Haryana State in India Proposes New Caste Status in Bid to Quell Protests

6 years, 11 months ago - February 23, 2016
Haryana State in India Proposes New Caste Status..
A state government in India promised to introduce a bill to grant coveted “backward” status to a relatively prosperous caste group, officials said Monday, in an effort to quell protests that have raged for the past four days.

The protesters, members of the Jat caste group, had blocked roads around the capital, set fire to railway stations and cars, and temporarily shut down a crucial canal that is a major source of the city’s water. Nineteen people were killed in the violence in surrounding Haryana State, and fears of water shortages led New Delhi to close its schools to conserve its supply.

The main thoroughfare in the area, Grand Trunk Road, which had been reopened on Sunday, was blocked again by fighting on Monday morning, the police said. Still, a state official said, 80 percent of the roads that had been closed were open again on Monday morning.

Roshan Shankar, an adviser to the Delhi government, said the authorities had regained control of a canal that supplied water to New Delhi, though the canal was badly damaged. For now, he said, the government was using existing reserves and other water bodies to meet the need. He said severe, widespread shortages had not been reported so far.

Nevertheless, he added, officials were “trying to get people to ration.”

A Jat leader, Satpal Singh Sangwan, a retired government official, said in an interview that officials had assured him that the Jat group would be added to a list of more than 2,000 other groups considered “backward,” making their members eligible for quotas in government jobs and university admissions.

“We’re not 100 percent satisfied, but it’s a beginning,” he said.

A year ago, another relatively prosperous caste group, in the state of Gujarat, also demanded, unsuccessfully, to be part of the “backward classes.” Yet the latest caste protests are only the most violent and visible in what has been a steady stream of requests from different caste groups claiming to be “backward.”

It is one of the country’s major paradoxes that a population that has been trying for decades to rid itself of the caste system finds so many groups demanding to be ranked lower on the socioeconomic ladder in order to advance themselves economically.

Experts say the trend is being driven by increasing numbers of Indians who fear being left behind in the rapidly modernizing economy and who see government quotas as the only tangible way they can gain influence to help better themselves economically.

Vast numbers of Indians now “feel totally helpless with regard to the economy and private capital,” said Satish Deshpande, a sociology professor at Delhi University.

“There’s a disillusionment,” said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College in London, because “the private sector is now passing them by.”

Despite the economic liberalization that began here in the 1990s, many people still lack jobs and educational opportunities, intensifying the competition for the age-old staple of government jobs. Almost half of government jobs and university seats in the country are reserved for members of special groups.

India’s Constitution guarantees equality to all, but it also enshrines caste-based affirmative action for the lowest social group, the Dalits, known in legal terms as scheduled castes, and for indigenous forest-dwellers, known as scheduled tribes. In time, the government created a third group, the Other Backward Classes.

In many cases, groups flex their electoral muscles to induce the government to add them to the list of groups considered backward.

The Jats started on that path. In 2014, as national elections approached, the incumbent Congress party agreed to their demand for backward status. But the Supreme Court struck down the decision last year, noting that a commission set up to review the program had refused to recommend such a step for the group.

Even as the Haryana State government on Monday was announcing its intention to allow the Jats to be considered among the “backward classes,” P. K. Das, the additional chief secretary of Haryana, which adjoins New Delhi, said in an interview that the path was complicated by the legal issues already raised by the Supreme Court. But he said the government would have to try to draw up a plan that passed legal muster this time around so the Jats could be included.

Mr. Das said the decision was made in a meeting Sunday between the state and central government, both of which are run by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After the announcement of the deal, state and federal government officials said the violence that escalated over the weekend had subsided in most parts of Haryana, although sporadic episodes continued. Protesters on Monday set fire to the car of a magistrate in one area and burned several cars of a freight train, the Haryana police said.

The Jat protests became so out of hand over the weekend that the Indian Army had to be called in. Mr. Das said several protesters were killed in clashes with another caste group whose property was being burned. Other people were killed when law enforcement officials fired at protesters who had turned violent, he said. At least 19 people in all have been killed, Mr. Das said.

The riots also disrupted businesses. Maruti Suzuki India, the country’s biggest car manufacturer, said over the weekend that it had suspended manufacturing at two area factories.

Text by The New York Times

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