Modi calls for peace after caste riots

At least half a million Patidars rallied in Ahmedabad on Tuesday to demand preferential treatment. The Patidars, one of the state's most affluent castes, make up about 12 per cent of the population there. They say they are struggling to compete with
At least half a million Patidars rallied in Ahmedabad on Tuesday to demand preferential treatment. The Patidars, one of the state's most affluent castes, make up about 12 per cent of the population there. They say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for jobs. PHOTO: REUTERS

AHMEDABAD • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace yesterday after a mass rally in his home state turned violent, with overnight rioting and arson.

Thousands of paramilitary troops have been sent to the western state of Gujarat to contain the violence, which broke out after an estimated half a million people rallied to demand favourable treatment for their caste.

One police officer, who asked not to be named, said two protesters died in police firing on Tuesday, although this could not immediately be confirmed.

The authorities have imposed a curfew in parts of Ahmedabad and five other cities and towns after stone-throwing members of the Patidar, or Patel, caste torched cars, buses and police stations.

"I appeal to all brothers and sisters of Gujarat, that they should not resort to violence," Mr Modi said in a statement. In a television address delivered in his native Gujarati, he said: "Violence has never done good for anyone. All issues can be resolved peacefully through talks."

Mr Modi served as the state's chief minister for over a decade.

The streets of Ahmedabad were deserted yesterday with schools, shops and businesses closed. But some protests continued in Surat, the centre of India's lucrative diamond trade, where local media said police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

The riots were triggered by the detention late Tuesday of the Patidars' self-styled firebrand leader Hardik Patel, 22, who has since been released. At least a dozen officers were injured in the violence, prompting the first curfew in the state since 2002 when communal riots left at least 1,000 people dead, said Gujarat Director-General of Police P.C. Thakur.

Patidars, one of the state's most affluent castes, make up around 12 per cent of its population. They say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for jobs.

India sets aside a proportion of government jobs and university places for Dalits, known as "untouchables", and "other backward castes" as a means to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.

The state authorities have already ruled out granting the Patidars' request, but their campaign has gathered pace in recent weeks. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2015, with the headline 'Modi calls for peace after caste riots'. Print Edition | Subscribe