A caste survey in India could upend politics in world’s largest democracy (2023)


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A previous version of this article incorrectly said the caste survey underway in Bihar state has 250 categories; the survey has 215 categories. The year of India's independence was also misstated; it was in 1947, not 1949. The article has been corrected.

PATNA, India — The morning milk had yet to be delivered, but the April heat was already leaving stains on his shirt. Satyadeo Paswan’s brows furrowed as he flipped page after page of 215 caste categories, scanning for the correct code to enter in the crucial yet complicated form in front of him.

Paswan is one of the hundreds of thousands of surveyors tasked with an administratively and politically historic exercise: collecting caste data on every single one of the 126 million people in the state of Bihar.

This mammoth task has taken center stage in India’s politics. A census of caste — the rigid system of inherited social stratification sprouting from Hinduism — could transform the nation’s democratic politics. It puts the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in a tight spot: Increased caste identification could dent its electoral supremacy.


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Several other states are expressing interest in conducting their own caste surveys and have sought the guidance of Bihar, according to officials here. Nearby Odisha state has begun a version, local reports say. On Thursday, however, Bihar’s high court ordered a temporary stay on releasing the results while it determines if the state government has the power to conduct the survey.

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Critics of the current system say that not acknowledging and studying the role of caste in society ignores the pervasive discrimination that flows from it.

At India’s independence in 1947, the constitution outlawed “untouchability” — the most extreme form of marginalization against the lowest castes, known as Dalits. But India continued to witness caste discrimination and the maintenance of boundaries dictating who can marry whom, who can eat with whom and who can do which jobs.


The government has divided the thousands of different castes into three main categories: the Upper Castes; a middle level known as the Other Backward Castes, or OBCs; and the Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, the groups for which India’s first affirmative action programs were created, in an attempt to address their historic marginalization.

“The American society fought against racism, [but] such movements in India have been much rarer,” said Manoj Jha, a member of Parliament from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a political party that is part of an alliance governing Bihar. “As a result, the structure is dominated by Upper Castes.”

A renewed focus on caste poses a danger to the governing BJP’s electoral successes and could fragment its umbrella voting bloc of Hindus. “They would prefer to pit Muslims against Hindus as opposed to picking fights within the Hindu community,” said Mamidipudi Ramakrishna Sharan, a University of Maryland assistant professor who has studied caste in Bihar.


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Knocking on doors and asking about caste inevitably sparks conversations about the millennia-old concept. “I am a Paswan, but so what?” said the 40-year-old surveyor working in Bihar’s capital city. His own caste falls into the Scheduled Castes, the lowest rung of the government’s categories.

“The same blood in me is in them,” he said, pointing to Alok Kumar — on whose form he was working — as Kumar sat with his friend Kiran Chaudhary. Kumar comes from the Yadav caste, one of the mid-level OBCs.

Chaudhary is a Brahman, from the Upper Caste categories, and expressed a degree of skepticism about the whole process. “This counting is all for politics. They will figure out where all the castes live — not for goodwill but for votes,” he said.

India does not keep exact data on Chaudhary’s and Kumar’s caste categories. After the last British-led census in 1931, the country stopped counting all the caste categories other than the lowest ones.


The push for a complete national caste census dates to 1980 and revolves around the move to extend to the mid-level OBCs the affirmative action programs that benefit Dalits: reserved places in public education and jobs. Although estimates from the British time show that OBC numbers account for roughly half the population, subsequent court decisions effectively allotted its castes 27 percent of the coveted spots.

There was immediate pushback from the Upper Castes, and political battles ensued. The OBCs mobilized into new, powerful regional parties — including those that now lead Bihar and have instituted the ongoing caste survey.

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The BJP countered these caste-based politics with its brand of Hindu nationalism, and caste and religion have become the two main mobilizing forces pitted against each other in electoral battles.


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In 2011, the government, led by the now-opposition Congress Party, was reluctantly pressured into conducting a caste survey nationally as part of its decennial census, but it did not release its findings, citing a faulty process. The BJP, when it came to power, continued to withhold the results. Data gathered in another caste survey, in the southern state of Karnataka, also was never released.

