What’s the story?

CASTE-RELATED violence continued yesterday in western India despite a curfew imposed after paramilitary and police forces fought to contain riots.

The curfew covered at least five cities in the state of Gujarat with mobile phone reception cut off in an attempt to prevent gangs gathering.

Teargas and batons were used by security forces after mobs burned vehicles and hurled stones and sticks at police.

Yesterday as a general strike hit the region, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for peace, saying: “Violence will not benefit anyone. The only way forward is to have a peaceful dialogue.”

Schools, shops and businesses were all shut yesterday with Gujarat’s largest city Ahmedabad, almost completely shut down by the strike.

At least a dozen police officers were injured in the riots according to Gujarat police chief, PC Thakur.

“The agitators clashed with the police and members of the lower castes,” he said. “They have burnt down nine police stations and over three dozen buses. We had to impose a curfew to control the clashes.”


However, the leader of the protesters, 22-year-old Hardik Patel, accused security forces of targeting the Patel community.

“The police have assaulted members of my community and behaved like terrorists. We will carry out our movement peacefully. I am asking my supporters to fast in support of our cause,” he said.

The clashes broke out on Tuesday in protest over Patel’s detention by police after he led a huge demonstration in the state capital.

This was the result of long-simmering tension over positive discrimination given to the lower castes and the “untouchables” or Dalit people in India.

The action is aimed at helping them overcome centuries of discrimination but there is growing resentment in many areas over the places reserved for the Dalits and lower castes in schools, colleges and government jobs.

The Patels are just one of the communities claiming either that the system should be abolished or that they too should be given special status.

Around one fifth of the 63 million people in Gujarat are of the Patel community which is heavily involved in the diamond cutting and polishing industry and also farms some of the best land in the region.

However, the Patels claim their livelihoods are becoming increasingly difficult as agriculture and industry have been heavily hit by high inflation.

They also claim their young people are being denied places in college because too many are reserved for Dalits and lower castes.

The Patels are demanding to be included in the quota for government jobs and education places. If the changes are not made, say the Patels, the whole system should be scrapped.

Chief minister of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel has called on her community to stay calm. She said the Patels’ demands could not be met as the 50 per cent of school places and jobs reserved for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) were already taken and the Supreme Court of India has ruled that no more can be set aside.


While the Prime Minister – formerly chief minister of Gujarat, his home state – comes from a caste included in the OBC, he has previously said India must rise above its caste based divisions and try to achieve a merit-based society. Modi, whose father was a tea seller, has repeatedly stressed his own rise to power from lowly origins.

It is unlikely, however, that people will pay much heed to his desire for a meritocracy as caste divisions are deeply embedded in Indian society and likely to influence the pending state election in Bihar where Nitish Kumar, the chief minister, belongs to the Patel community and has made clear that his sympathies lie with the Gujarat protestors.

Despite the attempts of recent Indian governments to outlaw caste violence, it still claims many lives each year.

Last October, upper-caste men raped five Dalit women in Bihar’s Bhojpur district while hundreds of Dalit families were chased from their homes in neighbouring districts after a Dalit man attempted to run against higher-caste candidates in a local election.

The higher castes’ resentment could have been fuelled by the appointment last May of Dalit Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister of Bihar. He has introduced policies to help members of his community as well as reportedly urging them to have more children so that Dalits can become more politically powerful.

“A deep-rooted bias prevails against … those from the downtrodden sections of society … I have myself been a victim of caste bias,” Manjhi has said.

While some scholars say the origins of the caste system are pre-modern and lie in ancient religious texts, others maintain that the classifications were made more rigid by the British Raj who used it as a mechanism for administration, giving the best jobs only to the upper castes.

Social unrest in the early 20th century led to a change of policy with a certain number of government jobs reserved for the lower castes. After independence in 1947 the caste-based jobs reservation policy was expanded, with discrimination against lower castes made illegal.

Rapid urbanisation over the last few decades has weakened the caste system according to some sociologists but if this week’s protests in Gujarat are any indication there is still a long way to go.