The government rushed 1,200 army personnel on Sunday to violence-hit Haryana to quell rampaging Jat protesters who vandalised shops, blocked highways and set fire to a railway station ticket counter, demanding reservations in jobs and education.
Hundreds of Jat youth wielding swords, sickles, iron rods and sticks attacked shops, eateries and vehicles on the Grand Trunk Road, a commercial lifeline between Haryana and Delhi that saw such a blockade for the first time.
The home ministry deployed over 5,000 troops and an equal number of paramilitary personnel to contain the violence that has claimed 10 lives and injured 150, besides racking up a financial loss of hundreds of crores.
Protesters converged on major crossroads – some groups led by elderly women and carrying the national flag – and forced highway petrol pumps across the state to shut down, amid reports that the army was forced to back down in some areas.
Over 800 trains were cancelled and with the Chandigarh-Delhi highway blocked on Sunday and airfares skyrocketing, thousands of passengers were stranded.
The protests also rocked the Capital after demonstrators damaged the Munak canal that supplies water to Delhi.
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered all schools shut on Monday and rationing of dwindling water supplies as Haryana director general of police YP Singhal said restoring water supply to Delhi was their priority.
He said there was no provision in the law to give a free hand to the army, which was assisting the administration.
Additional chief secretary (home) Pranab Kishore Das said the quota row had to be dealt politically and administratively. “The police action can only be done in a limited way. Similarly, army can be given a limited free hand,’’ he said.
Security personnel used government vehicles to help people stranded in their houses for over a week in Rohtak town – the epicenter of the protests that has virtually under the control of 10,000 protesters.
Authorities clamped curfew in eight districts -- Rohtak, Bhiwani, Jhajjar, Hisar, Jind, Kaithal, Sonipat and Panipat - but angry mobs continued to run riot over large swathes of the state.
“In Rohtak town, despite the army, the mobs looted several shops and set them on fire. No one stopped the mobs. There is total anarchy. We are stuck in our houses for four days. Our food supplies are finishing fast,” said Sarita Kumari, a housewife in Rohtak’s Civil Lines area.
The country’s largest carmaker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd suspended operations at its two plants in the state.
Top political leaders including chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar appealed for calm and peace but violence and arson continued through the night, crippling normal life in several places such as Rohtak, Jind, Bhiwani, Jhajjar, Sonepat and Hisar.
The government has struggled to keep the lid on the Jats -- a traditionally dominant community that forms quarter of the Haryana’s population – with protests spreading to other parts such as Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh.
Jat and Khap leaders are scheduled to meet home minister Rajnath Singh at 3pm to hammer out a possible solution.
But Haryana minister Anil Vij said talks couldn’t be held with a “mob” and said Jats should form a committee.
“At the moment, the ongoing agitation has become leaderless. It is like mobocracy (rule of the mob). We cannot hold talks with the mob,” the minister said.
Vij said the BJP government was committed to granting Other Backward Classes quota to Jats – something the UPA government did in 2014, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court.
“Our government, be it in the state or at the Centre, is committed to give OBC reservation to Jats, but it is for the Jats to decide whether they want to give us time so that we can come out with something concrete which later does not get struck down by the courts,” Vij told PTI.
But tensions simmered on the ground as angry mobs wielding sticks and guns set fire to shops, ATMs and looted non-Jat property such as electronics, jewellery, alcohol and branded clothes, especially from the Punjabi community.
With little police presence and emergency helplines down, people in many areas formed local committees to protect themselves from the mob.
“It’s scary. We hear that they are burning all the vehicles on the roads. As neither the police SOS number (100) nor the women’s helpline (1091) are working, we have little choice but to look out for ourselves,” said Rajesh Dutt who spent the previous night guarding his locality.