People normally try to upgrade themselves socially. But the Brahmins of Rajasthan - top dogs in the Hindu caste system - want to lower themselves to qualify for affirmative action. The Rajasthan Brahmin Mahasabha has launched a campaign demanding that the government reserve a certain number of government jobs for those among the state's 7 million Brahmins who are poor. 'We are not all well off. Yes, we have social prestige, but you can't feed your children with that. Some of us have no land, no jobs, no income,' said Mahasabha president Bhanwarlal Sharma. While the lower castes were becoming increasingly prosperous thanks to government job quotas, Brahmins left to fend for themselves were becoming paupers, Mr Sharma said. Brahmins rank at the top of the caste hierarchy. At the bottom are dalits, who along with many other castes benefit from government jobs and university places reserved for them as part of India's attempt to remedy the injustices of the rigid caste system. For centuries, the higher castes oppressed the lower castes, depriving them of education and, as a result, a share of the nation's wealth. But caste and class is a complex issue. Some of middle castes have prospered from affirmative action and critics say they should no longer be entitled to job quotas. And caste and class are not uniform throughout the country. The Jat Sikhs, for example, are considered a low caste in Rajasthan and as such are entitled to affirmative action places. But in neighbouring Punjab, where many are politically powerful landowners, Jat Sikhs rank at the top of the social pecking order. Mr Sharma has pledged a non-violent agitation to press his demand to get places for poor Brahmins in Rajasthan. Mayawati, a dalit leader in Uttar Pradesh and a champion of the lower castes, surprised many recently when she backed his demand. 'I have no problem with poor Brahmins qualifying for job quotas. I believe poverty should be the only criterion, not caste,' she said. But such is the scramble to clamber onto the quota bandwagon that social groups now compete to qualify for places. Even Muslims and Christians - who are outside the caste system - have demanded job quotas on the grounds of low social status. 'The whole thing has gone mad. Politicians are responsible for this circus. In every election, they promise a different group that they will have them included as a deprived group, entitled to quotas, just to get votes,' medical student Akash Tiwari said. Mr Tiwari was one of hundreds of medical students who protested on the streets of New Delhi last year at a proposed increase in the number of medical college places reserved for the lower castes. 'We have a situation where castes are vying with one another to be declared socially backward,' sociologist Andre Beteille said. 'Why are we tackling social reform in this way when we are trying to be modern?'