New Delhi (AsiaNews) – A protest by tribal Gujjars is in its fourth day in the state of Rajasthan, which has been cut off from the rest of India. Several clashes between police and demonstrators have left 22 people dead since Monday whilst the Union (federal) Home Affairs minister has put the army on high alert in the state as well as in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The Gujjar community wants to be granted Scheduled Tribe (ST) status which would entitle them to special access to public sector employment, schools and state colleges. For this reason they have set up road blocks on national highways that link to Delhi to Mumbai and central India and blocked railway lines causing many inter-state trains passing through Rajasthan to be either cancelled or diverted.
Yesterday police fired on demonstrators in the districts of Jaipur and Sawai Madhopur killing at least four people and injuring many more.
Meetings between Gujjar representatives and government officials have failed so far to reach any agreement. At the same time tensions between Gujjars and Meenas, a group that does enjoy ST status, are increasing.
Meenas are opposed to the Gujjar claim to ST status and threaten to intervene in order to remove road blocks if the government does not act quickly.
For their part, Gujjar leaders accuse the government of inciting the Meenas against them.
Protestors have burnt effigies of Rajasthan’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, whom they claim has failed to uphold the promise of granting them ST status.
The protest is such that Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP), said that Vasundhara Raje’s government has already done a good job on the Gujjars issue and that it is up to the central government to decide on the Gurjjars' status.
Joseph D. Souza, chairman of the All India Christian Council, and John Dayal, chairman of the All India Catholic Union, have slammed the police for shooting at demonstrators and the state government for failing to keep a lid on the situation.
They noted that whilst chief ministers intervened immediately when similar tragedies took place in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), where police fired on Muslim victims of a bomb attack, and in Nandigram (West Bengal), where police shot at farmers opposing land seizures, in Rajasthan “the situation has become serious partly because members of the state government have tried to pit groups against each other in order to divert attention away from its policy failures.”
In their view, “the BJP government in Rajasthan has encouraged and deepened the divide between groups, as the party did in Punjab where it is a partner in the ruling coalition.”
The two Catholic leaders have warned that many state governments, especially those in favour of “religious and cultural monopolies, have changed the rules at the expense of the population.”
“In the case of tribals,” they noted, “there has been pernicious manipulation to reduce the presence of some groups, for instance Oraons and other tribals professing Christianity in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, by deliberately extending such benefits to a few favoured groups loyal to their ideology.”
Hence they “call upon the government to show a sincere effort at reconciliation and peace through honest discussions with the leaders of the Gujjars.”
Similarly, the said: “We also call upon the governments of Rajasthan, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to extend appropriate financial compensation to the families of those killed in police firing, and alternate employment to the maimed.”
Souza noted that Gujjars in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have already been granted ST status. In Rajasthan Meenas, who were also granted ST status, are in a situation similar to that of the Gujjars.
He warned that unless governments provide adequate resources in education, groups will try to restrict access to ST status so as to keep the limited advantages it offers.