Death toll hits 28 in India's caste riots

Indian protesters in Rohtak amid caste clashes on Feb 19, 2016.
Indian protesters in Rohtak amid caste clashes on Feb 19, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - The death toll from caste unrest in northern India has risen to 28 but violence has subsided, officials said on Thursday, as a court asked authorities to investigate reports of rape during the riots.

Large-scale violence gripped northern Haryana state at the weekend after the Jat caste led protests to demand preferential treatment in government jobs and education.

On Wednesday, the Punjab and Haryana High Court asked the government to investigate alleged incidents of sexual violence after media reports said at least 10 women were raped by Jat rioters in Sonipat district.

"Twenty-eight people have died and over 200 have been injured by police firing and otherwise," P.K. Das, additional chief secretary for the Haryana government, told AFP.

No violence has been reported in the state in the last two days, all roads have been secured and the situation is slowly returning to normal, he said.

Rioters set fire to nearly 50 cars on a key highway connecting the state to New Delhi during the protests, forcing their occupants to flee, with rioters stripping and raping 10 women during the chaos, media reports said.

Das said that preliminary investigations had yet to find evidence of any sexual violence but that authorities stood ready to investigate.

"No victim or eyewitness has come forward to complain about rape," he said.

Authorities issued shoot-on-sight orders in several state districts at the weekend as thousands of rioters ran amok, setting fire to buildings and looting shops.

Protesters blocked road links to the Indian capital and severely damaged a canal that provides two-thirds of the water to Delhi's 17 million residents.

New Delhi sent thousands of army and paramilitary troops to quash the unrest.

India sets aside a proportion of sought-after government jobs and university places for Dalits, known as "untouchables", and for other so-called "backward castes" under measures intended to remedy centuries of discrimination.

Jat leaders called off their protest on Monday after accepting a government offer and schools and businesses reopened in Rohtak, the centre of the protests.

But police say tensions are still simmering at several places over inter-caste attacks in the district.

"Tension is high in several places. Many non-Jats were targeted by rioters," a senior police officer, requesting not to be named, told AFP.