Caste protests shake Indian capital

Bricks thrown and tyres burned as protesters near New Delhi press welfare demands.

    India's Gujjars are fighting to be reclassified in the status system so as to qualify for better jobs [AFP]
    The Gujjars, who threw stones at police and in places broke windshields of cars and buses, want to be reclassified further down India's complex Hindu caste and status system to qualify for government jobs and university places reserved for such groups.
    During Thursday's protests, Subodh Singh, from the Delhi Gujjar Federation, said: "We are here for the people of Rajasthan who have died. Who do not have food to eat. We won't settle for anything less than this scheduled tribe status, that is our least demand."
    Constitutional fight

    In video

    Al Jazeera reports on why the Gujjars are protesting

    Police cleared most blockades after hours of scuffles. Some train services to towns outside Delhi, including several tourist destinations, remained suspended.

    Sachin Pilot, a representative from the Gujjar community and member of the Indian National Congress party told Al Jazeera that the Gujjars, present in nine of the 25 states of India, are fighting for something they believe is constitutionally theirs.

    "There has been violence and state-sponsored terrorism which has claimed 66 lives in the past 12 months, and that has activated this movement.

    "India is growing at nine per cent a year - economically it is becoming a superpower," he said. "I think it's important that the backward communities have an equitable stakeholding in that process.

    "It's not just a question of status, it's about having equal distribution in terms of opportunities for jobs and education."

    "It is important that a country grows at an equitable pace, and every community, no matter how backward or forward it is, educationally or financially, has a say in India's growth story."

    Policeman attacked

    Protesters threw bricks at police and broke
    car and bus windshields [AFP]

    Demonstrations turned violent last week after protesters lynched a policeman and police fired on protesters, killing 36 of them in just a few days.

    On Thursday morning, the protesters turned vehicles away from the towns of Noida and Gurgaon, home to scores of outsourcing and computer software firms.

    Some telecom firms such as BlackBerry closed their service centres in these suburbs.

    "The truth is that our politics is driving us into an explosive cul de sac," wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of the Centre for Policy Research, in The Indian Express.

    "The recent, terrible violence is a reminder of what happens to societies when they can neither endure their current social condition, nor the means to overcome it."

    'Exclusory system'

    Javeed Alam, chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, and expert on the Indian caste system, told Al Jazeera that the problem was a consequence of the Indian caste system being based on exclusion.

    "These people [Gujjars] still have not been able to make headway in the same way that the Indian economy has made way for others. So they are fighting now to gain some kind of position in society.

    "The Gujjars have a long history of violent protest. These were the people who were at the forefront of the revolt against the British rule in 1857. After that, the British classified them as criminal tribes.

    "They have lived a life of complete exclusion and repression," he said.

    Systemic issue

    The Indian government reserves about half of all seats in state colleges and universities for lower castes and tribal groups to even out centuries-old social hierarchies, in what was called the world's biggest affirmative action scheme.

    However, the Gujjars fall into a different grouping and seek to be reclassified under the lower "scheduled tribes and castes" grouping.

    The scheme has been criticised for accentuating caste identities in India, where discrimination on caste is banned in the constitution.

    Some critics say the quota system hides India's failure to provide good universal education and social equality.

    Corpses used

    In Rajasthan's towns of Bayana and Sikandra, where Gujjars are a majority, protesters blocked roads with bodies of some of those killed in the police firing a week ago, saying the bodies would not be cremated until the government relented.

    The army and federal police forces surrounded both towns.

    A year ago, Gujjars in Rajasthan fought police and members of another caste that already qualifies for job quotas. At least 26 people were killed in that violence.

    After these protests, a state government committee said it would spend 2.8 billion rupees ($67 million) improving schools, clinics, roads and other infrastructure in Gujjar areas.

    The Gujjars, however, rejected this option.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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