Indian forces clash with low-caste protesters

Paramilitary forces have deployed in Rajasthan, India, where ethnic Gujjars are demanding job quotas.

Gurinder Osan/AP
Members of the Gujjar community burned an effigy at a protest rally in New Delhi, India on Monday. Clashes between police and Gujjars, traditionally nomadic shepherds, took place over the weekend killing more than 35 people as the low caste Gujjars demand job quotas.

More than 35 people were killed and many more injured in a weekend of clashes between police and members of a farming caste who are demanding job quotas in the west Indian state of Rajasthan.

The Gujjars, traditionally nomadic shepherds, who are considered to low status in India's caste structure, want to be considered a "scheduled tribe," an often impoverished grouping in India that is entitled to government jobs and university places.

But a state government committee recently voted against defining Gujjars as a scheduled tribe in India's "reservation" system, as its affirmative action system is known; saying it would instead spend $67 million on improving schools, healthcare, and infrastructure in Gujjar-dominated areas.

The clashes began Friday, reports the BBC, when police fired on demonstrators, killing 15. There were some reports from other sources that protesters had lynched a policeman.

Through Friday and Saturday, police fired bullets and tear gas on demonstrators in a number of towns and villages in the state, reports the Associated Press.

These included protesters who set fire to a police station and two buses, and others who shot and wounded a policeman. During the violence, at least 70 people were hospitalized, many in the state capital of Jaipur, which was struck by a terrorist bomb attack last month.

The Press Trust of India reports that the Gujjar's leader, Colonel Kirori Singh Bainsla, had demanded that Rajasthan's chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, should come to the site of the clashes and speak to the Gujjars about their demands.

"There is no question of "relenting" this time, Bainsla said, adding "if we do, then history will call us cowards."

He was referring, presumably, to last year's clashes between police and the Gujjars, in which at least 26 people were killed. Those riots were called off after the government promised it would set up a panel to look into the Gujjars' demands. That was the panel that recently decided to reject the demands.

NDTV, one of India's leading television news channels, reports that in many villages, all the men had gone to join in the protests and that their fighting spirit was undiminished.

"Our boy is dead, others are dying. This will go on. The deaths are inevitable. To gain something, one has to lose too," said Arjun Singh, a local resident.

NDTV, however, said the riots had more to do with an internal leadership battle – between Colonel Bainsla, a former Army officer and other, older community leaders – than the place of the Gujjars within India's reservation system.

The Hindu newspaper reported that on Sunday women joined the protests – by sitting on railway lines armed with sticks and iron rods

"The hands that wear bangles have taken up sticks now. The government will have to listen to it," a woman protester said.

Politicians, meanwhile, saw political mileage to be made out of the clashes. Sachin Pilot, a high profile member of parliament for the Congress Party, which leads at the center, said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government of Rajasthan should quit, according to Indo-Asian News Service.

"The Vasundhara Raje government has lost its moral right and constitutional authority to continue in power. It has to admit the misgivings and must quit office now. You cannot terrorise a community."

In the meantime, television news channel Times Now said Monday that fresh unrest was being reported in more areas of the state, and that the government was concerned this would spread to neighboring states. Over 2,000 paramilitary forces had been deployed in the state, it added .

In an editorial entitled "Yearly Crisis," the Calcutta Telegraph said that the weekend's violence "looks like a particularly unfortunate case of history repeating itself" – only worse.

But the Gujjars' stand has hardened too, with nothing other than the recommendation letter for ST [Scheduled Tribe] status as their absolute demand. Ms Raje has also begun to strike a tough-talking [sic] enough-is-enough note. But this crisis is the inevitable consequence of political opportunism, which locks governments and communities in impossible, no-win spirals that neither dialogue nor violence seems to be able to resolve.

In editorial in India's leading weekly news magazine, Outlook, columnist Rajinder Puri slammed the way reservations were handed out in India.

"Going down the social ladder helps folk climb up the economic ladder," he wrote. "So it seems is the current wisdom propagated by India's politicians."
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