India's Rajasthan tense as protest death toll reaches 35

The ethnic Gujjar community protested in India's north-western Rajasthan state on Sunday as the death toll from clashes with police reached 35, officials and news reports said.

At least 18 people were killed and over 20 injured when the police fired on a group of Gujjar protestors in Sikandra in the Dausa district, about 80 kilometres west of state capital Jaipur on Saturday, an official at the police control room in Jaipur said.

One policeman was also killed in clashes with the mob, he said.

The Gujjars, an ethnic group who raise livestock for milk and dairy products, are demanding to be classified as a scheduled tribe to qualify for government jobs and quotas in schools.

Police fired on protestors in Bayana in Bharatpur district Friday, killing 15. One policeman was killed by the mob. Bayana is located 155 kilometres east of Jaipur.

In both cases, mobs set ablaze police stations and attacked policemen who retaliated with live ammunition after teargas shells and rubber pellets failed to disperse the mobs, officials were quoted as saying.

Rajasthan Chief Miister Vasundhara Raje invited the Gujjar leader KS Bainsla, a former Indian army colonel, for talks. Bainsla has reportedly refused the offer and asked for a government envoy to be sent to Bayana, NDTV reported.

The Gujjars blockaded the Agra-Jaipur highway near Sikandra and the rail track on the Delhi-Mumbai route, Rajasthan Home Minister GC Kataria was quoted as saying.

They also tried to block the highway connecting Jaipur with Delhi and other highways in the state.

More than 6,000 people were squatting on the rail track near Dhumaria village, Rajasthan police chief AS Gill said. "We are working out a strategy to disperse them," he said. adding that the army had been called in to help.

The Rajasthan government has banned gatherings of more than four people and tightened security measures in 10 districts, including Jaipur.

The Gujjar community are currently included in the "other backward classes" list. They want to be downgraded and classified as a scheduled tribe to qualify for special benefits.

Under India's affirmative action policy, quotas have been set for government jobs and admission to schools for disadvantaged sections of society who are listed as scheduled tribes and scheduled castes.

The latest violence comes a year after protests by Gujjars in Rajasthan claimed 26 lives.

The state's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had then reached an understanding with the Gujjar leaders saying their demand would be followed up.

The Gujjar leaders claim the BJP promised to give them scheduled tribe status before local elections in 2003. The state government said such a decision can only be taken by the federal government.

The BJP government is also in a quandary as another dominant tribal group in the state, the Meenas, who have scheduled tribe status, do not want the same to be given to the Gujjars.

Gujjar leaders vowed Sunday to continue the protests and spread to other areas until their demand was met.

Thousands of Gujjars gathered at Sikandra where the bodies of their dead community members were being kept.

"We have been fooled by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state for long. This time we want our demand to be accepted," Bainsla was quoted as saying, dpa reported.

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