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Protesting Gujjars cremate dead, block trains

JAIPUR, India (Reuters) - The Gujjar community, which is demanding job quotas, began cremating on Tuesday dozens of people killed by police, but continued blocking rail and road traffic in Rajasthan, the centre of days of violent protests.

Ethnic Gujjars sit near the bodies of those who died during clashes with the police at Bayana village, in Bharatpur district in Rajasthan May 24, 2008. REUTERS/Vinay Joshi

Gujjars are fighting to be reclassified further down India’s complex Hindu caste and status system to qualify for government jobs and university places reserved for such groups.

The violence, which started 12 days ago in Rajasthan, has claimed some 40 lives, mostly protesters shot dead by police. Gujjars had also briefly halted traffic on highways into New Delhi last week.

They had refused to cremate the dead, squatting with the bodies on rail tracks and roads leading to New Delhi, but eventually agreed to post mortems and cremation.

But they seem in no mood to call off their protests. On Tuesday, hundreds of Gujjar women, their colourful saris drawn over their faces, damaged rail tracks in Rajasthan using axes and sticks.

Rail services, particularly between Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur and the Taj Mahal town of Agra, remained disrupted for the 12th day. Some roads in the state continued to be blocked.

“Cremation of four (people) have been done by relatives, while others are likely to happen today,” V.S. Singh, Rajasthan’s home secretary, said.

“We have stepped up security in and around Bayana and Sikandra,” he said, referring to two Rajasthan towns at the centre of the Gujjar protests.

India’s government reserves about half of all seats in state colleges and universities for lower castes and tribal groups to flatten centuries-old social hierarchies, in what has been called the world’s biggest affirmative action scheme.

The Gujjars fall into the Other Backward Classes grouping and seek to be reclassified under the Scheduled Tribes and Castes grouping.

The scheme has been criticised for accentuating caste identities in India, where discrimination on caste is banned in the constitution.

Some critics say the quota system masks India’s failure to provide good universal education and social equality.

A year ago, Gujjars in Rajasthan fought police and members of another caste that already qualifies for job quotas. At least 26 people were killed in that violence.

After these protests, a state government committee said it would spend 2.8 billion rupees ($67 million) improving schools, clinics, roads and other infrastructure in Gujjar areas. But Gujjars rejected this option.