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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.

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.