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India revives colonial-era caste count

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
  • Prime minister approves a bid to hold the count after the general census
  • The last time India collected comprehensive caste data was 80 years ago
  • Proponents of caste-based classifications say the exercise will help groups get their legitimate claims
  • Critics argue it jeopardizes national integration.
  • India

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- India plans to hold a full count of its citizens and their castes, the country's first since 1931.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh's Cabinet on Thursday approved proposals to hold the count separately next year after the ongoing general census is over, a government statement said.

The move largely aims to enumerate low-caste groups called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which a government-appointed commission in 1980 reported makes up 52 percent of the population.

The last time India collected comprehensive caste data was under British rule, almost 80 years ago.

After gaining independence in 1947, India picked only two of its most disadvantaged communities in its decennial population calculations instead of listing all of them from Hinduism's complex caste hierarchy.

This year, regional political parties drawing support from marginalized communities mounted pressure on Singh's government to expand the current census to cover all groupings.

Proponents of caste-based classifications say the exercise will help the downtrodden -- also referred to as the Dalits -- get what they call their legitimate claims.

"Besides, a comprehensive government data on such communities will also eventually determine the share they deserve in the overall establishment, be it jobs or governance," said Balbir Madhopuri, a Dalit scholar and writer.

India's constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of castes, which date to thousands of years.

The country has launched numerous schemes to uplift low-caste groups, including reservations in government jobs.

Critics, however, argue that a caste-based survey would jeopardize national integration.

"It is extremely distressing that now, after 60 years, the government appears to be inclined to revive the old British colonial practice of caste enumeration," a campaign called Meri Jati Hindustani, or My Caste is Indian, says on its website.

"Inclusion of caste in the census will cause deep fissures and divisions in the society, and weaken the sense of Indian nationhood," it adds.