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Why India’s Lower Castes Could Hold the Key to the Election

People hold portraits of Babasaheb Ambedkar during a protest in Kolkata, India. 

People hold portraits of Babasaheb Ambedkar during a protest in Kolkata, India. 

Photographer: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images

For generations of Indians, the ancient caste system has defined boundaries for everything from family ties and cultural traditions to educational and economic opportunities. Despite reform efforts, deep-rooted prejudices and entitlement among higher castes hold firm, while those on the lowest rungs still face marginalization, discrimination and violence. Nonetheless, the lowest castes -- including the so-called untouchables -- are a formidable electoral force. With political parties of all stripes pitching for votes ahead of the next federal election due by May, caste will help determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds onto power.

It has its roots in ancient Indian texts and was later formalized in a legal treatise called Manusmriti, dating from about 1,000 B.C. The text defined karma (work) and dharma (duty) for Hindus, who today represent 80 percent of India’s population. In it, society was divided into four strict hierarchical groups known as varnas. The Brahmins -- priests and other intellectuals -- were at the top. Then came the Kshatriyas or warriors and the Vaishyas or traders. At the bottom were the Shudras, those who did menial labor. The texts laid down laws on marriage, property and even food. For instance, if a Brahmin consumed food prepared by a Shudra, he’d be born a pig in his next life. Since then it’s evolved into a rigid system composed of 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.