Latest story from India is about rent-seeking with a difference - a group seeking to have their social status lowered in order to benefit from government affirmative action quotas. Amelia Gentleman reports in today's International Herald Tribune on the the Gujjar community, who are Fighting their way to the bottom in India
NEW DELHI: A fight for the right to be downwardly mobile exploded this week in north India, as a powerful community of Indian shepherds asserted that the best way to rise up in modern society was to take a step down in the regimented class hierarchy.
Tension over the still-rigid caste classifications, which underpin the Indian social system, spilled over into riots across the state of Rajasthan, with at least 23 people killed during clashes with the police. By Friday evening, protests had spread to the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi.
This was not the usual show of anger at the ever-prevalent discrimination faced by members of lower-caste groups. Instead, it stemmed from controversy over a demand from the Gujjar community of farmers and shepherds to have their low caste status officially downgraded, relegating them to the bottom classification in the caste ladder.
If Gujjars were to be shunted into the Scheduled Caste category, a classification that includes Dalits (once known as untouchables) and tribal communities, they would qualify for greater privileges under India's affirmative action program, which was designed to lift up those groups that for centuries were viewed as "pollutants," ostracized by mainstream society and prevented from accumulating wealth.
Quotas of university places and lucrative government positions are reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes under the system that was created when India became independent 60 years ago. Although the Gujjar caste is also eligible for some privileges because of its position in the second-from-bottom grouping - known in bureaucratic lexicon as Other Backward Classes - its leaders point out that members would enjoy much better preferential treatment if it were demoted to the lowest rung.
Sachin Pilot, the Congress Party member of Parliament for the region where six people were killed by police gunfire Tuesday and a member of the Gujjar caste, said as many as 70,000 protesters were still blocking the road out of Jaipur.
"Most people don't realize that India's new economic prosperity is not shared by the vast majority," he said in a telephone interview. "The Gujjars feel they have been very deprived. Access to quotas would give the community a sense of hope."
Frustrated at the state government's refusal to meet their demand, thousands of Gujjars blockaded the national highways around the state capital of Jaipur, known as the pink city, on Tuesday. The protests brought the state of Rajasthan, much loved by tourists, to a virtual standstill all week. Vehicles were prevented from traveling on to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Thousands of trucks were stuck for several days by the blockades, tourist trains were canceled and government vehicles scorched.
Government buildings were attacked in one Rajasthan town Friday, prompting the authorities to issue a shoot-on-sight order. Thirteen people were shot and killed by the police Tuesday, Indian media reported, as officers tried to disperse crowds that had gathered to shut off the national highway. Two more were killed by the police Thursday, Reuters reported.
"Let a hundred people die," Colonel Kirori Singh Baisala, one of the Gujjar leaders, told The Times of India on Thursday. "But we are clear in our objectives. We have suffered enough and would not go back until we get the Scheduled Caste status."
Kalu Lal Gurjar, a member of the caste and a minister in the Rajasthan government who is supporting the protesters, said that the Indian government had promised to reclassify the group as a Scheduled Caste in 1964. "At that time, there was opposition from within the Gujjar community itself, because they thought that it would be demeaning to be associated with the Scheduled Castes," he said in a telephone interview Friday.
Later, when the material benefits of being consigned to the bottom of the ladder became more obvious, the mood changed. "The community has been agitating since 1980s for inclusion," he said.
The debate over India's affirmative action policy hovers constantly at the top of the political agenda. The Hindu concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950, but the centuries-old caste system, and the deep-rooted prejudices that go with it, remains.
In rural India, Dalits are frequently prevented from sharing the same water pump as the rest of the village. Even in middle-class urban India, where the divisions are less obvious, people will often inquire indirectly for clues of caste membership on first meeting, putting together details of surname, origin and father's profession to make a mental classification.
For some the oppression is so intolerable that they abandon the religion altogether. Last Sunday, several thousand Dalits and tribal Indians converted en masse to Buddhism in a ceremony in Mumbai, to escape their position at the bottom of the social pile.