Nearly half a million of Indian protesters, who were members of the Patidar or Patel community, participated in the protest in the western city of Ahmedabad, about 450 kilometers north of the state capital, Mumbai, on Wednesday.
The protesters from the wealthy business community in India called on the Indian authorities to put an end to “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination,” which is a policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged groups that suffer from some form of discrimination within a culture.
They accused the Indian authorities of unfairly favoring groups at the lower end of India’s caste system, which is a system of social stratification. The system is the basis of “reservations” in India, which is, in turn, the process of allocating a certain percentage of seats (vacancies) in government institutions to members of under-represented communities.
The protesters complained that they are not given enough opportunities to find government jobs and enter universities due to the government plans to favor the underprivileged.
Clashes also erupted between the protesters and Indian police after the leader of the group, Hardik Patel, was arrested, and police fired teargas and baton-charged the protesters.
“Our agitation will end the day the government will indicate that it is willing to give us reservation,” the Hindustan Times quoted Patel as saying a day before the protest.
The head of the group said that he will stage a hunger strike if the demands of the community are not met.
“If you do not give our right, we will snatch it. Whoever will talk of the interest of Patels will rule over Patels,” he said.
Indian police said that the protesters had caused widespread damage in Ahmedabad.
“The agitators clashed with the police and members of the lower castes. They have burned down nine police stations and over three dozen buses,” PC Thakur, Gujarat’s top police officer, said, adding, “We had to impose a curfew to control the clashes. Offices, trading houses and educational institutions will not open today.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called on the demonstrators in a televised address to protest peacefully.
“I appeal to the people of Gujarat to maintain peace,” Modi said, adding, “Violence will never achieve anything.”
Modi, who himself was born to a family at the lower end of India’s caste system, has tried to give the low-caste Indians the chance to work their way out of poverty.