Rural Indian protesters paralysed a northern state on Monday despite a deal giving them more government jobs, but there was relief for New Delhi’s 20 million residents as the army retook control of their main water source.
Days of rioting and looting across Haryana state by the Jat rural caste have killed at least 16 people and threaten to undermine Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of better days for Indians who elected him in 2014 with the largest majority in three decades.
Thousands of troops have been deployed to quell protests, which flared again on Monday near Sonipat as protesters set fire to a freight train. In neighbouring Rajasthan, Jats attacked and burned buses.
A compromise with the Jats brokered by Modi’s home minister on Sunday failed to get protesters to clear highway roadblocks. Further talks to end the crisis were set for Monday evening.
Disruption has been huge, with 850 trains cancelled, 500 factories closed and business losses estimated at $2.9 billion.
“We will continue the protests. The government thinks we will succumb to their pressure tactics but they are making a big mistake by ignoring us,” Ramesh Dalal, convenor of the Jat Arakshan Andolan (Jat Reservation Movement), told Reuters.
The army retook control of a canal that supplies three-fifths of the capital’s water. Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said the army had reopened the sluice gates of the Munak canal to the north of the city. Water was expected to reach the metropolis by early Tuesday.
The Haryana government put the death toll at 16 while police said that, while order was slowly being restored, there were still tensions in some towns as Jats tried to prevent other communities from reopening their shops.
In Bahadurgarh, to the west of Delhi, Jat protesters were out in force, expressing their anger against Modi and demanding written assurances of more jobs for their community, which makes up a quarter of Haryana’s population.
Many Jats, who number more than 80 million across north India, are farmers whose livelihoods have suffered as families divide farms among their children while two years of drought have harmed their crops.
As a social group they are experiencing downward mobility and missing out on urban job opportunities, explaining their demand for government jobs and student places under affirmative action policies that are typically reserved for deprived groups.
Ramcharan Dekhara, a 52-year-old father of four, has sold his land to pay for his daughter’s marriage and now runs a tea shop near National Highway 10.
“I am fighting for my sons’ future. The boys are sitting at home and there is nothing they can do at the tea shop,” Dekhara told Reuters. “They studied hard to make a new life but now they are wasting time and watching TV all day.”
The gulf is most striking on the frontier of Gurgaon, one of Delhi’s burgeoning satellite cities, where offices, factories and residential apartments give way suddenly to farmers’ fields – many of them tilled by Jats.
The Jats predominantly voted for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general election, when he won the biggest parliamentary majority in three decades. Months later the BJP won an outright majority in Haryana for the first time.
Although many of the state’s chief ministers have been Jats, the current minister is not. Commentators have faulted him and other BJP leaders for failing to read the social mood and devoting too much attention to issues like cow protection that are a core part of the party’s pro-Hindu agenda.
In a familiar pattern, Modi completely ignored the protests, instead launching a broadside on Sunday against unnamed conspirators he accused of trying to undermine his government.
Playing on his own humble origins as the son of a tea seller, or chaiwallah, Modi said: “Some people are not able to digest my prime ministership. They can’t digest that a chaiwallah has become PM.
“They are now hatching conspiracies every day to finish and defame me,” he told farmers in a speech in Odisha.