Deal reached to end Indian caste protests

Indian residents from the Jat community blocking the Chandigarh-Shimla highway in Panchkula on Feb 21, 2016.
Indian residents from the Jat community blocking the Chandigarh-Shimla highway in Panchkula on Feb 21, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Members of a rural Indian caste reached a deal late on Monday (Feb 22) to end their protests that paralysed the north Indian state of Haryana and cut water supplies to Delhi's 20 million residents, a protest leader and a police source said.

A Jat community leader said protesters had reached an accord with state and federal leaders and would clear road blockades and end their agitation, in which 16 people have been killed and more than 150 injured.

"The government has promised to meet our demands and we have promised our full cooperation," Ramesh Dalal, convener of the Jat Arakshan Andolan (Jat Reservation Movement), told Reuters.

Dalal said he had appealed to the entire Jat community, which makes up around a quarter of the population of Haryana, to return home after staging state-wide protests to demand more government jobs and college places.

A senior police officer said that state leaders had persuaded the Jats to call off their protests.

"Our challenge is to keep the law and order situation under control," the officer said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Days of rioting and looting by Jats had challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise of better days for Indians who elected him in 2014 with the largest majority in three decades.

Disruption has been huge, with 850 trains cancelled, 500 factories closed and business losses estimated at $2.9 billion (S$4.1 billion).

The army retook control of a canal that supplies three-fifths of the capital's water. Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said the army had reopened the sluice gates of the Munak canal to the north of the city. Water was expected to reach the metropolis by early Tuesday.

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.

As a social group they are experiencing downward mobility and missing out on urban job opportunities, explaining their demand for government jobs and student places under affirmative action policies that are typically reserved for deprived groups.

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.

"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."

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 minister 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.