GURGAON, India – For a week, angry throngs from one of India's lower castes blocked roads with burning barricades, stoned police and clashed with rival castes to make a single, simple point: They want to be even lower.
With 25 people dead, the unrest spread to the fringes of New Delhi on Monday as thousands of Gujjars, a class of farmers and shepherds, pressed their demand to be officially shunted to the lowest rung of India's hereditary caste system so they can get government jobs and university spots reserved for such groups.
"I am farmer and I am poor," Rajesh Gurjjar, 26, said after police chased him off a main street in this New Delhi suburb, his thin T-shirt shirt soaked with sweat. "I want a government job. It pays more. The office is cool in summer. The fields are too hot."
To put it another way, the fastest way up India's economic ladder now is a quick step down its age-old social ladder.
While caste violence is not new, many see a paradox in the Gujjars' struggle. The political importance of the caste system is growing even as the rise of an urbanized and educated middle class has weakened its grip socially, making it more acceptable for a group to try to fight its way down instead of pushing its way up.
"This isn't a case of a group agitating for the primacy or superiority of their caste. It has nothing to do with a claim of caste loyalty according to the Hindu world view or religious scriptures," said Parvan K. Varma, author of "Being Indian," a book about Indian society.
"This is the use of caste as political negotiating currency. It's about a finite cake and a caste community attempting to get a piece," he said.
The politics were clear late Monday when Gujjar leaders called off their protests after officials agreed to look into their demands.
The move immediately drew threats from leaders of a rival caste, the Meena, who are classified among the lowest castes and don't want more competitors for reserved jobs and school spots. During the unrest, clashes between Meenas and Gujjars killed at least four people.
The origins and inner workings of the caste system are the subject of much debate. The system divides people into four broad groups, with the priestly caste at the top. There are hundreds of sub-castes within each group, most of them drawn along occupational lines.
While the caste system is part of Hinduism, there are also caste-like divisions among Muslims, who account for 13 percent of India's 1.1 billion people, and Christians, who make up 2.4 percent.
Although the system was outlawed after independence from Britain in 1947, its influence remains powerful and the government has sought to redress discrimination against those on the lower rungs by setting quotas for government jobs and university spots.
Rather than weaken caste affiliations, the result has been a fracturing of politics along caste lines as lower groups vie for a share of the quotas.
Further complicating matters is that caste has never been as rigid a system as imagined in the West — there is, over generations, movement within subgroups, sociologists say — and determining who gets access to the quotas has long been an issue of red-hot contention.
There have been repeated protests the past year over a government plan to reserve more than a quarter of the spots at India's top professional schools for the 3,743 castes and sub-castes, Gujjars among them, classified in the second-to-lowest category, the "Other Backward Classes."
That plan was suspended in March by a Supreme Court ruling that presaged the Gujjar protests.
"No where in the world do castes queue up to be branded as backward. No where in the world is there a competition to become backward," the court said.
Less controversial have been the decades-old quotas for those on the lowest rung of the caste system — the "Scheduled Castes and Tribes," a group that include the "dalits," once known as "untouchables."
India's 160 million dalits have no caste, and for centuries have been viewed as "pollutants." Many are forced to live in separate villages, forbidden from drawing water at wells used by other Hindus and often subjected to violent abuse.
It is this group the Gujjars want to join.
"Our people have not benefited from India's economic growth. Most Gujjars are herders. They live in huts on the hills. This is a matter of survival," said Bharat Tanwar, 30, who took part in a peaceful protest in New Delhi on Friday.
That may be true for most Gujjars, although not for Tanwar — he's a textile engineer.
"But I did not go to a top university, I cannot make so much money," he said. "I want my son to go to a top engineering school, to work with computers."