NEW DELHI, India -- The night before, he told his parents that it was only going to be a bit of harmless drama. The next day, something else happened: Rajeev Goswami, struck a match, touched it to his kerosene-soaked trousers and sent himself into flames.
Almost a month later, the 20-year-old arts student's true motives still remain unknown as he battles for his life with burns over more than 50 percent of his body. But more than 100 other middle-class Indian students have followed the example of his Sept. 19 burning in an epidemic of self-immolations that continues to mount daily, posing painful, age-old questions for Indian society.
Some of the burnings, which have resulted in at least several dozen deaths, are believed to have been murders.
Others are believed to have been privately motivated suicides. But virtually all of them have been dramatized as acts of self-sacrifice in desperate opposition to Indian Prime Minister V. P. Singh's plan to establish new quotas for lower-caste Indians in filling highly sought government jobs.
Suddenly announced Aug. 7, Mr. Singh's "reservation" plan -- and the continuing firestorm of largely middle-class opposition to it -- has thrown India into its greatest political turmoil since the assassination of Indira Ghandi in 1984, cast doubt on the future of the tenuous minority coalition that put Mr. Singh in power only 10 months ago and revealed once more the extent to which the issue of caste still pervades India.
Moreover, Mr. Singh, perhaps unintentionally, has launched a pitched national debate over the future identity of the world's largest democracy.
Mr. Singh's backers claim he is finally bringing social justice to the hundreds of millions of impoverished Indians still bound by the indignities of lower-caste life, but his opponents charge he is backing away from India's recent strides toward modernization and leading the nation back into its caste-based past.
Reserving a portion of government jobs for the lowest segment of Indian society, the harijans or "untouchables," has been a sacrosanct part of public policy since India's independence in 1947. But, in addition to the 22.5 percent of central government jobs reserved for the harijans and some tribal peoples, Mr. Singh now wants to reserve another 27 percent of these jobs for what is called the "other backward castes," those essentially just above the untouchables on the traditional Indian social scale.
Critics say Mr. Singh's plan -- based on the 10-year-old recommendations of a government commission that had previously attracted nothing but lip service -- is a coldly calculated, dangerous attempt by the prime minister to play India's age-old "caste card" in an effort to steal the power base of the largest single Indian political faction, the Congress Party, which has been out of power for only four years during the more than four decades of independence.
Supporters acknowledge the potential political masterstrokwithin his plan -- the lowest castes make up a majority of Indian voters -- but insist that Mr. Singh's main goal is to do what no other Indian leader of late has had the political courage to do: break the hold of Indian upper classes on public decision-making by bringing more of the lower castes into the country's vast government bureaucracy.
Mr. Singh's welfare minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, claimed that aa result of the plan, the prime minister will be considered an "immortal" in India within 15 years.
Others are not so sure.
"The prime minister is speaking the language of radical change," said Bhabani Sen Gupta, a political scientist with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "If it works, the sweep of its effect will be enormous. If it fails, then Singh goes down."
Mr. Singh -- who used his long-standing image as a super-clean )) man of principle to remove the leader of the corruption-plagued Congress Party, Rajiv Gandhi, from office last November -- appears to be willing to take that risk.
For one reason, the plan's potential political payoffs -- consolidating a power base that for the first time would pose a strong alternative to the Congress Party -- would be enormous for a prime minister leading only by virtue of a minority coalition. For another, having alienated influential middle-class voters, he is perceived as having no other political choice but to stick by his reservation plan.
Embattled at once on several fronts -- among them, violent independence movements in Kashmir and the Punjab and a potentially violent Hindu nationalist movement led by a key party within his own coalition -- Mr. Singh has publicly reiterated his commitment to the plan several times, including from the ramparts of Delhi's historic Red Fort on India's Independence Day Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, protests led by the middle class, chaotic politicarallies that turn ugly, school and shop closings, attacks on buses, trains and government buildings, and the horrible specter of the student immolations continue to spread across North India with daily deaths.
The burnings, rare in a Hindu society that usually has stressed fasting to death as a means of protest, have taken on a hysteria that goes far beyond politics and reveals a dark side to the rapid growth in the Indian middle class over the last 20 years, many Indian analysts believe.
Most of the students who have been engulfed by flames come not from the highest reaches of Indian society but from families who only recently joined the middle class and must constantly compete to maintain their newly won positions in an economy that is not growing fast enough to match India's continuing population explosion.
The number of jobs at stake in Mr. Singh's plan -- less than 50,000 -- is a relatively minor addition to the already overwhelming competitive pressures faced by many of India's middle-class youth, said Dr. Sudhir Kakar, a leading Indian psychoanalyst.
"Students are under tremendous pressure to move higher," Dr. Kakar said. "Many desperately fear slipping back into the poverty that is all around them."
Depressed and feeling cut adrift from traditionally supportive family structures in an ever harsher world, some students are now able to use the guise of opposition to Mr. Singh to legitimize the previously unacceptable act of suicide, the psychoanalyst said.
"My fear," Dr. Kakar said," is that this is going to be the start of a new tradition for India."
But many Indian social analysts say that the students' strong opposition to what is essentially a minor concession to the country's lower castes only underscores the degree to which caste-based privileges are still closely held in India.
The caste system is Indian-style apartheid. Enshrined in the holiest of Hindu scriptures, it has been at the heart of South Asia's social, political and economic life for five millenniums, dividing the Hindu world into four main classes, from top to
bottom: the Brahmins or priests, the warriors, the traders and the workers. A fifth group, the "untouchables," was beneath all the others. Though the thousands of caste divisions that developed within this basic class structure have blurred among some segments of modern Indian society -- to the point where many educated middle-class Delhi youth claim they now live in a caste-less world -- caste still functions as a basic fact of life for most Indians, particularly in impoverished rural areas.
"Caste is the bones and marrow and blood of Indian society," Mr. Sen Gupta said. "It is as perpetual as the Indian sky. We've had it for 5,000 years, and it will probably take us another 1,000 years to get rid of it.
"But this pressure for structural change in society and for a major political realignment has been there for the last 20 years, building up very deceptively," he said. "It is not surprising that, when it finally comes out in the open, it would also bring out all the frailties of the Indian situation."