INDIA: An Affirmative Action Micro-War

Eric Linge, Pitt Law '09, files from Mumbai:

Outbursts of communal violence are common in India. There are Maoist insurgents in the jungles. There are 23 different separatist militias in the eastern hill states. And as I reported in prior weeks, agitated Sikhs have been violently protesting in the northwest and rural dwellers in West Bengal have been beaten by police. And most recently, demonstrations left 23 dead in the northwest as mobs encroached the suburbs of the capital Delhi. Demonstrating are the Gujjars, and what they want is better access to affirmative action.

Angry people fighting violently is such regular news here in India it barely warrants discussion by the water cooler at work. This fighting in the Delhi suburbs, which has since ceased, was the exception. The mob stopped trains, vandalized trains, cars and busses, and blocked major highways. Armed police sought to hold them off. More than the violence, what warranted the water cooler discussion was that the highways and railways from Mumbai to Delhi were closed.

The Gujjars are a traditional class of shepards in the north and west of the country. They wish to be listed as an officially recognized tribal people, which would give them better access to affirmative action benefits. A rival tribe called the Meena is fiercely opposed to the Gujjars' demands, and complicating this mini-war, the Meenas were fighting the Gujjars, even as police fought to keep the violence from Delhi. The protests chilled — and faded even further from water cooler discussion — after the national government in Delhi agreed to formally look into the Gujjars' demands.

Among the fundamental rights listed in the Indian Constitution are prohibitions against discrimination that read a lot like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States. To paraphrase, the State shall not discriminate against any citizen, and no citizen shall be denied access to public places. There shall be equal opportunity for employment, public and private. However, nothing in these constitutional articles (Articles 15 and 16) shall prevent the State from taking measures to benefit traditionally underprivileged groups. In other words, affirmative action is written into the Constitution of India.

There are three different classifications for groups that have traditionally been deficient educationally and economically. Each of these three classes is allotted a certain quota in government employment, at state-funded schools and colleges, and in state and central legislatures. There are the Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are essentially the Dalits, formerly known as the Untouchables. There are the Scheduled Tribes (STs), who are physically isolated indigenous people living in forests and hills. And then there are the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) — usually people in the middle of the Hindu caste hierarchy who are not necessarily isolated but are educationally and economically backward.

The Gujjars are currently listed as an OBC but would prefer to be listed as an ST. There would be more reservations in the quota system for Gujjars if they were listed as an ST instead of an OBC. The rival Meenas currently occupy most of the ST quota reservations for the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The Meenas have been successful during their 53 years listed as an ST, and the Gujjars hope to achieve comparable success. Of course the Meenas are against the Gujjars being listed as an ST because then the Gujjars would be taking reservations away from the Meenas.

Getting listed in a schedule or switching from one list to another is not a transparent process, and the power lies in the central government. In theory it would be possible for the Gujjars to switch lists, but this being India, the Meenas have vowed to protest if this happens. Nevertheless, the central government says it will report back to the Gujjars in three months.

In the meantime, the tribal leader of the Gujjars has been charged with the murder of a police officer during the demonstrations.

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