India's castes: Don't ask, don't tell, don't count?

NEW DELHI, India — The 2,000-year-old Hindu caste system remains the most powerful force in Indian society.

Friendships, business ties and marriages live and die according to its dictates. Political parties carefully script their election tickets according to its mathematics. And an increasing number of government policies — including spiraling quotas for government jobs and university education — follow its logic.

But it's not polite to talk about it, and might even be dangerous to quantify it.

Yet in an unexpected turn, earlier this month the coalition-leading Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caved to pressure from opposition leaders and agreed to add a survey of India's myriad castes to the 2011 census, which began April 1. Weeks after the decision, jostling and debate rages on as India's politicians reflect over the potential upheavals that may result.

Many here fear that a new understanding of the various groups' numbers could disrupt the current political structure, while the upper crust fears another wave of escalating quotas will make it even more difficult for a young upper caste person to get a university education. But the momentum of caste politics makes a reversal seem impossible.

Broadly speaking, the caste system has Brahmins and Kshatriya at the top of the social order, followed by the trading castes known as Baniyas and scores of laboring castes such as the Yadavs, and beneath them all the erstwhile untouchables, whom the constitution calls the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

[Watch this video on how untouchables in Delhi are coping with the economic changes of India]



But the last official tally of the different groups was done in 1931, and present policies are based on extrapolations from those figures. An official count will no doubt have far-reaching and unpredictable implications.

Significantly, the caste census promises to determine just how many people belong to the country's so-called “Other Backward Classes,” or OBCs, who have made dramatic political gains since the Mandal Commission was formed “to identify the socially or educationally backward” in 1979.

Extrapolating from the 1931 census figures, the Mandal Commission estimated the number of OBCs at 52 percent of the population. It then went on to recommend that OBCs be included in the quota system for government jobs and higher education that had already been established for the erstwhile untouchables, and recommended increasing the proportion of reserved places from 22.5 to 49.5 percent of the total.

“[The] caste social order of the Hindu society and a large number of the other religious groups is oppressive,” said Rangarajan. “This is one way to open up some space. There is no magic wand. I see the caste census as part of that. It's fact finding.”

The caste census proposal is now sequestered in a council of ministers tasked with developing a plan for implementing the count – which the home ministry has argued could bring the whole census project crashing down, as the inclusion of caste might prompt people to fudge the numbers to ensure their group gets a healthy share of government benefits.

The new tally might justify a hike in spending for OBC welfare and scholarships, and it could have a dramatic impact on the controversial quota system.

Working backwards, the Supreme Court verdict on Mandal commission set a ceiling of 50 percent on job and education quotas and subtracted the existing reservations for untouchables to determine the quota for OBCs at 27 percent. But an official count is likely to spark fresh demands to make these quotas proportional to each group's representation in the population.

Already, the OBC leaders of the drive for the caste census, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav, have stepped up their rhetoric. “In 20 ministries and 18 deparments, there is not a single OBC in the [highest paid] Group A category,” Sharad Yadav argued during a recent parliament session.