October 22, 2006

A Case Study on Development of Functional Meaning of the Gazetteer

The Gazetteer literally means a geographical index or at the most a geographical dictionary. However, gradually, it acquired a character, that imparted it a status of an important recorded source in the field of history. Herein, the meaning of gazetteer is studied as it developed in colonial British India and post Independence India. It is not an exhaustive work. It is merely a commentary on a preface of a gazetteer which is made available online. However, the contents as extracted from there, make a good essay and qualify the title of this write up. The source is the activity undertaken by the Gazetteers Department of the Government of Maharashtra, and reported online. Therefore, it is mere a case study and not a complete analysis as such.

British Administrative Motive:

This is an extract from a circular of 1843, issued in the Bombay Presidency to the collectors of the districts. It reads as follows:
"Government called on the Revenue Commissioner to obtain from all the Collectors as part of their next Annual Report the fullest available information regarding their districts….. ….Government remarked that, as Collectors and their Assistants during a large portion of the year moved about the district in constant and intimate communication with all classes they possessed advantages which no other public officers enjoyed of acquiring a full knowledge of the condition of the country, the causes of progress or retrogradation, the good measures which require to be fostered and extended, the evil measures which call for abandonment, the defects in existing institutions which require to be remedied, and the nature of the remedies to be applied. Collectors also, it was observed, have an opportunity of judging of the effect of British rule on the condition and character of the people, on their caste prejudices, and on their superstitious observances. They can trace any alteration for the better or worse in dwellings, clothing and diet, and can observe the use of improved implements of husbandry or other crafts, the habits of locomotion, the state of education, particularly among the higher classes whose decaying means and energy under our most levelling system compared with that of preceding governments will attract their attention. Finally they can learn how far existing village institutions are effectual to their end, and may be made available for self-government and in the management of local taxation for local purposes."
(Extract quoted in Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, vol. I, Part I (History of Gujarat), pp. iii. and iv.)

It is further reported there that "In obedience to these orders reports were received from the Collectors of Ahmedabad, Broach, Kaira, Thana and Khandesh. Some of the reports contained much interesting information. These five northern reports were practically the only result of the Circular Letter of 1843."

It is further reported there that nothing further seems to have taken place after the above mentioned activity. On the whole, in the year 1843, it was believed that the main source of the information were the district administration officers who moved around among the people in the region. They were identified as the right people to report the data and then that data had to be processed and provided to the next future officers.

In the meantime the Gazetteer for the Central Provinces of British Indian Empire was completed in the year 1867.

The Secretary of State of India desired in 1867 that the Presidency of Bombay should also prepare the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency as a similar record had been prepared for Central Indian Provinces. The Bombay Presidency appointed a Bombay Gazetteer Committee in year 1868. It was directed to ‘supervise and direct the preparation of the Gazetteer’. Finally, Mr. James M. Campbell of Bombay Civil Services was entrusted the responsibility of the Bombay Gazetteer Committee. Mr. Campbell started the work of compilation in 1874. He completed the work of compilation by the year 1884. The work of the publication of the compilation started in year 1877 and continued up to the year 1904. It took 27 years to complete the work of the publication. In the year 1904, the General Index volume was published. It had 27 volumes and on the whole 35 books including the General Index Volume. The number of books increased over the number of volumes because some of the volumes had more than one book.

Definition of Gazetteer

The Gazetteer literally means a geographical dictionary or a geographical index. However, in practice, the contents of a Gazetteer underwent a tremendous change. A study of development of the change of the actual meaning and contents of a gazetteer makes a good story and a case.

The British Imperial administrators grappled with the problem of providing the right information to the people whom they entrusted with the responsibility of running the administration of a districts as the collectors of the administrative unit in the Bombay Presidency. The authorities sought the solution in getting a gazetteer ready for that purpose. It raised the demand on their part to understand the actual importance and usability of such a compilation. They sought the opinion of the their expert. The opinion and practical advice was given by Sir William Hunter, Director General of Statistics to the Government of India. His guidance and opinion was sought in case of preparation of Gazetteer for Dharwar District in year 1871. It was sought to get into the core understanding on the purpose which a gazetteer was intended to service. Sir William Hunter gave the following opinion.