“We count tigers. We count dogs. We count trees. Why not human beings and their castes?” said Jha, the member of Parliament. “Who is afraid of the numbers? It is the BJP. They want to woo people with a singular identity called Hindu. But that singular identity is not enough to get people food and employment. That singular identity is not without cracks.”

Most analysts say a nationwide count would be likely to show that the Upper Castes were a small minority and that OBCs were much larger in number than their reserved percentages, potentially triggering louder demands for more reserved school and job positions. Some say such a count also could fuel the existing demands for reserved job spaces in private companies.


While the BJP’s core support base has long been Upper Caste groups, it has managed to woo lower-rung segments of the OBCs. “The BJP has been very good at fission and fusion — breaking off its rival’s coalitions and fusing together its own,” said Delhi University’s Satish Deshpande, a sociology professor.

But a detailed census could blow apart the party’s coalition. It’s difficult to “appease” both the Upper Castes and the OBCs, said Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University who goes by his first name only. “The total pie is 100 percent. Someone would benefit and someone’s share would be cut.”

An adviser in the national Ministry of Information and Broadcasting disputed this representation of the BJP’s thinking. A caste census has “inbuilt problems” of “data collection and data processing,” said Kanchan Gupta.

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For the first time, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the once-powerful Congress Party last month joined with smaller parties in calling for a caste census, signaling a coalescing around OBC issues in the run-up to the 2024 national election.


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Several senior bureaucrats in Bihar who are Upper Caste warned that revising affirmative action programs would be just as polarizing as divisions over religion.

“I don’t see that any fruitful outcome that could come from it,” said a senior Bihar bureaucrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It will only lead to another round of agitations [and] intensify the social fracturing.”

Beyond the political quarrels, development and governance experts say detailed caste data is essential for targeted policymaking and resource distribution, especially as sub-castes have progressed in divergent ways.

“How can a collection of socioeconomic data move the country in a backward direction?” said Bihar Chief Secretary Amir Subhani. “Data can only take the country forward.”

Others say the debate’s narrow political focus on affirmative action programs misses the importance of the systemwide changes that should be implemented, such as universal access to health care, jobs and education. “If you really want to tackle caste, a multiprong approach will be required,” Himanshu said.

For Deshpande, the sociology professor, the drive is for “an official end to this policy of caste blindness.”


“Only the privileged have had the luxury of believing they have no caste. A census acknowledges that not just the lower castes have caste,” he said. A future of castelessness cannot happen “without counting caste.”

Paswan, who usually supervises cleaners in a government building, will take the completed forms he gathered and type the caste numbers and economic data into a mobile application, which Bihar administrators say would have allowed the release of results in the next six months before the next elections — if the court hadn’t stayed the process.

“My family doesn’t believe in caste discrimination,” Kumar said as Paswan finished collecting his details. “But we know caste is everywhere.”

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How does the caste system affect India's democracy? ›

India's caste system has been influential. One's caste can control access to political power, land, and police or judicial assistance. Castes also tend to influence local politics by being local to certain areas. Political parties in everywhere tend to represent the interests of specific castes.

Who had the most power in the Indian caste system? ›

A hierarchical system wherein generally the Brahmins were at the head of the hierarchy, but this hierarchy was disputed in some cases. In various linguistic areas, hundreds of castes had a gradation generally acknowledged by everyone.

How do caste inequalities affect Indian political and economic system? ›

Concentration of wealth: due to the caste system,even the economic surplus agrarian communities not diversifying their wealth into some other sector. Gender discrimination: further Barriers of caste system ,women are denied their right to education, right to work etc which further mocks our economic system.

Which of the following groups was the highest ranking in the caste system in ancient India? ›

The Vedas identify four varnas, or caste groupings, based on religious status. At the top of the caste system were the Brahmin. These were the priests and they held a tremendous amount of power over everybody.

