South China Morning Post, February 20, 2016
Indian authorities issued shoot-on-sight orders and deployed thousands of troops in a northern state neighbouring New Delhi Saturday, after escalating caste protests left five people dead, officials and reports said.
Television images showed mobs wielding sticks rampaging through the streets in Haryana state, setting fire to a local government minister’s house and railway stations, damaging train tracks and blocking two key highways.
A week-long protest by members of the state’s dominant Jat caste, who are demanding quotas for government jobs and in education, turned violent Friday as police fired on protesters.
India sets aside a proportion of jobs and educational places to people from so-called lower and backward castes–measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.
The Jats, a comparatively affluent group, want the same special allowances to put them on an equal footing with lower castes.
Smaller protests broke out in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, which also borders Delhi, late Saturday, as hundreds of Jat demonstrators blocked a main highway.
Several media reports quoted unnamed police sources as saying five people had died in the violence, but repeated calls to police officials went unanswered.
Earlier in the day Haryana police chief Yash Pal Singal told reporters that one person had been confirmed dead.
Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar appealed for calm Saturday and urged people not to damage public property.
“I appeal to the people especially the youth to stop the protests. Nothing will be gained by destroying property,” Khattar said in a televised interview.
With protests spreading across the state, more than 5,000 army and paramilitary troops patrolled the streets to impose a round-the-clock curfew in eight districts.
The army was forced to use helicopters to reach parts of the state after protesters blocked two highways connecting four northern states with the capital.
In Rohtak district, the centre of the protests, a mob defied the security clampdown and set fire to a police station, a petrol pump, a community hall and shops, police said.
“It was a 3,000-strong mob with axes, iron rods and sticks. We had to run for safety,” Rajender Singh, a local police official said.
Protesters attacked ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker Raj Kumar Saini’s house in Haryana over comments he made opposing quotas for Jats.
The Saini caste, to which the lawmaker belongs, is currently given quotas which would be diluted if the privileges were expanded to other groups.
Mobile internet and SMS services have been shut down in riot-hit areas to halt the flow of information.
Protesters damaged railway tracks and started fires at three railway stations leading 600 trains to be cancelled since Friday, Indian Railways spokesman Neeraj Sharma said.
But Jat leaders threatened to continue their protests after talks with Haryana’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government remained inconclusive.
“The protest will only end when government accepts our demands. We won’t get carried away by false assurances now,” said Yashapal Malik, the president of a national Jat organisation which is leading the protest.
The Jats make up 29 per cent of Haryana’s population and are traditionally a farming community.
In March 2014, the then national ruling Congress government decided to allot quotas to the Jats nationwide.
But the Supreme Court, India’s highest court, cancelled the order saying it violated rules around quotas.
Supreme Court rules state that caste quotas cannot exceed 50 per cent of the total of, for example, university places or government jobs.
It also states that caste alone cannot be the reason to approve quotas for a community but that factors such as poverty levels must be taken into account, meaning the Jats do not qualify.
The latest protests echo caste violence that swept the western state of Gujarat in August last year, leaving several dead.
That state saw weeks of protests by the privileged Patidar or Patel caste, who demanded the same treatment afforded to lower castes.
But the policy of “reservation” causes resentment among other communities who say it freezes them out.