"My own conception of the work is that, in return for a couple of days’ reading, the Account should give a new Collector a comprehensive, and, at the same time, a distinct idea of the district which he has been sent to administer. Mere reading can never supersede practical experience in the district administration. But a succinct and well conceived district account is capable of antendating the acquisition of such personal experience by many months and of both facilitating and systematising a Collector’s personal enquiries………But in all cases a District Account besides dealing with the local specialities should furnish a historical narration of its revenue and expenditure since it passed under the British rule, of the sums which we have taken from it in taxes, and of the amount which we have returned to it in the protection of property and person and the other charges of civil government." (quoted in Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, vol. I, Part I, (History of Gujarat), pp. vii.)

Hence, it was just a reversal of the meaning of the purpose of the collection of a required data to be compiled as a gazetteer. In the circular of 1843, it was deemed right to collect the data from the collectors themselves, because they had the first hand information about the area. They were considered right people for the source of such information because of the requirement of the services required them to move around the district and come across the reality at ground level. They were the people at the front. Hence, the data collected thus was meant for the use of the government and for the future district administration. Now, when the gazetteer was being prepared in 1868, firstly the meaning of the term was modified and altered. Secondly, it was also identified that it should only be such document which would gave a distinct idea of the districts and nothing more than that. It is quite an understandable conclusion. The district collectors had to work on the day to day basis and by the time he reached his posted place, the new changes took place. For the colonial government, there were other restrains also.

Post Independence Activity:

In 1949, the Government of Bombay, (at that time, reorganization of the states had not taken place.) felt the need of up to date gazetteer. Therefore, it was decided that the old Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency should be revised and republished by making it up to date. An Editorial Board was established for that purpose. The Editorial Board completed its works in year 1854 under Mr. M. R. Palande, Executive Editor and Secretary, Editorial Board.

The Editorial Board of the Government of Bombay contributed to the nature of the Gazetteer after they acquired it in their hands. The Editorial had its own opinion and views. The Board was now an office of the Government of the Republic of India which is a secular country. This was reflected in the opinions and views of the Board while undertaking the activity of the work of the revision.

The board found that in the older gazetteer that "There are portions in the old Gazetteer bearing on archaeology and history which have the impress of profound scholarship and learning and their worth has not diminished by the mere passage of time. Even in their case, however, some restatement is occasionally necessary in view of later investigations and new archaeological finds by scholars, and an attempt has been made to incorporate in this edition the results of such subsequent research."

Then Board was also fully aware of the its own status in 1949. It wrote, "In a dynamic world, circumstances and facts of life change, and so do national requirements and social values. Such significant changes have taken place in India as in other countries during the last half a century, and more so after the advent of Independence in 1947. The general scheme and contents of this revised series of the Gazetteer have been adapted to the needs of the altered conditions. There is inevitably some shift in emphasis in the presentation and interpretation of certain phenomena. For example, the weighted importance given to caste and community in the old Gazetteer cannot obviously accord with the ideological concepts of a secular democracy, though much of that data may have considerable interest from the functional, sociological or cultural point of view. What is necessary is a change in perspective in presenting that account so that it could be viewed against the background of a broad nationalism and the synthesis of a larger social life. It is also necessary to abridge and even to eliminate elaborate details about customs and practices which no longer obtain on any extensive scale or which are too insignificant to need any elaboration. In the revised Gazetteer, therefore, only a general outline of the practices and customs of the main sections of the population has been given."

Finally, it added a new dimension to the fresh volumes by adding separate sections on the each village and town in a district. It only provided information in tabulation form. Thus the fresh gazetteers came up.

But the Question arises, does the District Collectors or Deputy Commissioners (as the case may be as per the States Governments’ Public Administration Structure.) use a gazetteer of a district as such to develop
a historic perspective for running the administration? Do they form their administrative acts keeping in view the contents of the document? Well Sir Hunter has already given an opinion that ‘mere reading could never supersede practical experience in the district administration.’

Source: The Gazetteers Department of Maharashtra Government, Pune District Gazetteer.

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