Several people have died in violent clashes between police and protesters led by Dalits. Demonstrators opposed a court ruling to slow down legal proceedings against those accused of crimes against India's lowest caste.
At least six people were killed on Monday in clashes between India's lowest caste group and the police. The street battles were sparked by a Supreme Court ruling that halted the immediate arrest of people accused of discriminating against the marginalized Dalits.
The protests, called "Bharat Bandh," or "India shutdown," took place in multiple states in India. Protesters let by Dalits set police posts on fire, blocked rail tracks and major roads and attacked buses and government buildings. Live fire was also exchanged in some places.
Television broadcasts showed police beating protesters while the The Times of India reported that some 800 anti-riot police had been sent out in response to the violence.
Four people were killed in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where police also imposed a curfew, while one person was killed in Uttar Pradesh in the northeast and another in Rajasthan in the northwest.
In Uttar Pradesh, "some 30 police and about 30-35 protesters were also injured, one of them seriously," the state's police deputy inspector general Praveen Kumar said.
Violence was reported in other states as well, causing exams to be postponed, internet service to be shut down and shops to be shuttered.
Local media put the death toll as high as nine, though these reports could not be confirmed.
Protests against the Supreme Court ruling
The protests had been called for by Dalit organizations after India's Supreme Court ruled last month that prior approval was needed from officials before action could be taken on complaints of violence against Dalits, who are at the bottom of India's caste system and face discrimination, segregation and violence. The court decision also stopped the immediate arrest of people accused of violence against Dalits.
The court justified its ruling slowing legal action by stating that the law it amended had been "misused" in the past, but activists said the ruling would encourage crimes against India's lower castes.
By the end of 2016, some 90 percent of the approximately 145,000 cases involving Dalits were still pending trial, government data revealed.
Political parties weigh in
Dalit politicians from various states backed the protests but condemned the violence.
"Get out in strong numbers, block the roads if needed, but do not touch public property," Dalit lawmaker Jignesh Mevani said on the India Today news channel.
Opposition parties have accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being "anit-Dalit" and too slow in reacting to the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Thousands of Dalit brothers and sisters are demanding the protection of their rights from the Modi government on the roads today. We salute them," opposition politician Rahul Gandhi from the Congress party said.
Modi's government handed the country's top court a review petition on Monday asking it to amend the March 20 decision that had sparked the protests.
The country faces a general election by May 2019 at the latest, and discrimination has become a national issue in the run-up.
Dalits, once known as "untouchables," make up roughly 200 million of India's 1.25 billion population, which is socially structured in a rigid caste system. Born into their caste, Dalits are sometimes forced into occupations considered unclean by the so-called higher castes, such as cleaning excrement and disposing of dead creatures. Caste discrimination in India is outlawed but remains widespread.
cmb/se (AFP, dpa, Reuters)