Guardian (London), May 29, 2008
A blockade by thousands of protesters from India’s Gujjar tribe brought Delhi to a standstill today, paralysing trains by squatting on tracks and setting up a ring of burning tyres around the perimeter of the city.
The Gujjars, traditionally nomadic farmers, are demanding to be socially downgraded in order to gain government jobs and university places. Thousands had gathered at major intersections around the edges of New Delhi, setting up road blocks.
Paramilitary forces and police were drafted in to stop violence but most stood by, wary after a week of bloodshed in northern India which had left 39 people dead—38 of whom had been shot by security forces. Only when the mob threatened to surge past police lines did the security forces fire tear gas to quell the stone-throwing crowds.
Community leaders have been demanding that the government give the community special status for several years. The Gujjars, already considered a disadvantaged group, want to be reclassified further down the Hindu hierarchy.
The Indian government runs the world’s largest affirmative action programme, reserving half of government jobs and university places to those socially disadvantaged by centuries of caste oppression. Gujjars, who the British Raj classified as part of the “criminial castes” are already considered “backward”. But they themselves say they are not backward enough.
Avinash Bandana, a Gujjar farmers’ leader, told a local television channel that “the community needed the appropriate status. We cannot be placed too high”.
Their leaders say that they cannot compete with their peers, principally the Jat and Yadav communities of north-west India, which thanks to land reform have emerged as a powerful landlords. Gujjars, who number some 15 million, want to be put on par with “tribal groups”, among the poorest and least well-educated people in India.
Experts are divided, and there are some who say that Britain had a bigger role than Hinduism in condemning the Gujjars to decades of illiteracy and penury. “They became outcastes because the British criminalised them,” said Amaresh Misra, a historian and writer. “These groups cannot escape history and what we see is they just cannot compete with other groups who because they were nomadic and had no rights to land. The solution would be to give them a separate status and examine their needs.”
However many in the country say that succumbing to the Gujjars’ demands would simply lead to a race to the bottom, one in which different groups would vie for government handouts on the basis of nebulous caste groupings.
“The Gujjar agitation once again highlights the perils of caste-based reservations which is bound to lead to more groups clamouring for quota benefits,” the Times of India said in an editorial.
“It is time that the Indian state takes a more nuanced approach to affirmative action. A points-based system where factors like income and gender are considered, in addition to caste, might deliver social justice better.”