Clashes erupt amid caste protests in India

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SHAFAQNA - Clashes erupted between police and members of a farming caste demanding government benefits in western India overnight. As the protesters’ leader called for a strike, authorities responded by sending paramilitary units to restore the order Wednesday. Police did not report any causalities.

A curfew was issued Tuesday night in at least five cities in Gujarat state after police officers and government vehicles were attacked. Cellphone communications were blocked as well to prevent protesters from coordinating their movements.

The Patel community, which makes up about 20 percent of Gujarat’s 63 million population, demands special government priveledges given to many other minorities in India, such as guaranteeing them a share of government jobs and school places.

The Patels say their livelihood based on seasonal farming became increasingly difficult due to India’s agricultural distress and rapid economic growth marked by high inflation.

India’s constitution includes certain “reservations” for India’s lowest Dalit and untouchable castes to help them overcome centuries of discrimination. That has been expanded over the years for several other relatively disadvantaged low caste groups.

Easy access to government jobs, schools and universities provided by the reservations, made them a huge political bargaining chip in India.

On Tuesday, Patel leaders led a rally attended by 500,000 Patels from across Gujarat. The next day streets of Ahmadabad were deserted and schools, colleges and businesses were closed. The only crowds were large groups of people gathered in the city’s Patel-dominated neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, who administered Gujarat as chief minister for 12 years, successor Anandiben Patel urged members of her own community to maintain the peace.

She has said that giving into the demands of the Patels was not possible because India’s Supreme Court has mandated that state governments can set aside only 50 percent of jobs and school seats for backward groups and that existing low caste groups already fill those spots.

The Indian government has said it was sending paramilitary forces to help restore order in the state.

 

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