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Caste Riots in India Have Paralyzed a Northern State and Killed at Least 19 People

A traditionally affluent caste in India is demanding inclusion on a quota system that reserves some government jobs for lower caste members. At least 19 have been killed in days of rioting.
Manifestantes del pueblo Jat bloquean una carretera principal cerca de Panipat, India, el 21 de febrero de 2016. Imagen por STR/EPA

The Indian Army has stepped in to wrestle back control of New Delhi's water supply following days of deadly rioting and looting by a rural caste which is demanding better access to government jobs.

Thousands of troops have been deployed to quell protests led by the Jat caste, which wants the same access to government jobs and higher education that lower castes in India are given under a quota system.

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Days of rioting and looting across Haryana state by the Jat rural caste have killed at least 19 people and paralyzed the northern state of Haryana, and threaten to undermine Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise of better days for Indians who elected him in 2014 with the largest majority in three decades.

Thousands of troops have been deployed to quell protests, which flared again on Monday near the town of Sonipat as protesters set fire to a freight train.

Protesters also took control of the Munak canal which supplies three-fifths of the water for New Delhi, a city of more than 20 million people. Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said on Monday the army had reopened the sluice gates of the Munak canal to the north of the city. Water was expected to reach the metropolis within hours, but it's not known how long repairs will take.  A senior official in Delhi's water board told the BBC that 10 million people were without water.

State police said that while order was slowly being restored, there were still tensions in many towns as Jat protesters tried to prevent other communities from reopening their shops.

A compromise with the Jats brokered by Modi's home minister on Sunday failed to get protesters to clear highway roadblocks. Disruption has been huge, with 850 trains cancelled, 500 factories closed and business losses estimated at $2.9 billion.

"We will continue the protests. The government thinks we will succumb to their pressure tactics but they are making a big mistake by ignoring us," Ramesh Dalal, convenor of the Jat Arakshan Andolan (Jat Reservation Movement), told Reuters.

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"Jats are determined to win the battle. They had to send the army to control our anger but even they have failed."

However on Monday a Jat representative said the community had accepted the deal, reported the Guardian. "We have accepted the government offer and are in the process of consulting other Jat leaders to arrive at a consensus before deciding about calling off the agitation today," said Yashpal Malik, head of a group of Jat organizations. "We are demanding that the government should compensate the families of people who died in the agitation."

Related: 25,000 Indian Farmers Are Threatening to Kill Themselves Tomorrow

Many Jats, who number more than 80 million across north India, are farmers whose livelihoods have suffered as families divide farms among their children while two years of drought have harmed their crops. They are a politically influential group in Haryana, reported the BBC, comprising 27 percent of the electorate and a third of 90 state assembly seats.

They are listed as an upper caste which means they are excluded from a quota system for government jobs, but as a social group they are now experiencing downward mobility and missing out on urban job opportunities.

In 2014 India's government voted to re-categorize them as a "Backward Caste," meaning they would get access to the quota system. But India's Supreme Court quashed that ruling in 2015.

Ramcharan Dekhara, a 52-year-old father of four, has sold his land to pay for his daughter's marriage and now runs a tea shop near National Highway 10.

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"I am fighting for my sons' future. The boys are sitting at home and there is nothing they can do at the tea shop," Dekhara told Reuters. "They studied hard to make a new life but now they are wasting time and watching TV all day."

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The gulf is most striking on the frontier of Gurgaon, one of Delhi's burgeoning satellite cities, where offices, factories and residential apartments give way suddenly to farmers' fields — many of them tilled by Jats.

The Jats predominantly voted for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general election, when he won the biggest parliamentary majority in three decades. Months later the BJP won an outright majority in Haryana for the first time.

Although many of the state's chief ministers have been Jats, the current is not. Commentators have faulted him and other BJP leaders for failing to read the social mood and devoting too much attention to issues like cow protection that are a core part of the party's pro-Hindu agenda.

In a familiar pattern, Modi completely ignored the protests, instead launching a broadside on Sunday against unnamed conspirators he accused of trying to undermine his government.

Playing on his own humble origins as the son of a tea seller, or chaiwallah, Modi said: "Some people are not able to digest my prime ministership. They can't digest that a chaiwallah has become PM.

"They are now hatching conspiracies every day to finish and defame me," he told farmers in a speech in Odisha.

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