JAIPUR, India – Protests by one of India's lower castes spread to new areas Monday as government forces were ordered to evict demonstrators who had blocked highways and railroad tracks, government officials said.
Four days of bloody demonstrations in western India by members of the Gujjar community have so far claimed the lives of 36 protesters and one policeman in the worst-hit Rajasthan state.
The Gujjars are seeking to reclassify their hereditary caste to a lower level, which would allow them to qualify for government jobs and university places reserved for such groups. The government has refused.
The riots have paralyzed road and rail traffic between Jaipur, the state capital, and Agra, where the famed Taj Mahal monument is located, as well as to Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment capital, said Rohit Kumar Singh, the state's information commissioner.
On Monday, the protests spread to northern Uttar Pradesh state, where Gujjars stopped trains, blocked highways and disrupted court proceedings.
Groups of students burned tires and set up roadblocks on the main highway passing through Meerut, a town near New Delhi, and stopped trains for nearly two hours, said Surendra Srivastava, an Uttar Pradesh government spokesman.
Trains also were briefly stopped by members of the community in the nearby town of Ghaziabad.
Attorneys disrupted court proceedings in Noida, a township on the outskirts of New Delhi, to express their support for the Gujjar community's demands, said Srivastava.
Police repeatedly opened fire on violent protests by the community on Friday and Saturday in half a dozen villages and towns in western Rajasthan state.
Thousands of army, police and paramilitary forces patrolled villages to control the violence.
After Gujjar leaders rejected the Rajasthan state government's offer of talks, the government ordered forces Monday to clear the highways and rail tracks and restore traffic flows, said Vijay Shankar Singh, the state home secretary.
Twenty-one people were killed in clashes Saturday when police in Sikandra town fired at protesters who torched a police station and two buses Saturday and also shot and wounded a policeman, said Amanjit Singh Gill, Rajasthan's director-general of police.
Fifteen demonstrators died Friday when police fired live ammunition and tear gas to halt rioting, said Singh. A police officer was also beaten to death.
At least 70 injured people have been hospitalized in Jaipur, the state capital, and the town of Dosa, said Singh.
Gujjars took to the streets after a government panel set up to look into their demands recommended a $70 million aid package for their community, but ruled out caste reclassification.
Gujjars are considered part of the second-lowest group, known as Other Backward Classes, a step up from the Scheduled Tribes and Castes.
The Hindu caste system was outlawed soon after independence from Britain in 1947, but its influence remains powerful and the government awards aid packages to different groups.
Twenty-six people died in Gujjar riots in the same area last year.