AHMEDABAD: Thousands of troops patrolled Gujarat Thursday after at least nine people including a police officer died in the worst violence to hit the Indian prime minister’s home state in more than a decade.
Schools were closed as authorities imposed a curfew in the worst-hit areas after nearly two days of rioting following a rally in the main city of Ahmedabad by an estimated half a million members of the Patidar caste.
Protesters torched cars, buses and police stations after the detention late Tuesday of Hardik Patel, the firebrand leader of a mass movement to demand preferential treatment for jobs and university places for the caste.
According to some Indian media reports, mobile internet services were blocked in Gujarat in wake of the violence that engulfed the state.
The Patidars or Patels are one of the state’s most affluent communities, but they say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for jobs.
India sets aside a proportion of government jobs and university places for some castes under measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.
But the policy causes resentment among other communities who say it freezes them out.
An AFP reporter in Ahmedabad said the streets were calm on Thursday, with shops and businesses beginning to reopen in some areas and large numbers of security personnel on the streets.
The violence began in Ahmedabad on Tuesday but spread quickly to other cities including Surat, centre of India’s lucrative diamond trade, which is dominated by members of the Patidar community.
Many of the victims were killed when police opened fire on rioters, but one officer died in hospital late Wednesday of injuries sustained in the clashes.
It is the first time troops have been deployed in Gujarat since religious violence in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims, shortly after Modi took over as the state’s chief minister.
Gujarat is one of India’s most affluent states and political leaders appeared to have been taken by surprise by the scale of the protest movement, which began earlier this year but has rapidly gathered pace in recent weeks.
On Wednesday Modi, who led the state until his party stormed to victory in last year’s elections, appealed for calm.
“I appeal to all brothers and sisters of Gujarat that they should not resort to violence,” Modi said in a statement.
State authorities have already ruled out granting the Patidars’ request and it is unclear how the movement’s 22-year-old leader managed to mobilise such huge numbers.
On Wednesday he appealed for peace but vowed to keep up the pressure on the Gujarat government.
“This is a fight for our rights… we will continue with our campaign on the roads and the streets,” he said in a television interview.
At least a dozen officers were injured in Tuesday’s violence, prompting the first curfew in the state since 2002.