India’s National Highway 8 (NH8) is the main route that connects the north to the south. Over the past decade, parts of it have been re-built – additional lanes, smoother roads, more greenery and so on – in an effort to bring it closer to world-class standards.
But right now you need a police escort if you decide to take a bus to any city on this route. The reason? The highway has been blocked by irate members of the Gujjar community – a traditionally nomadic tribe spread across northern India – who are demanding inclusion in India’s affirmative action quotas. They have taken to staging violent protests to make themselves heard, burning buses and cars at will. Angry mobs have pelted stones and set fire to government vehicles to show their wrath.
Tourism, among other businesses, has been affected and many visitors to the pretty state of Rajasthan – best known for its dramatic desert landscapes, a bit like the American Southwest – have found themselves stranded as people are being advised to stay indoors. Over the past week the demonstrations, Rajasthan in the northwest, have left at least 24 people dead and disrupted normal life, leaving thousands stranded since rail and road transport within this region has also come to a halt.
On this route lies the city of Jaipur – a tourist hotspot, home of erstwhile kings – and one can usually take a comfortable train to get there from Delhi. But all trains have either been cancelled or diverted due to the trouble. Some roads leading to the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra have also been blocked. The best way to travel is by air but getting tickets is a nightmare. Which is bizarre: One day all is well, and the other travel seems impossible.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appealed for calm so has the Gujjar leader, Colonel KS Bainsla, but the situation still remains tense as talks between them and the government have so far been inconclusive. New Delhi, the nation’s capital, is on alert Monday as the Gujjars have threatened to block roads and carry on their protests.
What’s the dispute? The Indian version of affirmative action, a complicated political and economic problem.
The Indian constitution grants special status to numerous castes, tribes and “backward classes” in an attempt to boost their socio-economic status by giving group government jobs and schools. The groups are classified under different categories: there are the Scheduled Castes (SCs), also called the Dalits or “untouchable”; and Scheduled Tribes (STs), also known as Adivasis. But – and this why it’s complicated – not everyone who can be considered disadvantaged falls into these two categories. So there are the ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs), who’ve been recognized as being “socially and educationally backward”.
The Gujjars want to be a part of the STs so they can avail themselves of the affirmative action benefits. But other recognized tribes, in this case the Meenas, don’t want any competition for the jobs and benefits so are clashing with the Gujjars and threatening to take to the streets if the government cedes to their demands. It’s a Catch-22 for almost all concerned.
This is just one example of why the issue of affirmative action in India is a deeper one than may so appear. At the crux it is a political problem, not a purely economic one. Over the years political parties have favored one tribe, caste or class over the other – and there are countless numbers – depending on their strength and ability to vote in certain elections. Since India is a democracy and these communities constitute a large part of the electorate, politicians have pandered to their demands so, inevitably, one community or the other has felt left out and demonstrated their anger publicly. The Gujjar violence is yet another example of that.
Every time something like this happens it brings up questions of age-old and still unsettled issues related to caste-based politics and its repercussions, sparking off a debate among the citizens.
But there is an important lesson here, one that India must learn soon: Social unrest will continue to rise as long as only one part of India shines and rides the economic boom, while the other merely watches from afar. If the Gujjars were a prosperous community and had also reaped the benefits of the boom they may not have petitioned the government for the special status in the first place. And if other STs were also prospering, they might worry less about assistance from the government, making way for more flexibility in coping with economic disparity.
It’s something the politicians must think about.