India faces calls for caste census that could transform nation


India's ruling Hindu nationalists are facing calls to hold the first caste-based census since the country's independence – a move that could drastically shake up Indian politics ahead of general elections in 2024.

The census is proving a prominent issue in state elections that began this week, with results due on 3 December.

The states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram are voting for their state legislatures in polls that are expected to reflect the political mood months before general elections next summer.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party eyes a third term, the opposition's calls for a survey of marginalised communities in India have the potential to upend the country's politics.

A coalition of Modi's opponents are pushing for a nationwide caste census, after the eastern state of Bihar conducted its own survey – with revealing results.

Stark reality

It found two-thirds of Bihar’s 130 million people were from “backward” or marginalised castes, and that despite a government policy of affirmative action, these communities were largely denied state jobs.

Governments offer priority in public employment or college places to people historically disadvantaged by the caste system, which divides Hindus into a rigid hierarchy.

The survey said 63 percent of Bihar’s population belong to a mixed group of neglected populations called other backward classes (OBC).

On 10 November the state legislature vowed to hike the quotas of opportunities reserved for marginalised castes in proportion to the size of their communities in Bihar.

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