The tiny east Indian state of Tripura, which shares a border with Bangladesh, is almost never in the headlines. At most, 1 in 10 adult Indians would be able to name its capital, Agartala, and 1 in 100 could identify its chief minister, Manik Sarkar. But last week Tripura was the cynosure of attention when the Socioeconomic and Caste Census, independent India’s first attempt to record details of a person’s caste, began its operations from the small village of Hezamara.

A reporter for the Indian Express produced a lovely dispatch:

When the history of modern India’s engagement with caste is written, will Budhrai Debbarma be remembered?

Here he is, a wiry man in his 60s, from a village in West Tripura district, staring at the camera with a dignity that masks his confusion at the fuss over him. Only yesterday, he had shared the stage set up on the grounds of Sankhola village school with officials who had come from as far as Delhi and Agartala, as an enumerator led him through a list of questions.

“They asked me what I do, how much I earn, how many children I have...,” he says, trailing off. And also, the contentious question: what is your caste?

He answered without a shrug, or a sense that it was of great import. “Amra Tripuri (We are Tripuris),” he says in Bengali when we ask him, and then nods on prompting, as if unconvinced: “Oy, ST (Scheduled Tribe).”

The first man in independent India, the first of 1.2 billion, to be asked by the government to identify himself by his “caste.”

The last caste census was carried out in India in 1931. After Independence, the first rulers of democratic India refused to make it a marker of identity in the belief that the state would work towards blunting an oppressive caste system.

To most Indian Hindus,  caste -- an ancient, deep-rooted, and many-layered system of hereditary social stratification that involves four main orders (varnas) and thousands of sub-orders (jatis) -- is one of the foundational components of religious and social identity. This allows  access to the resources, both real and psychological, of a group larger than one’s family, or of a small society within the larger whole. One might think of caste as the one feature that makes the Hindu (and, by a long process of osmosis, often the Indian) sense of self distinctive. Mysterious in its workings to most outsiders, caste is one of the deepest of Indian realities. Yet  from the egalitarian standpoint of a modern democracy, it is also its most abiding and persuasive fiction, one that must be pulled up from the roots. Caste is in some ways an anthropologist's dream and a democrat's nightmare.

The so-called caste census has many implications for Indian democracy, which has, from the time of independence in 1947, envisioned a society where caste would be far less influential as a social and economic force than it has been over the course of Indian history. But to try to make this happen, the government has resorted to “reservations,” or caste-based affirmative action, to neutralize the continuing power of upper castes over lower ones, thereby unavoidably perpetuating the very caste awareness that it seeks over the long term to undermine.

It is a problem to which there are no easy answers, especially as, over the decades, the sphere of affirmative action has expanded and not diminished. As the Hindu pointed out in a sage editorial when the government made its decision to conduct a census that sought to quantify caste a year ago:

Should the Census of India 2011 be tasked with the collection of caste data, returning in a sense to the practice of the pre-Independence, colonial era? Let us start by recognising that the question is arguable. Opponents of caste enumeration tend to hark back to the ideals of the freedom struggle and the Constitution, which treat caste as illegitimate and see Census enumeration of caste as a tool of ‘divide and rule.' By not collecting caste data, the Census, a great national undertaking, strikes a blow for social equality. Supporters of caste enumeration tend to argue the opposite, namely that by collecting data on the caste-inequality link, the Census could become a promoter of progressive social change, chiefly by strengthening the case for compensatory discrimination policies across the land. As the sociologist Nandini Sundar points out, India in the past couple of decades has entered “a new era of caste relations” and while there has been heated debate on the political consequences of doing or not doing caste enumeration in the Census, little thought has been given to “how this is to be done, if at all; the nature of data generated; the level and form of tabulations in which data would be useful; who would gain from this knowledge at different levels; or the concrete ways in which caste data might or might not help to design government programmes to offset caste disabilities.

The Indian Constitution, in its first Schedule in 1950, originally offered reservations to a certain number of notably underprivileged castes and tribes (thereafter called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes). But since the 1990s it has brought within the ambit of the reservation system many other groups belonging to what are called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), offering them quotas in the public sector and in education based on an estimate of their cumulative size.

Caste has, therefore, acquired a massive political charge in Indian democracy, and many of the smaller partners in the national coalition government have got to where they are by aggressively mobilizing votes from groups that  either are officially listed as OBCs or else seek to be declared so. It is within this context that the government decided last year, under pressure from some of its coalition partners, to undertake a joint economic and caste survey.

The subtlety and intricacy of the issue are quite thrilling, as evinced by the fact that two of India's best-known political commentators took very divergent positions last year in the debate that followed the declaration. In the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta listed several reasons for why he considered the move a retrograde one. Among his most interesting points was this:

[A] caste census invites misrecognition. Census did not create castes and the deprivations associated with it. But it is naive to think that a caste census is an enumeration of an objective reality. In a context where the state privileges certain categories over others, gives incentives to certain group identities, enumeration based on caste creates its own reality. Caste pre-existed the classifications of the modern state; but the classifications we use fundamentally transform the institution. In that sense, the Census will bring into being a new social reality; it will not simply describe an objective one. Caste facts are shadows created by our politics.

While in the Hindu, the political scientist Yogendra Yadav argued:

What do we get from such an enumeration? Quite a lot, if we care about putting policies of affirmative action on a sound, empirical footing and putting at rest endless disputes about the size and backwardness of various communities. An enumeration of the OBCs will not only settle disputes about their numbers but also yield vital information about the socio-educational and economic conditions of the communities. Specifically, the Census will now give us robust information about the numbers, demographics (sex ratio, mortality, life expectancy), educational data (literacy, ratio of school-going population, number of graduates and so on) and economic conditions (assets, working population and so on) of the OBC castes. The data will be available for each State and district, and for each caste and community within an OBC. These will become the basis for fine-tuning reservations and other schemes and for adjudicating politically sensitive disputes regarding inclusion or exclusion.

[...] Enumeration of the OBCs is not an optional policy. No modern state has the option of not counting the social groups that it recognises in its law and policy. Thus, the policy of reservations for the OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions, besides a host of other schemes for the benefit of backward classes, mandates that this group be enumerated.

And in a very interesting paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, the researcher Sonalde Desai addressed some of the technical difficulties in making a comprehensive map of caste in India:

Collecting data on jatis is hard enough, given thousands of jatis inhabiting the length and breadth of India; making sense of these data after collection is even harder. For example, it is easy for an interviewer to ask a respondent about their caste and write down this response verbatim. However, caste identification can be at a very general level or at an extremely finegrained level. For example, depending upon her mood, a respondent may say “I am Baniya”, “I am Modh” or “I am Dasha Shrimali Modh Banik”. All of these responses would be correct. If she calls herself Modh and her cousin calls herself Baniya, our computerised analysis would assume they are from different castes. [In one survey] a sample of 41,554 households yielded a list of 7,372 castes. Some of these are different spellings of the same group, Jadav vs Yadav; but others refer to totally different but similar sounding groups, e g, Jat vs Jatav. Given these complexities, it is not surprising that since independence, the Office of the Registrar General has steadfastly avoided collecting detailed caste data in decennial censuses.

What's my own position regarding the caste census? Ambiguous, I must admit. The citizen side of me, the side that loves the Indian Constitution and believes in its ideals, feels that the survey will increase caste consciousness, a sense of high and low, in Indian society. The side of me that writes novels, on the other hand, and loves the density of novelistic depictions of human realities from within their own categories (no matter how minute) feels there would be much to learn from a more detailed map of caste in India.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To reach the writer of this blog: chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at +1-202-624-1880 or mberley@bloomberg.net