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

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This is largely because India reserves a percentage of government jobs and places in universities for low castes. The Constitution, drawn up in 1950, set in place quotas for Dalits, the group formerly known as untouchables that languishes at the bottom of the caste heap. In 1990, the government extended some reservations to a group of castes a little higher up the pecking order, but also marginalized, known as Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

The problem is, without up-to-date figures, quota allocations are made on the basis of data from the census of 1931 – by any reckoning out of date.

“How can you have reservations when you don’t know how many lower castes there are?” asks Mahesh Rangarajan, a historian at Delhi University. “Including caste in the census is an important step forward.”

A social stain

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

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.

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