Gujarat hit by violent caste-related protests

NEW DELHI - India deployed paramilitary forces and imposed a curfew in Gujarat on Wednesday after violence broke out at a protest led by a powerful clan to demand more government jobs and college places.

The protests pose a challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who ran Gujarat for more than a decade before winning last year's general election.

At least half a million members of the Patidar, or Patel, community rallied on Tuesday in Ahmedabad to demand changes to policies that, they argue, unfairly favour groups at the lower end of India's social order.

Clashes broke out after the arrest of the movement's leader, 21-year-old activist Hardik Patel, forcing police to fire teargas and to baton-charge protesters.

"The agitators clashed with the police and members of the lower castes. They have burnt down nine police stations and over three dozen buses," P.C. 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."

The Patels, a wealthy business community in India and overseas, have been a driving force in the country's economic growth. The community dominates the thriving diamond trade, oil processing and the textile industry.

But they say that caste-based reservations deprive them of opportunities. They insist the government should put an end to affirmative action policies that favour Muslims, low-caste Hindus and Other Backward Classes - a collective term covering socially and educationally deprived groups.

Caste-based reservations has always been a sensitive issue in India, used often as a tool for what is called vote-bank politics.

In a recent speech, Modi said that India must overcome its caste-based divisions, and work towards a more merit-based society. Modi comes from a lowly caste included in the Other Backward Classes, and has made much of his rise to power from humble origins as the son of a tea seller.

Caste politics are likely to play a role in a forthcoming state election in Bihar, whose chief minister Nitish Kumar belongs to the Patel community and has sympathised with the Gujarat protesters.