Critics say traditional distinctions of class have no place in a would-be global power
For the first time since the days of the British Raj, officials in India are to ask people their caste as part of the national census, the biggest of its kind in the world. It is a move that has triggered intense controversy about a painful, vexing subject that the country cannot leave behind.
Having initially chosen not to include caste, the Indian government apparently gave in to demands from opposition parties and decided that, for the first time since 1931, census officials would ask respondents to say what traditional Hindu grouping they belong to.
The decision has sparked fierce debate. Defenders of the move say it will provide up-to-date information about the size and needs of various groups that will be vital for providing grants and reserved jobs and college places for those at the bottom of the caste ladder.
Others are equally adamant that caste should have no place in a country seeking to throw off the shackles of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy and looking to assume a position as a leading world power.
Among those who have strongly criticised the decision is Amitabh Bachchan, the near-legendary Bollywood actor considered the elder statesman of Hindi movies.
Writing on his blog, Mr Bachchan said that when census officials arrived at his house in Mumbai, he told them that his caste was "Indian".
"My father never believed in caste and neither do any of us," he added. "He married a Sikh, I married a Bengali, my brother a Sindhi, my daughter a Punjabi, my son a Mangalorean... in his autobiography he had [said] future generations of his family should marry into different parts of the country."
In traditional Hinduism there were four main castes and hundreds of sub-groups. In addition there were the "untouchables", who were considered to have no place in society and who are now more usually called Dalits.
For centuries, what job a person did, where they lived, what food they ate and where they were cremated depended largely on their caste. One of those who sought to reform the system was the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who, along with social campaigners such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, argued that caste had no place.
As India has developed, and as more people have moved to the cities, the rigid caste restrictions have loosened slightly. Yet although discrimination on the basis of caste is banned by the constitution, for hundreds of millions of people caste remains a defining, and often debilitating, label. Even now, English-language weekend papers carry pages of adverts for arranged marriages, all categorised under various castes. And a number of online sites cater exclusively to one caste.
Caste also remains hugely important in the world of business and finance. A recent study by the Indian economist Sukhdeo Thorat and Princeton University sociologist Katherine Newman found that having a low-caste surname significantly cut the chances of …