Caste life in India is better on the bottom

Demonstrators ask for lowest status

June 09, 2008|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SIKANDARA, India - Sitting in the middle of a highway under baking hot sun is not Mansingh Burja's idea of a good time. But it's the best way, he says, for him and hundreds of fellow protesters to vent their anger over being classified by the government as a "backward" class near the bottom of India's social ladder.

They want to be lower.

Members of an ethnic group known as Gujjars, the demonstrators have blocked traffic for the past two weeks here on the road leading to the famed Taj Mahal, ever since dozens from their ranks were killed in a hail of bullets during clashes with state police. They vow to remain where they are until the government demotes them to the lowest rung of the official social hierarchy.

Such a comedown would essentially reduce the Gujjars to a status similar to that of India's former "untouchables," pariahs under the ancient caste system. But it would also entitle them to more favorable quotas in education and public-sector jobs that the government has set aside for the most oppressed groups in an effort to redress historic wrongs.

"Our community is just as backward" as the former untouchables, declared Burja, 32. "We need the same kinds of benefits."

He and his fellow demonstrators have brought life to a standstill in a large swath of Rajasthan, a state in western India popular with tourists for its imposing desert forts and picturesque cultural life.

The protesters bivouacked in the middle of the highway here have cut off the nearby city of Jaipur, about 30 miles away, from Agra and the Taj Mahal, a key artery not just for tourist traffic but also for movement of goods.

Gujjar women have sat down on train tracks and disrupted rail service.

The demonstrators also have destroyed public property, pulling down traffic lights and ripping out highway guardrails to fling onto the asphalt as roadblocks alongside uprooted trees, boulders and the charred frames of burned-out motorcycles. Economic losses stemming from two weeks of protest are estimated to exceed $1 billion.

Nobody anticipated such a violent response from state police, who fired on protesters in at least three incidents beginning May 23. When the clashes subsided a few days later, 43 people lay dead, nearly all of them Gujjars. Autopsies reportedly suggest that some of the victims had been shot in the back.

The dead included 20 people, all but two of them young men, from this town alone. Their bodies, packed on ice, lay in a row of crude wooden coffins here on the highway in Sikandara, a Gujjar stronghold, as a sign of protest until the remains were cremated Saturday.

Rajasthan's government has been widely condemned for its bloody crackdown, with the central government describing the situation as a "complete collapse of law and order." The state's top elected official, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, took out ads in national newspapers early in June admonishing people that now was "not the time for allegations and counter-allegations."

Along with harsh criticism over her handling of the protests, there has been criticism of the entitlement program at the root of the Gujjars' agitation.

However well-intentioned, government quotas have sharpened caste divisions rather than healed them, critics say, and encouraged "a race to the bottom" as groups such as the Gujjars clamor to be recognized as more disadvantaged than others in order to qualify for benefits and quotas, known as reservations.

What began as a program specifically intended to remedy discrimination against untouchables - those shunned as unclean in the Hindu caste system - has morphed into a tool of political patronage for parties hoping to win votes by promising to extend benefits to one poor community or another.

"Unfortunately, somewhere down the line we took our eye off the ball, and we began to equate reservations with anti-poverty policies. The two are quite distinct," said Dipankar Gupta, an expert on caste at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Most Gujjars are agricultural laborers and cattle herders, some too poor to own their own land.

"In Rajasthan, a lot of this community [are] in a dire situation," said Sachin Pilot, a Gujjar member of parliament, who noted that Gujjars in other parts of India, such as the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, have already been granted the lowest status.

"Everybody wants a share of the pie because India is on a growth trajectory," Pilot said. For communities such as the Gujjars, he argued, the only way to get a foothold in an economy expanding by 9 percent a year is through government intervention.

No one is predicting how the current standoff will be resolved. The leader of the Gujjar movement says he is willing to open talks with the state government, but his followers remain defiant.

"The cops are constantly putting pressure on us, and the state government isn't inclined to talk to us," protester Burja said. "We're fully prepared to face bullets and anything else that might happen."

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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