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India's 2010 census considers taboo question: What's your caste?

India abolished caste divisions decades ago, and now uses quotas to help bottom-caste members get jobs and education. Updating caste data in the 2010 census could help refine the quotas, but critics see it as a regressive step.

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Critics of the plan argue that India is becoming less caste-conscious and that bringing caste back into the census is a regressive step.

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Economic development has had a more transformative effect on social hierarchies than more than six decades of reservations. As millions of Indians have migrated to urban areas in search of work, they have exchanged the rigid social groupings of villages for the relative anonymity of cities, and swapped inherited trades for jobs in which family background is largely insignificant.

Caste nonetheless remains an inescapable part of Indian life. Marriage ads, listed by caste and subcaste, fill the classified sections of weekend newspapers. Brahmins, the loftiest caste, still dominate many professions. No Dalits feature in India’s new billionaire lists.

Caste feeling manifests itself in more sinister ways, too. Police believe that the recent murder of a young journalist, engaged to a man from a lower caste, was one of a growing number of “honor killings” in which families avenge inter-caste marriages.

Discrimination is most evident, however, in the routine wretchedness of the lives of Dalits who remain India’s poorest and least educated people.

“Caste is very much alive – why pretend otherwise?” says Aditi Phadnis, political editor of the Business Standard, a leading daily newspaper.

Countless subcastes

She, like many, however, points out that there will be huge practical obstacles if the government does decide to include caste in the census.

India has four main caste groups but innumerable subcastes – some put the figure as high as 30,000 – and it is unclear how their differences should be tabulated.

If people think certain castes come with benefits, they could be more likely to lie. And if, as seems likely, India will be found to have more low castes than is currently assumed, it will face a flood of requests to increase the number of reservations available to them.

Already, the government is battling campaigns from non-OBC castes, Muslims, and Hindu converts to Christianity to be included in reservation lists. As more jobs are created in the business sector, another campaign to extend quotas to jobs in the private sector is gaining momentum.

Many commentators point out that India needs better jobs and services for its poorest people instead of handouts based on their inherited status.

“At one stroke,” wrote commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the plan in the Indian Express newspaper, “it trivializes all that modern India has stood for and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics.”

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