What is the impact of the caste system on society in India? ›

Perpetuates Social Inequalities: Caste system has served as an instrument in the hands of the upper castes to maintain their own privileged position in society. It has led to the despotism of the upper castes and created permanent feelings of inferiority and insecurity in the minds of lower caste people.

How did the caste system affect society in India? ›

The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups. Often criticised for being unjust and regressive, it remained virtually unchanged for centuries, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.

Which caste is the highest caste in the world? ›

Traditionally, Brahmins are accorded the highest ritual status of the four social classes.

When did the caste system dominate India? ›

When the British Raj began to take power in India in 1757, they exploited the caste system as a means of social control.

How does India's caste system work? ›

Hindu texts speak of four tiers, or varnas, making up a broader caste pyramid in society. On top are the Brahmins or priestly caste, the Kshatriyas or warrior class and the Vaisyas or merchant class. At the bottom come the Shudras or labouring castes. The rest do not even count: outcastes.

How did the caste system affect Indian economy? ›

Caste plays a role at every stage of an Indian's economic life, in school, university, the labor market, and into old age. The influence of caste extends beyond private economic activity into the public sphere, where caste politics determine access to public resources.

How does economic inequality has a negative impact on India's democratic system? ›

The rich class is enjoying luxurious life while the vast majority is perpetually growing under poverty and unemployment. Thus, economic inequality is polluting the whole democratic system in India and therefore democracy has to take responsibility to reduce poverty and make all basic amenities available for the poor.

How caste inequalities are still continue in India? ›

In modern India, like in pre-independence India, the poor are mostly the 'low castes' while the rich are the 'high castes', thereby showing that caste inequalities are still continuing in India.

What is the most powerful community in India? ›

1. Brahmins. Brahmins are known as the religious order in the Vedic and post-Vedic Indian subcontinent because they worked as priests (purohit, pandit, or pujari) and spiritual guides (guru or acharya).

Who brought the caste system to India? ›

The Origins of the Caste System

According to one long-held theory about the origins of South Asia's caste system, Aryans from central Asia invaded South Asia and introduced the caste system as a means of controlling the local populations. The Aryans defined key roles in society, then assigned groups of people to them.

Are caste rankings the same all over India? ›

Each region in India has its own ranking of jatis. However, in every region, the Dalits are at the bottom of the hierarchy and over the centuries, have faced discrimination.

What are the disadvantages of the caste system? ›

Disadvantage or Demerits of Caste System
  • Undemocratic: ...
  • No Vertical Mobility: ...
  • Encouraged Untouchability: ...
  • Created a Class of Idlers: ...
  • Oppression of Low Caste People: ...
  • Encouraged Conversion: ...
  • Against Integrity of Nation: ...
  • False Sense of Superiority and Inferiority:
Nov 23, 2016

What negative contributions can the caste system have on society? ›

Restricted social interaction

It restricts the spread of education and ideas. Because the caste system does not permit intermarriages, people may be forced to marry close relatives. This is called endogamy and it can result in serious genetic disorders.

What changes can be seen in the caste system in modern India? ›

With economic development, large-scale urbanisation, growth of literacy and education, occupational mobility and the weakening of the position of landlords in the villages, the old notions of caste hierarchy are breaking down.

What were the main features of the caste system? ›

Caste can be defined as hereditary endogamous group, having a common name, common traditional occupation, common culture, relatively rigid in matters of mobility, distinctiveness of status and forming a single homogenous community.

What is the caste based discrimination? ›

Caste is not officially recognized by law as a category of discrimination in the United States. The reason is that caste discrimination was not a known phenomenon when the laws were written. It has come to light only in recent times due to recent reports of discrimination.

Which caste is dominant in India? ›

Normally, the caste which is traditionally higher in the caste hierarchy enjoys the status of dominance. The Brahmins and the Rajputs have traditionally been dominant in the villages. The Brahmins have at the top of the caste hierarchy and they officiate at the religious festivals and rituals of the village.

