Continuing caste protests are raging in India’s northern state of Haryana, where more than a dozen people have died and scores of others wounded in violent clashes.
Roads and railways have been blocked as one group, members of the Jat community, is pushing to be granted quotas in the government and education system.
Bismillah Geelani has this report.
In Rohtak district in the northern state of Haryana, thousands of vehicles are stranded on the highway.
Truck driver Satish has been waiting with his fruit-laden vehicle for the last five days to cross over to the capital, New Delhi – just 150 kilometers away.
“It’s so frustrating. We are stuck here for no reason and we have to walk 2 kilometers to get food,” he says, “We have nothing to do with all this, so why we are being made to suffer?”
The ongoing agitation from Haryana’s Jat community has brought life in the state to a grinding halt.
Jats, predominantly farmers, are considered to be an upper caste and relatively affluent, but they are demanding a quota in educational institutions and government jobs.
To have their demands heard they have blocked roads and railway tracks and there have been violent and fatal demonstrations.
Jat leader Sanjay Yadav says the protests are set to continue.
“We have been demanding this quota for several years and every government has been using us,” he says, “We are the largest vote bank in the state and before elections every political party assures us that they will grant us our demand, but once they take our votes nobody looks back.”
Though the previous government had announced a quota for the Jat community, the Supreme Court overturned the decision saying they don’t meet the concession criteria.
The court ruled that social and educational backwardness is the key reason the quota, or reservation, as it is known, is granted. And that economic standing is not enough.
Senior Supreme court lawyer Surinder Singh explains.
“There are obviously some communities that qualify to be very backward, and if you add communities which are relatively forward and they compete with each other, it’s obvious the ones who are really backward will lose out,” he says, “So I think the Supreme Court has a point in it that any community that can politically mobilize itself and wants to be called as backward class or backward caste would not automatically qualify simply because they want to make this claim.”
But it is not just the Jats who are up in arms over the quota system. Other communities in Gujarat and Andhara Pradesh have also been pushing for the same over recent months.
Described as the race for “backwardness”, the situation has fuelled a sense of insecurity among the Dalits and tribal people – the main beneficiaries of the quotas.
Chandrabhan Prasad is a writer and Dalit activist.
“The main purpose of the reservation policy as an affirmative action was to bring into mainstream the Dalits and tribal people, who were called impure and were discriminated against. Now everyone is asking for it,” explains Prasad, “The trend is making a mockery of the whole concept of social reform the quota system was sought to bring about.”
Many see the growing demand for quotas from various communities as a result of the breakdown of India’s agricultural sector.
Another, and perhaps the more influential factor, is what is known as “jobless economic growth”.
Satish Despandey, a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, explains.
“What is happening today is that the new pattern of development, or the lack of it, that has been in effect for the past 20 years has raised expectation, but has done very little to fulfill them,” he says.
“So the groups, especially the left behind sections of dominant groups are feeling the gap between their aspirations and reality very sharply and instead of expressing their frustration with the economic system, which is preventing or not bringing about growth, they are seeking the easy route of reservation,” he continues.
The quota system was initially introduced to bridge the huge social gap between the lower and upper castes created by India’s centuries old caste hierarchy.
Many believe it has outlived its purpose and should be abolished.
But Despandey argues the complicated problem needs to be considered more deeply.
“We all need to look beyond reservation for [a] solution and most of all we must stop using this kind of situation where relative economic disadvantage or backwardness is one thing and extreme forms of social exclusion are another thing,” he says, “To the extreme forms of social exclusion that Dalits and tribal people suffer from, forced inclusion via reservation is the only solution.”
While the Jat protests show no sign of dying down any time soon the government has announced plans to introduce a law providing a quota for the community.
But it’s a move many say will set a dangerous precedent.