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

For the first time in 80 years India may get a true tally of an ancient system.

Balwanti Devi
Balwanti Devi from the Dalit caste (formerly known as untouchables) speaks at Nonahi Nagwan village in Jehanabad district in the eastern state of Bihar. (Jayanta Shaw JS/Reuters)

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.