Indian police fire on caste protesters, one killed

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Police opened fire on protesters in northern India on Friday, killing one, as rival caste groups clashed during a mass rally over access to jobs and education.

The army was called in after several were injured in the violence in northern Haryana state, as demonstrators clashing over preferential treatment for certain castes defied police orders and went on a rampage.

State police chief Yash Pal Singal said a protester had shot at a member of the security personnel first during the demonstrations in Rohtak district triggering the violent retaliation by police.

"The BSF (Border Security Force) then fired in self-defence and unfortunately one protester lost his life. Some other people have received injuries," Singal said in comments broadcast on TV channels.

Haryana's dominant Jat community, a comparatively affluent caste group, has been calling for quotas in government jobs similar to those allocated to lower-caste groups who have faced generations of societal discrimination.

The Jats say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for government jobs and university places - but other caste groups have opposed their demands for special treatment.

The government called in about 2,000 troops to quash the protests, Press Trust of India reported, as TV footage showed demonstrators trying to set fire to vehicles and a house belonging to a state minister.

The protesters have blocked major highways and disrupted rail traffic since Wednesday, prompting police to clamp prohibitory orders on many districts.

Haryana state is ruled by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has come in for criticism of late for its perceived iron-fisted approach on sensitive issues.

The protests echo caste violence that swept the western state of Gujarat in August last year, leaving several dead.

The state saw weeks of protests by the privileged Patidar or Patel caste, who demanded special treatment to put them on a level footing with lower castes.

India sets aside a proportion of jobs and places to people from so-called lower and backward castes under measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.

But the policy of "reservation" causes resentment among other communities who say it freezes them out.