The violence threatens to spread across India.

More than 50 people have died in the past two months of riot and arson in Ahmedabad, just across the Sabermati River from the ashram where Gandhi preached nonviolence and equality among the castes for more than 18 years (1915-1933).

Nearly one-sixth of India’s 750 million people are so low on the scale they are considered ‘‘untouchable’’ and millions more are members of castes traditionally shunned by high caste Hindus.

The latest protests began early this year when the Gujarat state government announced plans to raise reservations from 31 percent to 49 percent even though low caste groups were able to take advantage of less than half the old quota.

The announcement was neatly timed to win low caste votes during state elections, but it ignited protests from higher castes already angry at the reservation system.

Student leader Bhaskar Bhatt said the anti-reservation movement would soon be expanded across India.

“We are mobilizing people in the other states. Every political party including the ruling party is

Quietly split on this issue,’ said Bhatt, who was released after a month of detention for his part in the demonstrations.

“We have to exploit the movement we have already generated,” said Dr. Gaurang Shah, one of the leaders of the movement.

“In the long term this (reservation) situation will corrode the social system because it will graft in the value that it is your caste, not your ability that counts,” he said.

“India is a developing country that cannot afford such ingrained inefficiency,” he said.

But low caste group leaders said the movement against reservations was a maneuver to take away their only privileges in a still caste ridden society.

“Caste feeling is deep-rooted and very cruel,” said Ramesh Chandra Parmar, leader of the Dalit (Oppressed Caste) Panthers.

“Today he (the high caste Hindu) may sit with us and even eat with us, but wherever the interests of the high castes are threatened, they act strongly to crush us,” he said.

“It is not so apparent in the cities, but there is caste hatred all over. In many villages they still don’t allow the (low) castes to enter the temples, take water from the wells or enter their houses,”’ he said.

Dalit Panther leader Parmar warned that low caste groups would not permit their chances for advancement to be taken away.

“If a violent struggle starts, we will have to take part,” he said. ‘‘And then we face what no one wants caste war.

Article extracted from this publication >> May 10, 1985