Enraged mobs from one of India's myriad lower castes blocked roads with fiery barricades, stoned police and battled rival castes across a wide swath of northern India for a week to make a single, simple point: They want to be even lower.
With 25 people dead, the unrest spread to the fringes of the capital before the Gujjars — a class of farmers and shepherds — called off their protests.
They did so only after officials agreed to consider their demand to be officially shunted to the lowest rung of India's complex hereditary caste system, so they can get government jobs and university spots reserved for such groups.
"I am a farmer and I am poor," said Rajesh Gurjjar, 26, his thin T-shirt soaked with sweat a few minutes after police chased him off a main thoroughfare in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon on Monday.
"I want a government job. It pays more. The office is cool in summer. The fields are too hot," he said.
In other words, the fastest way up India's modern economic ladder is a quick step down its age-old social ladder.
Caste-related violence is nothing new, but in the Gujjars' bloody race to the bottom many see a paradox of caste in modern India: Its political importance keeps growing, even as the rise of an increasingly urbanized and educated middle class has weakened the system's grip socially, making it more acceptable for a group to try to fight its way down instead of pushing its way up.
"This isn't a case of a group agitating for the primacy or superiority of their caste. It has nothing to do with a claim of caste loyalty according to the Hindu world view or religious scriptures," said Parvan Varma, the author of Being Indian, a book about Indian society.
"This is the use of caste as political negotiating currency.
It's about a finite cake and a caste community attempting to get a piece," he said.
Caste politics were clear late Monday, when Gujjar leaders called off their protests after officials agreed to look into their demands.
The move immediately drew threats from leaders of a powerful rival group, the Meena, who are already classified among the lowest castes and clearly do not want more competition for jobs and school spots set aside under quotas. During the unrest, fighting between Meenas and Gujjars left at least four dead.
The caste system's origins and inner workings are subjects of a seemingly never-ending debate. But this much is certain: It divides people into four broad groups with the priestly Brahmin caste at the top. There are hundreds of sub-castes within each group, most drawn along occupational lines, although one's caste does not always dictate one's economic status.
While the caste system is part of Hinduism, there are also caste-like divisions among India's Muslims, who make up 13 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people, and Christians, who make up 2.4 percent.
Discrimination under the system was outlawed soon after independence from Britain in 1947, but its influence remains powerful and the government has sought to redress discrimination against those on the lower rungs by setting up quotas for government jobs and university spots.
But instead of weakening caste affiliations, the result has been a fracturing of politics along caste lines, with each of the lower groups vying for its share of the quotas.
Further complicating matters is that caste has never been as rigid a system as imagined in the West. Sociologists say there is, over generations, movement within its subgroups, and determining who gets access to the quotas has long been a red-hot, contentious issue.
There have been repeated protests in the past year over a government plan to reserve more than a quarter of the spots at India's top professional schools for the 3,743 castes and sub-castes, Gujjars among them, classified in the second-to-lowest category, the "Other Backward Classes."
India's Supreme Court temporarily suspended the plan in a March ruling that presaged the Gujjar protests.
"Nowhere in the world do castes queue up to be branded as backward," it said. "Nowhere in the world is there a competition to become backward."
Less controversial have been the decades-old quotas for those on the lowest rung of the caste system, the so-called Scheduled Castes and Tribes. It include the dalits, once called "untouchables." It's this group the Gujjars want to join.
North Korea yesterday made a rare mention of dissenting votes in recent elections, although analysts dismissed it as an attempt to portray an image of a normal society rather than signaling any meaningful increase of rights in the authoritarian state. The reclusive country has one of the most highly controlled societies in the world, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accused of using a system of patronage and repression to retain absolute power. Reporting on the results of Sunday’s election for deputies to regional people’s assemblies, the North’s state media said that 0.09 percent and 0.13 percent voted against the selected candidates
WEATHER PROBLEM: Seoul said the launch, which comes after the North said its new spy satellite is taking images of US military facilities, was rescheduled for Saturday South Korea has delayed the planned launch of its first military spy satellite set for tomorrow, officials said, days after rival North Korea said it had put its own spy satellite into orbit for the first time. Under a contract with SpaceX, South Korea is to launch five spy satellites by 2025, and its first launch using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket had been scheduled to take place at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in the US. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense yesterday said in a brief statement that the launch was delayed due to weather conditions. Ministry officials said the
ECONOMICS? ECONOMICS? The new prime minister said that taxing cigarette sales would contribute revenue, while banning them would create a flourishing black market New Zealand’s plans for world-leading anti-smoking laws are to be revoked, Christopher Luxon confirmed yesterday after being sworn in as prime minister, in a move described as a “huge win for the tobacco industry.” Former airline boss Luxon took over six weeks after his conservative National Party won national elections, ending a six-year Labour Party reign ushered in by former prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Luxon, 53, was sworn in as head of a new coalition government by New Zealand Governor-General Cindy Kiro in a ceremony in the capital, Wellington. “It is an honor and an awesome responsibility,” Luxon told reporters. The conservative said he
ELECTION INTERFERENCE: Meta did not publicly link the account network to the Chinese government, but said it is based in China and sought to inflate divisions within the US Someone in China created thousands of fake social media accounts designed to appear to be from Americans and used them to spread polarizing political content in an apparent effort to divide the US ahead of next year’s presidential elections, Meta said on Thursday. The network of about 4,800 fake accounts was attempting to build an audience when it was identified and eliminated by the tech company, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The accounts sported fake photos, names and locations as a way to appear like everyday American Facebook users weighing in on political issues. Instead of spreading fake content as other networks