the state focused on the number of individuals who are able to work [for the state?] (kaam dina sakne). They also enumerated those who were in ‘Moghalaan’. Similarly, the 1921 census specifically asks about the freed slaves who were later settled in Bicha-Khori (current Amlekhgunj). Furthermore, the state directed outright in the 1941 census regulations that the occupation of women may not be noted. The recent censuses have given special attention to ethnicity and foreign labour migration. Making a critical discourse analysis of the census questionnaire and census regulations of Nepal over the last 100 years, from 1911 census to 2011 census, the paper attempts to analyse how the state extracts the information it needs from its citizens by using the census. For the purposes of the paper, Foucault’s concept of discourse and power has been considered to analyse all the population census questionnaires of Nepal. A wide array of literature on Nepal’s social, political and economic conditions over the period of time have been analysed to locate the context in which the state designed the questionnaires, used the selective words and phrases to reflect its priorities of the time, enacted regulations and issued instructions on how the censuses were/are carried out. The resulting diachronic overview will give a picture of the Nepali state/society and changes it has undergone.