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Indian Police Open Fire on Demonstrators in Rajasthan

A clash between police officers and villagers in rural northwestern India has resulted in the deaths at least 13 people Tuesday. VOA's Steve Herman reports from New Delhi that the protesters were demanding the right to be included as an underprivileged group.

Witnesses in Rajasthan say violence broke out between police and villagers after some 20,000 people blocked highways as part of a protest.

Government officials say police opened fire in self-defense after they were unable to disperse the crowd and were surrounded by angry protesters.

Indian media say 500 army troops are being dispatched to the area in case of further violence.

The villagers were demanding official recognition by the government that they are on the lowest level of the country's social hierarchy.

Assistant Professor Suryakant Wadhmore at the Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai says a desire to be in the lowest social class may seem odd to outsiders, but has its benefits in India.

"India is the only country where people are fighting to be called 'backward,' because there are state provisions," Wadhmore says. "They are supposed to avail some benefits from the government of India provisions, which are in terms of reservations in terms of government jobs, access to education and, also, social security schemes."

The people killed by police Tuesday are known as Gujjars, historically regarded as rulers and a warrior clan of some of the highest castes. They represent less than ten percent of the population in Rajasthan, where they are are considered to be relatively well-off herdsmen.