Half-million members of powerful Indian clan clash with police, demand end to affirmative action

Members of the Patel community display placards as they attend a protest rally in Ahmedabad, India, August 25, 2015. © Amit Dave
The Indian state of Gujarat has been hit by mass protests led by a powerful high-caste clan that is demanding an end to positive discrimination by the authorities. The national government replied by deploying paramilitary forces and imposing a curfew.

The protests took place in the western city of Ahmedabad, about 450 kilometers north of Mumbai. Around half a million people gathered, who were members of the Patidar, or Patel, community. They were demanding that the Indian government, which in their opinion unfairly favors groups at the lower end of India’s caste system, should make changes. 

Clashes broke out following the arrest of the movement’s leader, Hardik Patel, and police fired teargas and baton-charged demonstrators. 

On Tuesday, Patel, 22, told a gathering in the city that the protest planned for the following day could turn violent if the clan’s demands were not met.

"Our agitation will end the day the government will indicate that it is willing to give us reservation,” the Hindustan Times reported him as saying. 

“If you do not give our right, we will snatch it. Whoever will talk of the interest of Patels will rule over Patels," Hardik Patel said. 

He added that he was willing to go on a hunger strike unless he was given personal assurances from Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel that they would accept the Patel community's demands.

Police condemned the violence in Ahmedabad, saying the protesters had caused widespread damage.

"The agitators clashed with the police and members of the lower castes. They have burned down nine police stations and over three dozen buses," PC Thakur, Gujarat's top police officer, told Reuters.

"We had to impose a curfew to control the clashes. Offices, trading houses and educational institutions will not open today."

Meanwhile in a televised address, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged demonstrators to protest peacefully. 

"I appeal to the people of Gujarat to maintain peace,” Reuters cited Modi as saying. “Violence will never achieve anything.”

The Patels are a wealthy business community in India, while their interests also spread overseas. They have helped economic growth in the country and dominate the diamond trade, oil processing and the textile industry. 

However, they say that positive discrimination by the Indian government to give more chances to lower-caste Indians have gone too far and members of their clan were not being given enough opportunities to find government jobs and enter universities. 

The demonstrations could cause a headache and challenge the authority of Prime Minister Modi, who was head of the Gujarat region for more than a decade before winning last year's national parliamentary election. 

Modi’s time as chief minister for Gujarat was marred by religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in 2002, in which he imposed curfews and threatened to impose martial law, but was criticized for allegedly condoning violence by Hindu radicals.

The prime minister worked his way up the political ladder, having being born into a family at the lower end of India’s caste system, and has tried to give those lacking money and connections more of a chance to work their way out of poverty.