In most parts of the world people struggle to move up the social ladder. In India, some groups want to descend it. That's the simplistic explanation behind caste protests that have flared in the northern state of Rajasthan over the past week and which on Monday reached India's capital New Delhi, where rioting members of the Gujjar community smashed and burned buses, stoned police and shut down not only roads in the capital but highways into satellite cities Gurgaon and Noida, home to dozens of the country's call and business processing centers.
The Gujjar, a nomadic and politically powerful northern Indian tribe, want India's governments to add them to a list of "scheduled tribes" who are guaranteed preferential access to government jobs and places in state-sponsored schools under a system meant to give a leg up to the poorest and most disadvantaged of its citizens. But other tribes already on the list oppose the move because it would increase competition for the scarce positions already set aside. At least one, the Meena tribe, says if the government gives in to the Gujjar's demands it will launch its own wave of protests.
The fight over who should and shouldn't qualify for affirmative action positions has been fueled by the promises often subsequently broken made by politicians desperate for votes. Over the past 15 years or so, various political parties have pledged to bring more and more groups under the affirmative action umbrella. The riots of the past week, which have killed almost 20 people, are the inevitable outcome of that politicking. "Conflicts are inevitable when the size of the pie remains the same and there are more claimants," says political commentator Vinod Dua, who believes affirmative action programs should be based on economic need and not just on the caste and tribal lines delineating India's complicated social hierarchy. "By focusing on caste you are perpetuating the differences, preventing inter-caste mobility, inter-caste marriages. You are condemning people to their caste."
Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, agrees, and says India's founding fathers should have set time limits on affirmative action or included a mechanism that would allow periodical adjustments to the system, in order to skim off what Indians call the "creamy layer" of minorities who have already benefited from reserved jobs and school places. Instead, Gupta says, the program has turned into a "cash cow" in which some castes are "able to monopolize the benefits" of the system, while others agitate to join in and are susceptible to manipulation by opportunistic politicians.
The current jockeying is more political than cultural. The reservation of jobs for castes and tribes at the low end of the social scale was originally not a poverty eradication program at all, but a way of giving "a modicum of respectability and dignity to those who had none," says Gupta. And tribes and castes are still loath to be seen as socially less desirable. Tellingly, the Gujjar are demanding to be recognized as a scheduled tribe rather than a scheduled caste, such as the Dalit community, once known as "untouchables". "They want to be administratively downscaled, not socially downscaled," says Gupta. "This group doesn't see itself as suddenly lesser, it wants access to jobs and an urban foothold and it wants them quickly, but that doesn't change their position in the ritual hierarchy. At least in their own eyes."
Late on Monday the Gujjar said they had called off further protests after the Rajasthan state government agreed to set up an inquiry into their demands. But unraveling the Gordian knot of cultural and political lobbying won't be easy. Some Indians are beginning to argue that the country should be more of a meritocracy, but no political party is prepared to dismantle the system of affirmative action because of the political damage that would cause them. As India's economy shoots ahead G.D.P. growth is now above 9% a year expect more clashes over who gets to share in the wealth, and more instances where India's modernity is challenged by its past. "We are living in a dichotomy," says Dua. "There are islands of a meritocracy surrounded by the huge mass of India's population which doesn't share the benefits. And today [in Delhi] we saw that the corporate head honchos are absolutely irrelevant in the face of a few young men on the streets with primitive sticks and weapons. Those people can shut down the New India just like that."