What are the caste ranking in India? ›

These four castes are the Brahmins (priests, teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors), Vaishyas (landowners, merchants) and Sudras (servants), and the 5th group is the group of the untouchables, called Dalits.

What is the history of the caste system in India? ›

The caste system is deeply rooted in the Hinduism belief in karma and reincarnation. Dating back more than 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras based on who they were in their past life, their karma, and what family line they come from.

What are the 5 caste system in India? ›

The categories in order include: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. There is also a fifth category known as the Dalits (or Untouchables), the lowest ranking class and often considered to be ''caste-less'' in Hindu society.

In what ways did the caste system affect life in ancient India? ›

Caste not only dictates one's occupation, but dietary habits and interaction with members of other castes as well. Members of a high caste enjoy more wealth and opportunities while members of a low caste perform menial jobs. Outside of the caste system are the Untouchables.

Can you move up in the caste system? ›

The Hindu idea of reincarnation kept the caste system alive. Hindus believe when a person dies, he or she is reincarnated as another being, hopefully in a higher caste. The only way to move to a higher caste in the next life is to strictly obey the rules of one's current caste.

How did Hinduism strengthen the caste system? ›

Hinduism reinforced a strict social hierarchy called a caste system that made it nearly impossible for people to move outside of their social station. Emperors during the Gupta empire used Hinduism as a unifying religion and focused on Hinduism as a means for personal salvation.

Is caste system in India legal? ›

The Indian Constitution has outlawed the practice of Untouchability and the Indian Government has established special quotas in schools and Parliament to aid the lowest jatis. Caste discrimination is not permitted in gaining employment and access to educational and other opportunities.

What is caste system in India for students? ›

The caste system started with just four castes. In order of importance and power these castes were priests, warriors, traders and farmers, and finally paid workers. The caste system grew progressively more strict until finally you were born into your caste and could not move or marry out of your caste.

What are the main causes of inequality in a democratic country like India? ›

3 Types of Inequality in India:
  • 3.1 Casteism.
  • 3.2 Untouchability.
  • 3.3 Gender Discrimination.
  • 3.4 Class Inequality.
  • 3.5 Religious Discrimination.
  • 3.6 Racism.

What is one of the most important causes of inequality in India? ›

Poverty and social discrimination are the main reasons for inequality. Poverty would lead to denial of access to the resources. Social discrimination based on caste and gender leads to treating people without any dignity.

Why are caste barriers ending in India? ›

The economic development large scale urbanisation and occupational mobility has further erased the caste barriers. Spread of literacy and education has also played a great role in upgrading the beliefs and ideologies of the people.

Is caste system a form of inequality present in India True or false? ›

Similar to pre-independence India, caste inequality still exists in modern India as evidenced by the fact that the majority of the impoverished are members of the “low castes” and the wealthy are members of the “high castes”. Moreover, the “low castes” do not have easy access to education.

Who fought against caste inequalities in India? ›

B. R. Ambedkar. Although Ambedkar was born a so-called "Untouchable" or Dalit, he would rise to become Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution. Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought against the inegalitarianism that lay at the root of the Hindu caste system.

Which is the most powerful community in the world? ›

United States. The US retains its position as the world's most-powerful country.

Which religion is powerful in India? ›

Hinduism is an ancient religion with the largest religious grouping in India, with around 966 million adherents as of 2011, composing 79.8% of the population.

Where is the largest Indian community in the world? ›

Indian people
Total population
United States4,506,308
Saudi Arabia3,255,864
United Arab Emirates2,803,751
37 more rows

Did the British create the caste system in India? ›

The caste system is something that many believe was completely derived from Hindu culture in India; not many realize that British colonialism was actually one of the main driving forces in the development of this system.

When was the caste system replaced in Indian history? ›

The Indian government outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste in 1948, after decades of movements and protests. This ratification became part of an amendment to the Indian constitution, with article 15 prohibiting discrimination based on caste and Article 17 declaring the practice of untouchability to be illegal.

What is the meaning of caste system? ›

: a division of society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation, or race.

