Angry villagers blocked highways and railroad lines in northwestern India for a third day Thursday as the death toll from clashes with police rose to 18 after an officer was beaten to death and police shot four protesters, officials said.
With violence spreading across the state of Rajasthan, authorities deployed soldiers to try to keep some of the main highways open.
The protesters have repeatedly torched police stations and vehicles and attacked government offices to press demands that their community, the Gujjars, be officially classified at the bottom of India’s complex social ladder so members can get government jobs and university spots reserved for such groups.
The latest deaths came Thursday when police clashed with villagers, some of whom were reportedly armed with guns, and killed three in the town of Baoli, said B.L. Arya, an official at Rajasthan’s home ministry.
Late Wednesday, protesters stopped a police jeep and beat to death an officer near Kot Putli, a village about 62 mileswest of New Delhi, said a senior Rajasthan police official, B.R. Guala.
The policeman, who was not identified, was the second officer killed since protests erupted Tuesday.
Hours earlier, as dusk fell, police opened fire on Gujjars about to attack a state official in the village of Bayana, 150 miles west of New Delhi, said V.S. Singh, the home commissioner of Rajasthan. At least one person was killed.
Apart from the deaths and property damage, the protests have also left hundreds of thousands of people stranded by blocked roads and railway lines in Rajasthan, a major tourist destination. The demonstrations have also disrupted transport to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal.
Although India officially banned caste discrimination decades ago, lower social groups such as the Gujjar, who are traditionally farmers and shepherds in northwestern India, still face widespread disadvantages.
In an attempt to right historical wrongs, India’s federal and state governments have over the past decades established quotas for lower-caste groups to ensure they get government jobs and university spots.
Gujjars are already classified as one of India’s thousands of “Other Backward Classes,” which gives them some preferences. They want to be redefined as a “Scheduled Tribe,” an even lower classification that would open up more opportunities.