India sends troops to quell Haryana caste protests that cut water to New Delhi

Amy Kazmin
India sends troops to squash protests

India sent thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces to northern Haryana state on Sunday, after protesters demanding a quota for government jobs for their caste turned violent and attacked cars, shops and several public buildings, as well as cutting a key water source for the capital city, New Delhi.

At least 10 people have been killed, and more than 150 injured, in three days of clashes and unrest as members of the state's politically influential Jat caste — traditionally landowning farmers — took to the streets to press for quotas for college seats and state jobs for their community.

India's largest carmaker, Japanese-owned Maruti Suzuki, suspended production at its two Haryana factories, which usually together make 5,000 cars a day, saying its supply of components had been disrupted.

The agitation forced the cancellation of hundreds of trains and bus services through the state as protesters attacked train stations and blockaded key highways leading in and out of the capital city, with its 17 million people.

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New Delhi authorities ordered all the city's schools to remain closed Monday, as they braced for a crisis caused by the protesters, who vandalised a waterworks that is a crucial source of water for the city.

The destructive spree — in a business-friendly state housing the corporate offices and factories of many multinational companies — is a warning sign of the risks to India's political and social stability from restive youth, struggling to realize their aspirations for a better life in an economy that is failing to create enough jobs for the estimated 1m people entering the work force each month.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat saw a similar destructive outbreak — also by an upper caste group demanding government jobs — last year.

"If you look at the mismatch between economic opportunity and demographics, it's a perfect storm that's brewing," says Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based think-tank. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see many more of these things across India in years to come."

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In a bid to defuse the current crisis, Harayana's Bharatiya Janata Party government said on Sunday that it would accede to Jat demands, and introduce state legislation declaring the community a "backward caste." That would make Jat youth eligible to compete for some of the college places and government jobs now reserved for those on the lowest rungs of Hinduism's caste hierarchy.

Mr Modi has made no direct statement on the unrest of the last three days. But at a farmers rally in Odisha on Sunday, the prime minister accused disgruntled, foreign-funded, non-governmental organisations of trying to destabilize his administration, out of anger that he had asked them to provide detailed accounts.

"They got together and have been conspiring all the time how to finish Modi, how to remove [the] Modi government, and how to defame Modi," the Indian Express newspaper quoted him as saying.

But Mr Vaishnav said the claim, seemingly made out of the blue, likely reflects the premier's frustration — and "sense of siege" — at the mounting political challenges, now threatening to undermine his economic reform agenda. "This is a cliché in Indian politics," Mr Vaishnav said. "When the going gets tough domestically, you turn to the 'foreign hand' as an easy bogeyman."