Gujjars take quota battle from Rajasthan to Delhi - and beyond(Roundup)

May 29th, 2008 - 8:44 pm ICT by admin  

New Delhi/Jaipur, May 29 (IANS) Thousands of people in India’s capital and its surrounding areas stayed away from work Thursday and thousands more spent their morning stuck in jams as militant Gujjars took to the streets in their movement for affirmative action, paralysing road and train traffic. A week after the traditional shepherd community began the latest round of their movement demanding that they be included in the Scheduled Tribe list and thereby get a larger piece of the quota pie, the Gujjars took their battle from Rajasthan to the national capital region (NCR).

They clambered on trains coming into the capital, choked vital highways leading into the city from the busy suburbs of Noida, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon, home to many multinationals and call centres, and forced shops in some areas to close down.

The fiercest clash was reported from Panipat in Haryana where an old man was killed in a stampede in a village near Samalkha town. Another person received a bullet injury.

The other hotspot was Aya Nagar, just off the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road that connects the city to the busy hub. Police fired tear gas to disperse the mobs and a Gujjar youth reportedly tried to set himself ablaze by pouring kerosene over himself, but police foiled his attempt and detained him.

As the tension threatened to spill over, there was little clarity on what action would be taken on the demand that has grounded life in much of Rajasthan for the last week. The standoff between the Gujjar leadership camping in Bayana and the state government seemed set to continue.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who has written to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) recommending their case, tried to appeal for peace through SMS messages and leaflets dropped from helicopters.

While government officials in New Delhi said they had done their bit by forwarding her recommendation to the law ministry, Raje tossed the ball back into the central government’s court. She asked the Gujjars to take up their initiatives with New Delhi and “use their wisdom” as her government had made its recommendations.

But the belligerent Gujjars - who largely live in north and central India and are outside the Hindu caste system - were clearly unimpressed.

At the Akshardham temple crossing in east Delhi, stick-wielding protestors shouted anti-Vasundhara Raje slogans and mounted themselves on the roof of buses, leading to over 100 people being detained. They also formed human chains to stop road traffic and squatted on railway tracks.

Gujjars could be seen on the engines of trains in Ghaziabad area to catch the attention of photographers. The mob also damaged a few vehicles in Ghazipur in east Delhi.

Though the city slowly returned to normalcy by afternoon, tension hung in the air. And residents were left fuming over a day gone wasted in endless traffic jams or spent at home away from work.

“How can a community hold the entire city to ransom to fulfil their demands,” asked Vikas Sadana, a software engineer based in west Delhi who had to cancel an appointment with a client in Noida.

It was a show of strength by the mainly rural Gujjar community in support of their kin in Rajasthan, where 37 people have been killed in violent protests this month demanding that Gujjars be classified a ST community to secure educational and job quotas.

The Rajasthan government is ready for talks with the community. But its leaders have vowed not to call off their campaign until the authorities kneel. Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Jammu region and western Uttar Pradesh are home to millions of Gujjars.

The situation in the capital was serious enough for the US embassy to warn its citizens about traffic disruptions in New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. It advised them “to maintain a low profile, and avoid areas of traffic disruptions and political protest”.

Vehicular movement in much of western Uttar Pradesh was paralysed. Highways from Ghaziabad to Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh capital, and Dehradun, the Uttarakhand capital, were under blockade at various places.

The Gujjar protests also led to train blockades in Jammu region. But this ended when the authorities pleaded that this would inconvenience pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi hill shrine.

About two dozen trains were stuck between Aligarh and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The latest disruption to railway services comes on top of the large-scale cancellation and diversion of trains connecting New Delhi and Mumbai, which pass through Gujjar areas of Rajasthan.

While the Gujjars have been classified as OBCs, they want ST status like the Meenas - another Rajasthan based community - and a share of the quota pie. Ironically, OBCs get 27 percent reservation and STs 7.5 percent, but the perception is that the community will get a larger share of the quota pie with ST status.

The community had held similar protests all over Rajasthan from May 29 to June 4 last year. Normal life was paralysed and 26 people were killed in the violence that seemed headed towards a caste war between Meenas and Gujjars.

A year later, the country is back to the same uncertainty with huge economic losses, tens of thousands of people being inconvenienced and no sense of where the agitation is headed.

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