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Ethnic Group Halts Traffic to Enforce Blockade in Indian Capital 

  • Anjana Pasricha

In India, an ethnic group campaigning for preferential access to government jobs and educational institutions has blocked key highways and disrupted traffic around the Indian capital. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, at least 39 people have been killed during violent protests led by the community in the past week.

Thousands of protesters belonging to the Gujjar community squatted on roads and rail tracks leading into Delhi to enforce a day long blockade of the Indian capital.

Authorities deployed thousands of policemen, but this did not prevent disruptions. Protesters shouted slogans, burned tires, and pelted stones at security personnel. Most offices on Delhi's outskirts shut down. Several train services were suspended.

The Gujjars are a large, politically influential group spread across North India. Their protests erupted last week in the western Rajasthan state sparking clashes in which at least 39 people have been killed.

The Gujjars want to be classified as a group belonging to India's lowest castes, so that they can get preferential access to government jobs and college seats reserved for these castes.

The demands were first raised a year ago, sparking similar violent protests, and a promise by the government to examine their demands.

But a recent report by a government panel ruled out reclassifying the Gujjar community. Instead, the Rajasthan state government offered to spend $67 million on improving infrastructure such as roads and schools in areas dominated by the community.

Gujjar leader Kirori Singh Bainsala says the latest protests have been sparked by the government's refusal to concede to their demand.

"It is not satisfactory and it is not as per the demands we have raised I am afraid. The agitation will continue," said Bainsala.

The Gujjars are already considered a disadvantaged group, but they want to go further down the caste ladder so that they can derive more benefits from quotas reserved for the lowest castes.

India has outlawed the caste system, but has put into place a massive affirmative action program to help people who were at the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system.

The Gujjars brought their protest to the Indian capital to draw the attention of the federal government to their campaign.

But political observers have warned that conceding the demands of the community will spur similar demands from other groups.