India’s Constitution abolished caste, the social hierarchy that has ordered Indian life for millenniums, and instituted a system of quotas to help those at the bottom rise up. But caste divisions persist nonetheless, with upper castes dominating many spheres of life despite their relatively small numbers.
While in the south lower caste members concentrated on economic development and education as a route to prosperity, in the north the chief aim of caste-based groups has been political power and its spoils. As a result India’s northern lower castes tend to be less educated and less prosperous than their southern counterparts. Charismatic leaders in the north from lower castes have used caste identity as a way to mobilize voters, winning control over several large north Indian states. Caste so thoroughly permeates politics in the northern half of the world’s largest democracy that it is often said that people don’t cast their vote; they vote their caste.
Although the NYT story does not mention the underlying demographic situation, the early emphasis on education among lower castes in the south meant that smaller family sizes and lower infant mortality rates came much earlier to the south, helping families to help themselves. In the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, fertility had dropped below the replacement level by the mid-1990s and has stayed there since. However, in the four most populous states in the north (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh), where 40 percent of the Indian population lives, the average woman was bearing more than three children, according to the most recent Demographic and Health Survey.