Why India is still fighting over caste system

Modi calls for peace after caste riots in India
Modi calls for peace after caste riots in India

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    Modi calls for peace after caste riots in India

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Modi calls for peace after caste riots in India 01:54

Story highlights

  • India's caste system is not a thing of the past, says CNN's New Delhi bureau chief Ravi Agrawal
  • Protests at the caste "quota system" in Gujarat have turned violent
  • India created quota of government jobs, university places for people from what were lower castes

As protests over caste quotas turn deadly in India's Gujarat state, CNN's New Delhi bureau chief looks at what's behind the violence.

New Delhi (CNN)Growing up in India, I remember our middle school civics teacher telling us clearly: caste discrimination was a thing of the past.

And yet, not really. While the system that forced so-called "untouchables" to clean public toilets was outlawed, and while the importance of one's caste was eroding as India grew more middle class, we still knew caste was everywhere.
In many cases, it was broadcast in our surnames. Political parties were often created around castes; communities clung together, especially when old grievances flared.
    And then there was the national quota system. Since India's lower castes had been systematically disadvantaged for so long, the state created a quota of government jobs and university seats that would be reserved for the former lower castes. Think of it as affirmative action, mandated by the constitution.
    By 1990, the quota rose to about 49%, and it applied to groups that were classified as "Other Backward Classes," "Scheduled Castes," and "Scheduled Tribes." The move to reserve seats for them at universities and government jobs was seen as a way to give these groups more opportunities at social mobility.
    By and large, the Indian system of quotas has endured and been appreciated. In middle school civics, the affirmative action was explained as a bedrock of India's democracy, a way of reversing unjust systems of the past.

    Resentment

    But there are small pockets of groups who resent the system. To get into a top university, a student with a backward caste certificate needs a lower grade than the others. The rule sometimes spurs frustration in India's intensely competitive schools. The same goes for plum government jobs. "Why should a quota exist?" ask some of those who are fighting for only half of all available jobs.
    What is often forgotten in those moments of frustration is that the people for whom these quotas exist represent some two thirds of India's population. Their argument has often been that they need a larger quota, not a smaller one. They say they have few other routes to social mobility, especially given how disadvantaged they have been for decades on education, health care, and opportunities.
    This week's violent protests have raked into an ugly spotlight the views of those people who are dissatisfied with affirmative action.
    A Gujarati community known as the Patels has been agitating for a removal of the government's system of caste quotas. Patels comprise about one seventh of Gujarat's population; hundreds of thousands of them have been protesting on the streets this week.
    The group's leader, 22-year old Hardik Patel, spoke to the Indian newspaper The Hindu on Thursday, saying "either free the country from reservation or make everybody a slave of reservation."
    The Patels have also been asking for a reservation for their own community. "Our people don't get jobs despite scoring 80-90% marks, so they are forced to do their own business because of this reservation system," Patel told the newspaper.
    On Tuesday, after Hardik Patel was briefly arrested, the protest grew unruly. There were reports of police stations being mobbed and stores being looted. Authorities responded with brute force. CNN has confirmed eight deaths so far, including that of one police officer. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded by calling for peace, as well as sending in the army to maintain public order.

    Political ploy?

    The irony of this week's clashes is that the Patels are themselves a relatively wealthy community. Patels in Gujarat have long been landowners and farmers. They are seen as enterprising and entrepreneurial -- many have started successful businesses.
    Others still have migrated to Britain and the United States, among many other countries. Patels own and run hundreds of small motels across the United States -- they're jokingly referred to as "potels."
    Some analysts and commentators in India are pointing out that the Patel movement is a political ploy. But according to the social scientist Christopher Jaffrelot, writing in The Indian Express, the vast numbers of protestors on the streets this week can't all be part of propaganda.
    "There is always some substance in mass movements," he wrote. "Patels may well be victims of the neo-middle class syndrome. Those who have not yet arrived, who are part of this aspiring class, and find it difficult to achieve their goals because jobs are scarce, education is expensive, buying a car is hard."
    The Patels' frustrations also call into question the image of an all-prosperous and vibrant Gujarat that we often hear about, driven in part by the narrative of Prime Minister Modi, who was previously Gujarat's Chief Minister for a decade.
    The nature of the Patel protests and its staying power this week has come as a surprise to the government both in Gujarat and in New Delhi. The story looks unlikely to disappear, especially since Hardik Patel has said that if his group's demands aren't met, the Patels will withdraw their money from banks and "stop the supply of milk and vegetables."
    As this week's events show, there are numerous fault lines in India's complex society and history that can flare up almost anytime. The Gujarat crisis is a reminder of the troubles that simmer below the surface, and the need for Modi's government to create jobs and deliver inclusive growth.