REUTERS, NEW DELHI - Thousands of protesters from the Gujjar community burned tyres and blocked roads leading to New Delhi on Thursday, bringing a battle for college and government job quotas in which dozens have died closer to the capital.
Huge traffic jams formed on highways leading into the capital. Some train services to towns outside Delhi, including several tourist destinations, were also suspended.
Thousands of stick-wielding ethnic Gujjars shouted slogans and squatted on main roads on the borders of east and north Delhi. They threw stones at police and at places broke windshields of cars and buses.
The Gujjars, already considered a disadvantaged group, want to be reclassified further down the complex Hindu caste and status system so they qualify for government jobs and university seats reserved for such groups.
Demonstrations turned violent last week after protesters lynched a policeman and police fired on protesters, killing 36 of them in only a few days.
Protesters turned away vehicles from the neighbouring towns of Noida and Gurgaon, home to scores of outsourcing and computer software firms. Many offices were closed.
The 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.
But 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.
EXPLOSIVE CUL DE SAC?
"The truth is that our politics is driving us into an explosive cul de sac," wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of the Centre for Policy Research, in The Indian Express.
"The recent, terrible violence is a reminder of what happens to societies when they can neither endure their current social condition, nor the means to overcome it."
In Rajasthan's towns of Bayana and Sikandra, where Gujjars are a majority, protesters blocked roads with bodies of some of those killed in the police firing a week ago, saying the bodies would not be cremated until the government relented.
The army and federal police forces surrounded the two towns.
"The Rajasthan government must realise the mood of the people and not delay the implementation of quotas for Gujjars," Avatar Singh Bhadana, a top Gujjar leader, said.
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.