NEW DELHI: Indian authorities issued shoot-on-sight orders and deployed thousands of troops in a northern state neighboring New Delhi yesterday, after escalating caste protests left at least one dead, officials said.
Television images showed mobs wielding sticks rampaging through the streets in northern Haryana state, setting fire to a local government minister’s house and railway stations, damaging train tracks and blocking two key highways. A week-long protest by the state’s dominant Jat caste, who are demanding quotas for government jobs and in education, turned violent Friday as police fired on protesters with local reports saying four had died.
Jats, a comparatively affluent caste group, want the same special allowances that are afforded to lower castes facing societal discrimination, but other groups oppose the call.
Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar appealed for calm yesterday afternoon and urged people not to damage public property. “I appeal to the people especially the youth to stop the protests. Nothing will be gained by destroying property,” Khattar said in a televised interview.
In Rohtak district, the centre of the protests, a mob defied the security clampdown and set fire to a police station, a petrol pump, a community hall and shops, police told AFP.
“It was a 3,000-strong mob with axes, iron rods and sticks. We had to run for safety,” Rajender Singh, a local police official told AFP. With protests spreading across the state, more than 5,000 army and paramilitary troopers patrolled the streets to impose a round-the-clock curfew in eight districts.
The army was forced to use helicopters to reach parts of the state after protesters blocked two highways connecting four northern states with the capital.
“One person is confirmed dead and five are critical. Eighty-eight others are injured,” Yash Pal Singal, Haryana police chief told reporters. Rakesh Gupta, director of the main government hospital in Rohtak, also told AFP he was aware of only one death from the violence.
Jat leaders defiant
Protesters damaged railway tracks and started fires at stations leading 600 trains to be cancelled since Friday, a spokesman for Indian Railways said. “Three rail stations were burnt down and several kilometres of track have been damaged,” Neeraj Sharma said, adding that services would remain suspended until the situation was brought under control. Indian home minister Rajnath Singh Friday held meetings with security officials before dispatching additional troops to the state and appealed to protesters for peace.
But Jat leaders threatened to continue their protests after talks with Haryana’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government remained inconclusive. “The protest will only end when government accepts our demands. We won’t get carried away by false assurances now,” Yashapal Malik, the president of a national Jat organization that is leading the protest, told AFP.
The protests echo caste violence that swept the western state of Gujarat in August last year, leaving several dead. That state saw weeks of protests by the privileged Patidar or Patel caste, who demanded special treatment to put them on an equal footing with lower castes. India sets aside a proportion of jobs and places to people from so-called lower and backward castes under measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream. But the policy of “reservation” causes resentment among other communities who say it freezes them out. – AFP