The death toll has risen to nine as violence continues to spread across the western Indian state of Gujarat. The violence which erupted on Tuesday was sparked by the arrest of Hardik Patel, who had earlier led a rally in the city of Ahmedabad.
22-year-old Hardik Patel led the rally to demand that Patels in the state gain classification as OBCs (Other Backward Classes).
OBC is a term used by the government of India to define the collective grouping of castes and sections of society that that are socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged. The use of the caste system, a system of social stratification was thought to have loosened over the past decade and in 2010 there was a strong cry for it to be outlawed.
However Indian laws are poorly implemented and the caste system is still rife throughout India and many continue to get judged and discriminated against based on the caste they were born into.
The country’s two hundred million Dalits, formerly referred to as untouchables, continue to be the victims of heinous crimes and acts of discrimination. Many are murdered, raped, face the prospect of being sold into prostitution and brought in slavery and many who commit these crimes do so with relative impunity.
Those with OBC status, which include sects of all the religious groups in India including Hindu and Muslim castes, are entitled to government quotas in schools and government jobs. The social hierarchy of the caste system prevent many of those at the bottom of society to move up but the introduction of these quotas by the Indian constitution have given many the chance of work and education.
In essence, Hardik Patel is asking the Indian government to demote the Patel caste to grant them backward status, so that they are able to gain an advantage from the government quotas in the work and education sector.
It’s hard for those outside the Gujarat state to believe the Patels in Gujarat are at a disadvantage and require additional government help. The Patels are one of the major reasons for Gujarat’s industrial growth, turning the state into one of the economic powerhouses of India and are at the core of Gujarat’s power establishment.
They comprise of approximately 20% of Gujarat’s population, control India’s world famous diamond cutting and polishing industry and hold sway over education in addition to economic and political reforms in the state.
Many of Gujarat’s and indeed India’s influential figures are Patels. However, at the rally in Ahmedabad, Hardik Patel stated that ‘’only 5-10% of Patels in the Gujarati community are prosperous; there are so many poor people’’ and that many are finding it increasingly difficult to find work and get college placements due to the quotas allotted to OBCs.
The majority of Hardik Patel’s supporters are 18 – 45 years old and compromise of those that cannot get good college placements or degrees due to the quota system. The businesses and growth of small medium enterprises are also on the decline, decreasing the prospect of employment for many in the community. The Patidar leader and head spokesman Hardik Patel has called for affirmative action to take place.
Widespread protests and violence ensued across the state when Hardik Patel was briefly detained by police after the rally on Tuesday. Nine people have now been confirmed dead, 40 police stations and seventy busses have been set ablaze and destroyed and dozens of police officers have been injured in the violence. Overnight clashes have been reported to have taken place in the cities of Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Surat, where a policeman later died in hospital.
The army have been called in to control the situation. The majority of schools and colleges remain shut in the state and mobile phone and internet services are suspended.
Patel states that “India and Gujarat are the land of revolutionaries and believe in peace, following the footsteps of Indian independence heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, but we also look up to those like Bhagat Singh and if need be we won’t hesitate to resort to violence.”
The protests are likely to cease only after the demands of Gujarat’s 18 million Patels have been met.
Indian Prime Minister and former Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi has appealed for peace and has stated that the “development of the state is only possible if we all stay united” and that the issues can be resolved through thorough discussions.