India has deployed paramilitary forces and imposed a curfew in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat state, after violence broke out at a protest led by a powerful caste to demand more government jobs and college places.
The Gujarat state government imposed a curfew in parts of Ahmedabad and four other cities and towns across the western state and called in paramilitary reinforcements on Wednesday after members of the affluent Patel caste protested in the city.
|Notes from the field:
Al Jazeera’s Nidhi Dutt
The Patels are a relatively wealthy and powerful community in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Over the years many have made their mark as gem and textile merchants.
The question being asked in India is why does this big and influential community need to be included in a reservation or quota system that has since independence been used to guarantee work and participation of minority communities?
According to the Patels, most government jobs and school places in Gujarat are reserved for people belonging to various special categories and as a result, they miss out.
Importantly, this is all unfolding in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. The Patels are among some of his most important supporters.
More than 100 different communities already benefit from the reservation system in Gujarat but according to the state government, the Patels cannot be added to the list.
Stone-throwing Patels torched cars, buses and police stations over the arrest of their leader, Hardik Patel, who had hours earlier on Tuesday led a massive protest in Ahmedabad, senior police officers said.
At least a dozen officers were injured in the violence, prompting the first curfew in the state since 2002 when communal riots left at least 1,000 people dead, Gujarat Director General of Police P C Thakur said.
“The curfew was imposed following large scale arson and rioting by members of the Patidar [or Patel] community in different cities of the state late on Tuesday,” Thakur told the AFP news agency.
“There was heavy stone pelting of police vehicles and torching of police stations in Unjha and Kalol towns,” he said.
Hardik Patel, 22, appealed for calm after his release overnight on bail but also called for a new strike on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera’s Nidhi Dutt, reporting from the Indian capital New Delhi, said the ‘Patel Movement’, as it’s being described, “raises some important questions about the delicacy of domestic Indian politics.
“It also raises questions over the age old ‘reservation’ system which guarantees members of minority communities government jobs … the concern is the Patel’s protest may prompt other groups across India to seek similar rights,” our correspondent said.
As many as 100 buses were torched and property damaged in the violence in Ahmedabad, Surat, and Mehsana cities and the towns of Unjha and Visnagar, local officers said.
About half a million Patels rallied in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, paralysing the city, to demand preferential treatment.
Schools said they would remain closed on Wednesday, but it was unclear how many businesses would follow the strike call.
Gujarat’s chief minister, Anandiben Patel, urged members of her own community to maintain the peace.
India sets aside a proportion of government jobs and university places for Dalits, known as “untouchables”, and for so-called “other backward castes” under measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.
She has said that giving into the demands of the Patels was not possible because India’s Supreme Court has mandated that state governments can set aside only 50 percent of jobs and school seats for “backward castes” and that existing low caste groups already fill those spots.
The Patels, one of the state’s most affluent castes, who make up around 20 percent of Gujarat’s 63 million population, say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for jobs.
The move to secure preferential treatment was launched at a rally in Visnagar, in northern Gujarat on July 6. It has since become a mass movement as thousands have taken to the streets of Surat, Vadodara, Mehsana and Ahmedabad to press for quotas.