Indian Protesters Let Dead Decay

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 1, 2008

PILUPURA, India, May 31 -- The decomposing bodies of 12 young men shot by police eight days ago during a violent protest lie in wooden coffins near the village train tracks. Incense sticks left by mourners have burned out, and flower petals scattered about have dried.

Day and night, thousands of protesters from the Gujjar community stubbornly squatted on the tracks, wielding bamboo sticks and vowing not to cremate the bodies until their demands are met.

"Let the bodies smell and decay right here," said Devi Singh, pointing to the coffin holding his 25-year-old son. "I will not cremate my son until the government grants our Gujjar community the tribal status. I will not let my son's sacrifice go to waste."

The protesters' cause reflects an intricate web of identity politics that has pushed India to empower groups marginalized under a centuries-old caste system. To overcome the inequities, India's 1950 constitution strived to guarantee jobs and political set-asides for lower-caste groups, in the oldest and largest affirmative action program in the world.

But in a twist in the tale of competing claims, the Gujjars, traditionally a cattle-grazing caste, are agitating to be reclassified at least a couple of notches lower so that they can have greater access to benefits.

"Most of our people are illiterate and living in abject poverty. We want better opportunities," said Kirori Singh Bhainsla, 70, leader of the Gujjar movement and a retired army colonel. "For 12 years, I moved from pillar to post crying hoarse with the demands, but the government never listened. So we had to resort to direct action."

For the past eight days, Bhainsla has led tens of thousands of demonstrators who have uprooted tracks, blocked rail lines and roads, and burned buses and police vehicles in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. About 43 people have been killed in the violence, most shot by police. One policeman was killed by mobs throwing stones and wielding spears.

About 2,500 policemen and soldiers have surrounded the protest site, and the cellphone network has been jammed to prevent protesters from communicating.

On Thursday, thousands of Gujjar demonstrators besieged New Delhi, choking all entry points to the capital.

Under Indian law, Gujjars are listed as "other backward class," a category entitled to 27 percent of government job set-asides. But they want to be officially designated a tribe, one of the two lowest classifications in India's complex social hierarchy.

Protesters say their demand is dictated by simple arithmetic.

"As a backward class, we have to compete with 123 caste groups for 27 percent of government jobs. Our turn never comes," Singh said, as others around him nodded. "But as a tribe, we would fight only 15 other groups for about 7 percent of jobs. So it is more beneficial to be called a tribe, even if it is lower in status."

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