NEW DELHI, India (AP) – India’s government threatened Tuesday to fire hundreds of government doctors striking to protest an affirmative action plan for low-caste Hindus and said replacements would prop up crippled medical services.

The Supreme Court warned doctors to end their two-week strike, saying patients were “at the mercy of God.”

Along with the doctors, tens of thousands of medical students and young software programmers, engineers and bankers have protested the plan to increase places reserved for low-caste Hindus and ethnic minorities in colleges and certain professions.

On Tuesday, doctors and medical students blocked traffic in a handful of cities across India. Protesters in the western city of Ahmadabad briefly scuffled with police, while in northern Chandigarh, doctors squatted on railroad tracks before being forcibly removed.

In eastern Gauhati, more than 500 medical students and interns staged a protest at the city’s largest hospital but did not disrupt it.

Dozens of doctors and students also have gone on hunger strikes.

The government’s plan would increase the quota for low-caste students in state-funded medical, engineering and other professional colleges from 22.5 percent to 49.5 percent.

Backers say the policy would help undo centuries of oppression and continuing discrimination. Hinduism divides people into various castes and, while the system has been officially outlawed, discrimination remains common.

Critics say the lower castes should be strengthened through education rather than an increase in the number of study and work opportunities, because many jobs and school spots already reserved for low castes remain empty.

The strike has crippled health services at government hospitals in several cities. Senior doctors have been running emergency services in the hospitals, but day-to-day services have been severely hampered.

Many poor patients are being forced to go to expensive private hospitals.

The government will begin hiring new doctors on Wednesday, Federal Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said after the protesters defied calls by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the court to end the strike.

“We have been issuing deadlines for two weeks … their attitude is unreasonable. If they don’t join work, their services will be terminated,” Ramadoss told reporters.

He said retired doctors and physicians from the army and the massive railway system, which has its own medical corps, would step in to ease shortages at hospitals and clinics.

Striking doctors would not be paid, he said.

“Doctors have a right to expression, but not during duty hours,” Ramadoss said after a meeting with the prime minister.

“Services have to be maintained, come what may,” he quoted Singh as saying at the meeting.

AP-ES-05-30-06 1543EDT