How many castes exist in India? ›

The main castes were further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific occupation.

How did the caste system affect Indian society? ›

The caste system has existed in some form in India for at least 3,000 years. It is a social hierarchy passed down through families, and it can dictate the professions a person can work in as well as aspects of their social lives, including whom they can marry.

What percentage of Indians are forward caste? ›

They are on average considered ahead of other castes economically and educationally. They account for about 30.8% of the population based on Schedule 10 of available data from the National Sample Survey Organisation 55th (1999–2000) and National Sample Survey Organisation 61st Rounds (2004–05) Round Survey.

How does the Indian democracy strengthen the claims of the disadvantaged and discriminated castes? ›

Democracy has strengthened the claims of the disadvantaged and discriminated castes for equal status and equal opportunity. People now look critically at the work of those who hold power, the rich, the powerful. They express their dissatisfaction loudly.

What are the challenges that hinder to build India a real democratic state? ›

  • Illiteracy.
  • Poverty.
  • Gender Discrimination.
  • Regionalism.
  • Casteism, Communalism and Religious Fundamentalism.
  • Corruption.
  • Criminalization of Politics and Political violence.

When did caste system start in India? ›

This shows the caste system originated 1,575 years ago, during the Gupta dynasty, possibly during the reign of Chandragupta the Second or Kumaragupta the First.

What are advantage and disadvantage of democracy in India? ›

Advantages and Disadvantages of Democracy
Advantages of DemocracyDisadvantages of Democracy
Decreases disputes with other nations.Mob rule may be encouraged by democracy.
Aids in boosting citizens' patriotism.There is a cost to democracy that many people are unaware of.
2 more rows
May 5, 2023

What do you think would be the effect on democracy in India if everyone got the right to shelter? ›

Answer: If everyone gets the right to shelter, Indian democracy would be absolute in all means. By definition, 'democracy is a form of government in which the common people hold political power and can rule either directly or through elected representatives'. PRINCIPLE 1: POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY.

What are the disadvantages of Indian democracy? ›

- Corruption, Mediocrity, Indiscipline, Lack of moral engagement with the citizens, Concentration of Power. Lack of Financial Autonomy- Central Sector Schemes- JNNURM and MGNREGA. Lack of Institutional Mechanisms – District Councils not functional. First Past the Post System- Not true representation.

What are the five major challenges faced by the Indian democracy? ›

Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment are still in existence most parts of India. Caste and gender discrimination continues to prevail in Indian Society, slackening advancement and development. Rampant corruption, red tapism, delays in public justice are weakening the foundation of Democracy.

What are the five challenges faced by Indian democracy? ›

Challenges faced by the Indian democracy: Poverty,Corruption, Political Instability, Slow Decision making process, illiteracy. What steps can be taken to control soil erosion in the hilly areas ?

What was the purpose of the caste system? ›

The caste system has existed in some form in India for at least 3,000 years. It is a social hierarchy passed down through families, and it can dictate the professions a person can work in as well as aspects of their social lives, including whom they can marry.

Why did India have a caste system? ›

The Origins of the Caste System

According to one long-held theory about the origins of South Asia's caste system, Aryans from central Asia invaded South Asia and introduced the caste system as a means of controlling the local populations. The Aryans defined key roles in society, then assigned groups of people to them.

When did India remove the caste system? ›

With Indian independence in 1947 and the establishment of a democratic republic, the largest in the world, in 1950, any discrimination based on caste was abolished by law.


1. The Soul and The Machine 1 by Jill Lepore
(Bryan Patton)
2. REI Colloquium: Colonial Bureaucracy & Contemporary Citizenship w/ Professor Yael Berda
(Institute of Governmental Studies)
3. Amy Coney Barrett Confirmation Hearing
4. CPR-CSH Workshop on: Outcaste Bombay and the translation of Marxism
(Centre for Policy Research)
5. The Process and Consequences of Giving Land Rights to Slum Dwellers
(Research in Practice)
6. BSA 2021 Conference: Gary Younge Lecture


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