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India is deliberating whether to include details of caste in the massive national census that is now currently underway. Many argue this would yield a wealth of information that could be used for better governance.
Information about 1.2 billion Indians will be gathered by the 2010 census
This year's census has sparked off a spirited debate about the role of caste in politics and society. Those who advocate the inclusion of information about caste in the census include political parties from the Hindi heartland.
They argue that the exact numbers have to be known so that members of certain castes can make use of caste-based quotas in education and employment.
But the critics, who include several ministers in the ruling government, warn that including caste in the count could inflame social tensions and further entrench caste politics.
Census covers 1.2 billion people
The census, which is held every 10 years in India, collects a range of statistical information on the different characteristics of the population into one single database. It covers 1.2 billion people.
Indian President Pratibha Patil signs after being counted for the census, which began on April 1, 2010
Brinda Karat, an MP and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) says the inclusion of caste would help identify the strength of socially backward communities.
"We believe that it is very necessary for the government and the general public to have an accurate idea of the social composition of the population of India. Whether we like it or not, 62 years after Independence the caste system still exists and is responsible for the worst type of discrimination."
Matter referred to the cabinet
The governing Congress Party, which has resisted counting caste in the census so far, has referred the matter to the cabinet in an apparent effort to please the caste-based parties that now wield great influence in national and regional politics.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram doesn't think it makes sense to include caste: "At the moment I am the minister in charge of the census. I have to implement whatever decision is taken by the cabinet. When I made a statement in parliament I set out government policy as it stood at that point of time namely that canvassing the question of caste in the census was riddled with practical difficulties that may affect the integrity of the headcount."
Advocates of including caste in census say it will help lower castes benefit from government quotas
But political leaders from the so-called "other backward castes" have argued the case for including caste in the hope that they can win more government benefits for their voters.
The Samajawadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal from the Hindi heartland hope to widen their vote banks by acquiring a better understanding of their constituents.
Verification process also necessary
Communist MP Brinda Karat, however, says it is not so simple: "Whether the census is the best mechanism to do it can be discussed because in a census you cannot verify, it is just an assertion of a statement of caste, there is no verification process. Therefore a verification process will make it more accurate."
"I think this is a meaningful exercise, so that people who deserve can avail of the facilities that are available under the Constitution," says Babu Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. "At the same time, I would like to add very strongly that we must move towards a society that is devoid of caste divisions as a modern democratic republic society."
The census, which has been undertaken every decade since 1872, will see 2.5 million staff fan out across India, a country with a baffling range of cultures, languages, customs, rebel movements and at least 600,000 villages.
Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Anne Thomas