Violence rocks Gujarat over Patel reservation issue

Amid curfew in the various parts of Gujarat, fresh clashes broke out today between police and protesters in Ahmedabad.

Members of the Patidhar, or Patel community had on Tuesday night resorted to arson, stone-pelting and vandalism after a brief detention of their 22-year-old leader Hardik Patel, following which curfew was imposed in three towns of North Gujarat and some areas of Surat.

As the news of detention of Patel spread, violence broke out first in Ahmedabad and later spread to other cities like Surat, Mehsana, Rajkot and some interior areas of the state, even though Hardik was soon released.

In Ahmedabad, city buses and police posts were set on fire, while stone-pelting was reported from various parts of Gujarat, state police control room officials said.

"The agitators clashed with the police and members of the lower castes. They have burnt down nine police stations and over three dozen buses," P C Thakur, Gujarat's top police officer, told Reuters.

21-year-old Hardik Patel, who was detained over his hunger strike to demand OBC (other backward class) reservations for the Patel community, called for a state-wide bandh on Wednesday to intensify the agitation.

About 5,000 paramilitary personnel rushed to Gujarat in the wake of the violence.

The protests pose a challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who ran Gujarat for more than a decade before winning last year's general election.

The Patels, a wealthy business community in India and overseas, have been a driving force in the country's economic growth. The community dominates the thriving diamond trade, oil processing and the textile industry.

But they say that caste-based reservations deprive them of opportunities. They insist the government should put an end to affirmative action policies that favour Muslims, low-caste Hindus and Other Backward Classes - a collective term covering socially and educationally deprived groups.

Caste-based reservations has always been a sensitive issue in India, used often as a tool for what is called vote-bank politics.

In a recent speech, Modi said that India must overcome its caste-based divisions, and work towards a more merit-based society. Modi comes from a lowly caste included in the Other Backward Classes, and has made much of his rise to power from humble origins as the son of a tea seller.

Caste politics are likely to play a role in a forthcoming state election in Bihar, whose chief minister Nitish Kumar belongs to the Patel community and has sympathised with the Gujarat protesters.