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In India, caste permeates every aspect of life - education, profession, marriage. And it is caste that determines India's affirmative action. By law, the most disadvantaged castes are allowed quotas for government jobs and college admission. But a backlash against those quotas has led to violence and ongoing tension in the state of Gujarat, which is the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the Western state and she sent this report.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Early Sunday morning, grieving men and women gently tossed rose petals onto the body of Shwetang Patel. His youthful face and tousled black hair peeked out from beneath the tightly wrapped shroud laid out on a funeral bier adorned with chrysanthemums. The 32-year-old is alleged to have died in police custody, one of eight victims of the violence that swept through Gujarat, the state that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran for 13 years and pitches as a model for India.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).
MCCARTHY: Angry mourners joined the procession as Shwetang's corpse was borne through the streets of the capital, Ahmedabad, the route bristling with 1,500 riot police. The turbulence began after a speech at a rally last Tuesday by a brash, blue-jean-clad Hardik Patel. At 22, he's not old enough to hold office, but he's cracked open the debate over India's affirmative action, pulling many of the state's 15 million Patels with him. If the fault lines are race in America, they are caste in India. Patel vowed to protect his Partidar caste against what he calls the unfair benefits to the lower castes.
Half of Gujarat's population derives from castes known formally as other backward classes. Because they are socially and economically deprived, they are entitled to 27 percent of government jobs and college seats. Patel warned in last week's rally that it's only right to give his caste the same opportunity, and if Modi's BJP party did not, they would be voted out of power in the state. Over the weekend, Patel told NPR that heavy-handed police tactics were responsible for the unrest. Patel's own supporters are accused of threatening elected officials with bodily harm. I asked Hardik Patel, what have you done to stop that?
>>PATEL (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "I think they're right," he says. "What options do you have if you cannot stop police abuse?" He adds, "if you are fighting for your community, then everything is justified." Patel asserts that 30 percent of his caste is forced to sell off land to fund their children's education while less-qualified candidates secure a seat in a good college and government employment.
HARDIK PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "We've been pushed back 30 years because of this quota policy," he says. Sudarshan Iyengar, economist and prominent academic, says the Patels are, by and large, not disadvantaged. He says their demand for caste quotas may be a gambit to say, if we can't have them, no one can. Iyengar says if the Patels are agitating against affirmative action, it's because they feel they are losing ground and don't have access to the jobs and schools they think they deserve
SUDARSHAN IYENGAR: They feel that their dominant political space is shrinking or is going to shrink. That is the perception. Therefore, they want to come out very, very brazen and loud, aggressive.
MCCARTHY: Iyengar also says the Patel movement poses a threat to the castes that receive quotas, like activist Alpesh Thakor's. The 39-year-old says even with quotas, the children of his Thakor caste are relegated to what he calls pathetic schools. He's organizing a demonstration tomorrow to counter the Patels'.
ALPESH THAKOR: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "They want us to remain in slavery," Thakor says. "They don't want us to progress or move up socially. They segregate us to low-paying jobs in factories and don't want us living in their neighborhoods." As temperatures rise, so does the rhetoric. Local media quote Hardik Patel, urging supporters in New Delhi, Sunday, to speak with swords - provocative words, the kind that economist Sudarshan Iyengar says could invite reprisals from castes determined to defend their quotas.
IYENGAR: Then there will be conflicts. There will be direct, violent conflicts.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
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