Mon, May 26, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Death toll rises in Indian caste riots


Authorities invited leaders of one of India’s lowest castes for talks as the death toll rose to 37 yesterday from three days of bloody demonstrations over caste classification.

Police repeatedly opened fire on violent protests by the Gujjar community on Friday and Saturday in half a dozen villages and towns in the western state of Rajasthan.

The Gujjars are seeking to reclassify their caste to a lower level, which would allow them to qualify for government jobs and university places reserved for such groups. The government has refused.

Twenty-one people were killed in clashes on Saturday, Rohit Kumar Singh, the state information commissioner, said yesterday.

No immediate response came from the Gujjars after the state government’s offer of negotiations, he said.

Police in Sikandra town fired at protesters who torched a police station and two buses on Saturday and shot and wounded a policeman, said Amanjit Singh Gill, Rajasthan’s director-general of police.

Protesters also burned down a police station in the nearby village of Chandra Guddaji, Gill said.

Fifteen demonstrators died on Friday when police fired live ammunition and tear gas to halt rioting, Singh said.

A police officer was also beaten to death, he said.

At least 70 injured people were hospitalized in Jaipur, the state capital, and the town of Dosa.

Demonstrators blocked a major highway linking Jaipur to Agra — site of the world famous Taj Mahal — stranding thousands of people. Thousands of army, police and paramilitary forces patrolled villages to control the violence.

Gujjars took to the streets after a government panel set up to look into their demands recommended a US$70 million aid package for their community, but ruled out caste reclassification.

Gujjars are considered part of the second-lowest group, known as Other Backward Classes, a step up from the Scheduled Tribes and Castes.

The Hindu caste system was outlawed soon after independence from Britain in 1947, but its influence remains powerful and the government awards aid packages to different groups.

Twenty-six people died in Gujjar riots in the same area last year.

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