Violence has erupted in the Indian state of Gujarat where seven people have been killed. The situation has put PM Modi in a precarious position as he cannot afford to lose the support of the protesting community.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence on Wednesday, August 26, and appealed for calm as violent mobs attacked police posts and vandalized public property in his home state, Gujarat. This followed a protest by the powerful Patel community, which is demanding more government jobs and seats in public colleges.
"We cannot indulge in such activities in the land of Gandhi and (Vallabhbhai) Patel (one of India's founding fathers). No one gains from violence and hatred. Any protest must be democratic, and I appeal to my brothers and sisters to stay calm, maintain peace," Modi said in his native Gujarati language.
A curfew was imposed in the former state capital Ahmedabad and four other cities and towns across the western state as further reinforcements of 5,000 paramilitary troops were sent in from New Delhi.
Nearly 500,000 people belonging to the Hindu Patel caste held a massive rally in the state capital on Tuesday to demand better treatment in employment opportunities. The protest turned violent when 22-year-old Hardik Patel, a firebrand leader of the community, was detained by police.
This was the first time that a curfew has been imposed in vast swathes of the state since 2002, when communal violence rattled Gujarat, leaving over 1200 people dead. PM Modi was the state's chief minister at that time, and was accused of orchestrating the riots that killed mostly Muslims.
"The situation should have never been allowed to become volatile. The tensions were building up since July. Why didn't the state authorities talk to the Patel community back then? And look how they handled the protest," Siddharth Patel, a leader of the opposition Congress party, told DW.
At the heart of the conflict is caste politics. The Patels are a largely wealthy and politically powerful community that makes up nearly 15 percent of Gujarat's 63 million people. The community has played an important role in the progress of India's economy, dominating trade with diamonds, textiles and agriculture. Many Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who have settled in the US are also Patels and provide a vast amount of remittances to the country.
To deal with the complex caste system in the country, the government has set aside a certain number of government jobs and university seats for the lower-cast Hindu Dalits to help them integrate into the mainstream which has been denied to them due to years of discrimination and social exclusion. In this scheme, other castes such as the Patels have to perform better in competitive examinations to land a government job or a seat in a government college.
The Patels feel that the socio-economic conditions in the state are no longer favorable to them. The Patidari Anamat (Reservation) Andolan Samiti, or PAAS, argues that small and medium-sized enterprises have suffered a slump and that the diamond industry has laid off large number of workers leading to a large-scale shutdown of units in the recent years.
"Our young boys and girls cannot get admissions in colleges or get jobs in the government sector. Caste-based reservations have denied us opportunities," Paresh Patel, convener of the PASS, told DW.
But the South Asian country's Supreme Court has made it clear that reservations cannot cross the 50 percent redline in any state. Gujarat has already reached it, thus making the inclusion of the Patels in the quota category almost impossible.
Ruling party's dilemma
The situation in Gujarat has shaken the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) governments both at the state and central levels, more so because the state has been a BJP political stronghold for years. Prime Minister Modi is worried that if the Patels stop supporting his party, it can harm the prospects of winning the state assembly polls in Gujarat in 2017.
Modi also sees Gujarat as a backbone of the Indian economy and has invited foreign companies to invest heavily in the state. Violence in the state is certainly not good for Modi's economic plans for Gujarat.