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Riots Raise Death Toll To 12 In India Caste Struggle

Members of Hinduism’s lowest caste burned buses, hurled stones at police and blocked trains in southern India in widespread rioting Saturday to protest police killings and the desecration of a monument.

Two people were killed, bringing the two-day death toll to 12. Police arrested 2,111 rioters in India’s financial hub of Bombay and in the surrounding state of Maharashtra.

There have been several caste clashes in northern and western India, but this was the worst caste violence in Bombay.

It began in a slum Friday when someone draped a garland of shoes - a supreme insult in India - around the bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a low-caste hero who had fought for independence from British rule.

It was unclear who had desecrated the monument.

Riots immediately ensued. Police shot and killed 10 people, saying they had set buses on fire and thrown stones and that they were preventing wider unrest. Locals said the initial shootings were unprovoked.

“My nephew was leaving home for school, and now he is dead. Who will replace our loss?” a weeping Hemant Shivsharan said Saturday.

Low-caste advocates called for a general strike, and the unrest spread throughout the state Saturday. Thousands of low-caste women and children took part, blocking traffic and vandalizing vehicles.

“It is time the lower castes got justice! We must fight!” demonstrators chanted at one of several confrontations with police near Bombay’s Ghatkopar neighborhood, where the unrest began.

The 400 demonstrators threw stones at police officers, who charged at the mob swinging batons.

“Do you think what your people did yesterday was right? Will you shoot us again?” protester Meena Achre asked an officer who gripped his baton and stared ahead.

India has thousands of castes that signify a person’s traditional occupation, status and even hometown. Although caste discrimination is against the law now, prejudice continues, and low-caste Indians are likely to be poor, uneducated and underemployed.

There have been numerous clashes between low-caste Indians and members of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, part of the coalition government in Maharashtra.

Throughout the state, demonstrators squatted on roads and lay down or placed wooden logs on railroad tracks, stranding thousands of passengers at stations. They also emptied garbage onto streets.

In Bombay alone, 20 buses and 15 cars were smashed and five buses were set aflame.