By Jyotsna Singh
BBC News, Delhi
Recent violent protests by the Gujjar community in India's north-western state of Rajasthan have once again focused attention on the government's affirmative action plan to give lower caste and minority people better access to jobs, healthcare and education.
Gujjars are a nomadic Indian tribe
Trouble began on Tuesday when the Gujjars began blocking major highways in order to press for their demands.
The Gujjars are traditional shepherds found across many states in north and western India. They are both Hindus and Muslims.
"The Gujjars are a very heterogeneous people today. They were originally nomadic shepherds," Professor DL Sheth, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told the BBC.
The Gujjars are currently classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and are entitled to quotas in state-run education centres and in government jobs.
But the community wants to be listed under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category.
In states such as Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh they have been given ST status.
The issue of affirmative action is a sensitive one in India
But in western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat they are more settled on the land and more involved in agriculture, which is why they have been categorised as OBCs.
The Indian government offers places in jobs, educational institutes and other privileges to people in three categories, as part of its affirmative action policy.
The communities listed as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) are essentially the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy locally referred to as Dalits.
The Scheduled Tribes (STs) are the people living in the forests or on the hills, physically isolated from modern life, but are not necessarily socially backward.
The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) comprise the castes - in the middle of the Hindu caste hierarchy - who do not face so much exclusion or isolation in society but are educationally and economically backward.
The identification of communities in the three categories is based on a data prepared in 1935 by the British when they ruled India.
In theory, it is possible for a caste or community to have its status reviewed. But it is a very complex issue and the power for such a review vests solely with the central government.
Experts say the criteria for identification of castes and groups in the different categories is not transparent at all. That has resulted in confusion for the various communities clamouring to be added to or taken off the lists.
In 1999, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) included the Jat community on its OBC list. The Jats are a relatively prosperous community in Rajasthan who form nearly 15% of the state's population.
Protesters and police have fought pitched battles in places
Some allege that the real reason why the BJP made such a move was because it wanted to win their support in state elections in Rajasthan. The community had traditionally backed the Congress party.
"Once Jats were identified as OBCs , the Gujjars who were already placed in the OBC category felt threatened. They felt the better-off Jats would corner the benefits of reservation," said Professor Sheth.
The demand by the Gujjars is also fuelled by the success of the Meenas, a large community in the state who were granted ST status in 1954.
"The Meenas were basically a borderline case who used their political influence to be classified as STs.
"The community has benefited immensely in the last 50 years under the reservation policy.
"The Gujjars are now trying to put pressure on political parties to allow them to reap similar benefits," said Dr Sheth.
"There is an explosion of aspirations following many years of affirmative action pursued by the Indian government, and the latest protests are a manifestation of that.
"The reservation policy brought a silent bloodless revolution to the country, but because of electoral policy, politicians are in a way discrediting it," he said.