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Quota chain reaction sets in
- Protests in several places, hunger-strike threat in Delhi

May 13: Pockets of unrest against quotas began mushrooming in several states today, sucking in some of the brightest among the young and raising the possibility of a throwback to the divisive Mandal agitation days.

So far largely confined to Delhi, the protests against the proposed reservation for backward classes in education today spiralled out of the capital and spread to several states. (See chart)

If medical students in Delhi raised stakes by announcing an indefinite hunger strike from tomorrow, Mumbai saw an extension of what happened in the capital yesterday.

Medical students protesting near a high-security road that leads to the houses of the Maharashtra governor and chief minister were caned by police. Yesterday, the police in Delhi had used tear gas and water cannons on students trying to march to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Such police action in high-security zones is not uncommon, but the sight of young students ' many of them wearing the tell-tale doctor’s coat and sporting stethoscopes ' being roughed up could have an unsettling impact.

In the age of 24-hour television that relentlessly replays striking images ' a missing phenomenon during the Mandal agitation ' protests by even small groups could create an impression that a mass movement has begun to take shape.

Once such a perception gains ground, it can sow the seeds of a backlash. If the backward classes ' who have not yet fashioned a collective response, barring a march in Delhi ' begin to feel that they are under siege, little prevents them from hitting the streets.

With parties of all hues willing to lend a helping hand and gain perceived political mileage, a stand-off on the streets can only be a recipe for mischief.

The Centre has not yet responded formally to the Delhi students’ demand that they be called for a discussion.

Sources said the government has sounded academicians and opinion leaders for inputs on how to pacify the students.

The government will also try to convince the students that the enabling legislation to step up quotas in centrally-run institutes likes IIMs and IITs will not be taken up during the current Parliament session. But Maharashtra has finalised plans to reintroduce quotas through an ordinance.

With adrenaline flowing high after the police action and the consequent feeling of solidarity, representatives of medical students in five colleges in the capital tonight called on their fellow students to go on an indefinite hunger strike from 10 am tomorrow.

“We want the government to roll back the proposal to increase reservations as well as review the existing reservation policy,” said Anirudh Lochan, a doctor at the University College of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. “We’ve given a call for an indefinite hunger strike to all students, and we expect at least 150 to join in tomorrow,” he said.

Students from other disciplines, too, have begun trickling in to the slipstream of protests.

A dozen members of a group called United Students stood at the entrance of a mall in Noida, a suburb of the capital, distributing leaflets urging the public to support their movement. United Students plans to stake out malls in Gurgaon tomorrow.

“We want a wave of public opinion against reservations,” said Aditya Raj Kaul, a 12th grade student who is yet to step into college. “We’re not against backward classes. We want their upliftment, but not via reservations,” Kaul said.

United Students members are designing a 100-metre-long banner with anti-reservation slogans that they plan to put atop a building in the capital.

Junior doctors in several Delhi hospitals went on strike for a day. The normally crowded Lok Nayak Jaiprakash Hospital had few patients today. Instead of doctors, patients were greeted with posters citing the cause of their absence. Senior doctors had taken over emergency medical services.

Senior doctors as well as doctors in the private sector have indicated that they support the students’ demands and a decision whether to join the strike would be taken tomorrow.

“We are watching the situation. Normally, we do not go on strike as it causes inconvenience to patients,” said K.K. Handa, the general secretary of the faculty association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

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