Census and societies
Counting people is far from being an innocent exercise. Numbers mean power, tax revenue or conscripts to go to war, or avoid it if the enemy is more numerous. The need to know the demographics of a country was felt early but the practice of census-taking really started with the American Independence. It was mandated by the newly penned constitution to know how many representatives each state should send to the Congress on the strength of its respective population.
Britain carried out its first census in 1801, for England and Wales. It inaugurated a regular, 10-yearly census taking exercise in 1841 through enumeration of each household during a defined period. This exercise was extended to its colonies and Mauritius has had regular census exercises in 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, 1921 and 1931.  After an interruption because of  World War II the exercise resumed in 1952, 1962, 1972, 1983, 1990, 2000 and 2011. During the French period several slave counts and census exercises had been carried out.
Ruling powers use or misuse the information gathered in many ways. For instance, the Nazis used records to round up the Jews in concentration camps. As a result the Germans are reluctant about being counted. When in the 1980s their government added new questions to the census, there was a public outcry and the constitutional court struck it down on the grounds that it conflicted with a “fundamental right to informational self-determination” (The Economist, 19.12. 2007).
Hence under certain governments people fear to be counted while under others various groups want to be counted to prove their importance and increase their influence. For instance, in India dalit Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist groups want to indicate their castes in order to benefit from the affirmative-action policies. The last census held in Lebanon was in 1932, when it counted the number of adherents to various religions in order to share out power under a system known as confessionalism. Since that time its demography has changed but powerful people are keen to keep that quiet, hence no census exercise is carried out.
The census is more than a head count for political representation. It gives a picture of a population at regular intervals and illustrates issues pertinent at the time. No two census schedules are exactly similar. They depict the preoccupations, ideas, mindsets or policies of the ruling elites at various points in time. Census policy is driven by a combination of political and ideological motivations. According to Hochschild, J.L and Powell, B.M (2008) a nation’s census is deeply implicated in and helps to construct its social and political order. Censuses provide the concepts, taxonomy, and substantive information by which a nation understands its component parts as well as the contours of the whole; censuses both create the image and provide the mirror of that image for a nation’s self-reflection. Censuses help to create and solidify a modern polity’s racial or ethnic order.
Racial/ethnic composition of the Mauritian population according to censuses
Until 1830 population statistics in Mauritius distinguished between whites, free coloured and slaves. On the liberation of slaves they were called ex-apprentices. In the wake of Indian indentured immigration in the 1840s the returns tended to combine all residents of European and African descent into one category, as opposed to foreign labourers. That mean that racial differences among the resident groups were de-emphasized and the place of birth became the main criteria for classification.
The statistics of 1846 distinguished between the General Population, Ex-apprentices and “Indian and other Immigrant Labourers”. It’s the first time that the term General Population was used and it did not include the ex-apprentices. They will be absorbed in the GP only in 1861. Governor Stevenson wrote that: “It was considered no longer desirable to distinguish the class formerly called “ex-apprentices” from the general population of the Island. Death has destroyed the greater part of the adults who had been in actual slavery, and most of the younger portion of that class had become absorbed by inter-marriages in the general classes”(Kuczynski, R.,1947).  
In 1861 and 1871 only two categories of the population were distinguished, namely the General Population and the Indian Population. By 1891 it was considered important to create a new category for those Indians who had settled on the island and the heading “Indo-Mauritian” was coined. Indians became “other Indians”. At that date General population formed about 31% of the population and included Europeans, Chinese, Coloured etc. It is pertinent to ask why Indo-Mauritians could not be grouped under GP.
In 1901 the census categories will be changed again. There is a return to racial distinction in the GP while the Indo-Mauritian category will disappear. We therefore have 4 categories: Europeans, whites, mixed and coloured; Africans; Indians; and Chinese. It is pertinent to ask why it was important to emphasize the racial composition of the population at that time after some 60 years, where it was not considered important, at least for census purposes. Also the distinction between whites who had settled since several generations with “new” Europeans who were born or whose parents were born in Europe was deemed necessary.
