After two days of caste-related riots that left eight people dead in the Indian state of Gujarat, calm is slowly returning. However, a curfew remains in place and the Internet has been blocked in some areas. And many residents are furious.
Protests began in Ahmedabad, with members of the Patel caste [the caste system is a system of social stratification and impacts people’s occupations] demanding quotas in public universities and in government jobs. The influential Patels, a caste that also own a lot of the region’s land and diamond businesses, are not among the Indian castes considered as being disadvantaged, which benefit from quotas (also known in India as “reservations”.)
A Patel rally held on Tuesday evening quickly degenerated into clashes with the police after the protest movement’s leader Hardik Patel was arrested. Rioting quickly spread to other towns in the state, and dozens of police stations and vehicles were set ablaze. Hardik Patel was freed later in the night, but clashes continued into Wednesday, when government forces were brought in and a curfew installed. Parts of Ahmedabad still have limited Internet access, in an effort the authorities say is meant to stop incendiary messages from spreading via social media.
“I’m a victim of caste-based quotas – I could have gone to a better university”
Chintan Patel is a university student who attended the rally on Tuesday. He later filmed some of the clashes between rioters and police (see video above).
Police hitting protesters.
As a Patel, I personally feel like I’ve been the victim of caste-based reservations. I’m sure I could have gone to a better university if this reservation system did not exist: students from the general castes have trouble getting into good colleges compared to those from so-called ‘backwards’ castes. For example, a friend of mine is from the OBC caste category [Editor’s Note: "Other Backwards Castes" is a group of middle-range castes that are considered to be historically economically-disadvantaged but not socially shunned]. His family makes more money than mine. But he got admission to our university with 60 percent on his test scores, while for people in the general category, like me, cutoffs were at 80 percent.
This, to me, is discrimination, and that’s why I went to protest. We were protesting for the Patels’ inclusion in the OBC caste category, but in reality, I think most protesters don’t believe we’ll ever get that – the idea is to break down the reservations system, so we ask that the government either include us Patels in reservations, or get rid of all reservations… I would prefer the latter.
When the police started beating protesters, I ran away and went home. I heard that the police attacked people who were not even protesters - including women - and vandalized cars, which can be seen in news reports. That got people very angry, and some protesters retaliated by attacking police property. While I don’t condone violence, it seems like a rather human reaction to me… The next day I was at the home of family members when I saw rioters and police clash in the streets below, which is when I filmed my videos.
The city is calm again due to the curfew, but I don’t think this is the last of the protests. How can we not protest when there is such an injustice? Today, there are plenty of families from ‘backwards’ classes who have become more financially stable, while others from ‘higher’ castes are poorer. Patels are not all rich – there are many farmers and factory workers. So what would make more sense would be to give reservations based on individual families’ economic situations.
“It’s ridiculous – the Patels are a caste of landowners”
Kushboo Sharma, who lives in Ahmedabad, is the founder of a communications agency that works with local businesses. She is from a caste which, like the Patels, do not benefit from reservations.
The rally was held just 5 minutes away from my house, and my family decided it would be best to stay indoors and wait until it was over. When there’s such a big protest, there’s always a risk of it getting out of hand. And that’s what happened: mob mentality took over. The mobs – which for all we know included other people than Patels – did senseless things, like attack public buses and force people to close their shops. For two days, the whole city was paralysed: you couldn’t buy groceries, nobody went to work. My company lost two days of production - and think of all the day laborers that lost their wages… !
And what are these Patels protesting for? A handful of government jobs, and quotas in universities which they already attend in very large proportions... It’s true that there’s a flaw in the system: I think it would be fairer if quotas were based on economic background instead of caste. The reason this is not yet the case, many feel, is that politicians appeal to voter blocs along caste lines, and so touching this system could be disadvantageous to them.
But really, Patels asking to be part of the quota system is just ridiculous – they are the region’s landowners, and some protesters showed up in Jaguars and Audis! It seems that because there has recently been a slight downturn in the businesses the Patels run, notably in the diamond sector, they are feeling a bit vulnerable. But they are still very much an economically-advanced caste, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, so including all of them in the reservations program would not make any sense.
Gujarat state was deeply affected by deadly communal riots in 2002. However, Sharma, who lived through those riots, say these latest riots are not comparable in scale.I don’t believe caste fighting will reach such proportions as fighting between Muslims and Hindus. And I’m encouraged by the fact that all of my employees have already returned to work! We’re ready to move on.