In the 1921 report the Census Commissioner remarked that the classification of the population under GP, Indo-Mauritians, Other Indians and Chinese was becoming difficult because of miscegenation and he suggested new headings: European, Mauritian, Indian and Chinese. The term Mauritian would apply to those persons of whatever origin who have become permanently settled in Mauritius and who are following European customs and religions. The Indian category would then comprise of members of the population following the customs and religions of India. This concept of mauritianness is interesting. It implied that anybody not following the customs and religions of Europeans could not be called Mauritians even if they were born or had settled in Mauritius. It tells a lot about colonial assimilationist ideologies. It is also clear that Europeans could not become Mauritians too because this category included people born in Mauritius of European parents.
Statistics during the 1940s reinforced the idea that the Indian population consists of Hindus and Muslims while those Indians who adopted Christianity or European lifestyle were included among the General Population. “Mauritian” as a census category disappeared, never to return again.
As regards the Chinese the statistics are even more confusing. For 1861 Chinese meant people of Chinese nationality, for 1871-91 it meant people born in China, for 1901 people born in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, for 1911 – 1944 it meant all persons of Chinese race, whether born in China, Mauritius or elsewhere!
It is therefore advisable to treat figures for races with great caution. Practically every census has produced a fresh definition of racial /ethnic categories. In any single year and across decades, racial categorization was internally incoherent, inconsistent across groups, and unstable. Attempts have been made for racial reorganization but none seemed satisfactory to the ruling elite. Even religions had been racialized.
Recent censuses and political representation
The Census of 1952 was taken in a context of enlarged electoral representation and population explosion. The masses were getting ready to play a political role and after a brief period of mobilization along class lines communalism was becoming the rallying cry for group representation. Three census categories were recognized: General Population, Indo-Mauritians and Chinese. The Comité d’Action Musulman, formed in 1958 to represent Muslim interest campaigned in favour of the inclusion of a separate census category for Muslims, in order to assess their voting strength adequately. The authorities obliged and in 1962 Mauritians were counted under four headings: General Population, Sino-Mauritian, Muslims and Hindus. These categories would become the basis on which ethnic/communal representation would be built in subsequent years and the census of 1972.
These 4 categories are far from what can be called ethnic groups. Two are defined by religion, one by race or nationality (?) and one as a residual group consisting of all those who could not be classified in the other three categories.
Meanwhile the political system based to some extent on power-sharing principles required an adequate representation of various “communities” through the mechanism of the Best Loser System. At the same time, it was felt that the nation-building process was delayed by communalism and in order to deemphasize ethnic/communal belongings all classification into various categories should be avoided. As from the census of 1983 therefore, questions related to ethnic/communal belonging are not asked. Instead, the population is asked about his religion, language of fore-fathers etc. This allowed the respondents some freedom to define and redefine themselves.
The most important observation that can be made from an analysis of people’s responses is that the 4 categories enshrined in the constitution on Independence are totally irrelevant. When asked about their religion respondents have answered under 4 Christian denominations, 6 Hindu denominations, 1 for Islam, 1 for Buddhist Chinese and 1 religion not stated (census 2000). The constitution “recognizes” only one Hindu group, one Muslim group, while Christians, Buddhists and “religion not stated” are not “recognized” as such but would be lumped under General Population. Under language of forefathers more than 50 categories can be observed, just like under languages spoken at home.
This shows that the officially recognized categories are more than irrelevant to classify the Mauritian population into communal segments. Contemporary political development under the power-sharing system has encouraged the formation of many ethnic/communal/lobby groups while socio-economic development has created more social classes. Religious denominations have also multiplied. It is absurd for nation to emphasize horizontal and vertical divisions as a strategy for the allocation of resources or representation.
This historical overview has demonstrated that tackling diversity through census exercises can prove very tricky. The census should be used, along with other available instruments, as a tool for nation-building, not for the contrary.