Upping the ante

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

Yashpal Malik, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti, addressing mediapersons in Chandigarh on September 23.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Yashpal Malik, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti, addressing mediapersons in Chandigarh on September 23.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In what is seen as a dangerous extension of caste politics, Jats in Haryana want to be included in the OBC list.

THE recent agitation in Haryana demanding the inclusion of the Jat community in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), as classified by the Mandal Commission, is seen as a political setback for the minority Congress government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda. However, the setback cannot be viewed in narrow political terms alone. The caste mobilisation taking place on issues ranging from the demand for reservation in the present context to that for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act prohibiting same- gotra marriage is reflective of a worrisome trend. The caste consolidation around certain issues, a phenomenon not confined to the Jats, is also viewed as a dangerous extension of caste politics, a recent manifestation of which was the repeated mob action against Dalits and members of other backward castes. Gohana in Sonepat district, Mirchpur in Hisar district ( Frontline, May 21, 2010) and Dulina in Jhajjar district ( Frontline, September 10, 2010; January 18, 2003) are but a few instances where communities were the main targets of violence. Interestingly, many khap (caste council) leaders have extended support to the present agitation.

On the face of it, what spurred the violent agitation on was the death of a youth in police firing in mid-September at Mayyad village in Hisar district. Buses were burnt, a bank building and a cotton mill were razed and public property was damaged in the wake of the firing. The Hooda government assured the protesters that it would look into their demands. Simultaneously, it transferred the Hisar Superintendent of Police Subhash Yadav, holding him singularly responsible for the firing incident. This was strange because it was the government that allowed the matter to escalate. The issue had been gaining momentum since February 2009 when five lakh Jats assembled in Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh, to demand reservation for the community in Haryana.

Subhash Yadav was charged with murder. While some communities and leaders belonging to a certain caste group reacted strongly to this stating that it was motivated by caste considerations, others wondered why similar action was not taken against the administration when Dalit homes were torched and a disabled student and her aged father were burnt to death by members of the dominant community at Mirchpur. Interestingly, the S.P. was under fire for having rounded up several members of the dominant community. In fact, the government was forced to act as media spotlight had turned on Mirchpur and the Supreme Court had taken a serious view of Dalit families being forced to leave the village. Strangely, no charge was levelled against any officer when five Dalits were lynched in a police post in Jhajjar district in October 2002 in the presence of senior police and district administration officials.

The present agitation, led by an umbrella organisation called the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, has the support of the Jat Mahasabha. The Sangharsh Samiti, led by Yashpal Malik, held a meeting in Delhi in February. Its leaders claimed they had met Mukul Wasnik, Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment. On March 11, it organised another meeting, this time in Chandigarh. On June 13, a massive rally was held at Moradnagar in Meerut district and water supply was stopped to Delhi.

The tenor of the agitation was slowly changing, and the Haryana government allowed it to build up. On July 28, Jats assembled in Delhi and pressed the same demand and sought a meeting with the Central government. The status quo continued until September 13, when a call for another round of agitation was given and protests were organised in 62 places in States other than Haryana. The expression of the protest was at its aggressive best in Haryana.

Except in Haryana, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, Jats have been given OBC status in the rest of the North Indian States where the community has a sizable presence. Interestingly, it was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that pushed for reservation and OBC status for Jats in Rajasthan in 1998-99. On November 3, 1999, it passed orders to include the Jats in Rajasthan, excluding those of Bharatpur and Dholpur districts, where Jats belonged to the ruling class, in the Central list of backward classes, making them eligible for reservation in Central services and Central educational institutions. This move brought dividends for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the elections that followed and created a major dent in the Jat vote base of the Congress, a loss that the party is yet to recover from.

In 2000, the Jats in Uttar Pradesh were included in the State list of OBCs. In early 2010, according to newspaper reports, the Congress was contemplating extending reservation to the Central list, keeping the next general election in mind. In 1999, the Delhi government included Jats in the OBC list. The Sangharsh Samiti argues that Jats were included in the list compiled by the Mandal Commission and were to be given OBC status along with Yadavs, Lodhs, Kurmis and Keoris. The Mandal report, it says, had identified Ahirs, Gujjars, Sainis, Lohars, Kumhars, Sunars, Khatis and Kambojs, on the basis of social and educational backwardness, as deserving to be included in the list of OBCs in Haryana.

The Samiti leaders claim that the Mandal Commission had noted that Ahirs, Kurmis, Kohar, Jats have [ sic] informed political front and Choudhary Charan Singh became a Minister in 1952 from the peasant backward class and that Jats never claimed to be backward. That would be below their self-respect. The latter perception, they say, is erroneous and must be corrected, given the ground situation in the State today. Of course, they agree that reservation should be on the grounds of economic criteria and that only the deserving among the Jats should be given the benefit.

While it may be difficult to classify large sections of the community as socially and economically backward, there is no doubt that owing to increased fragmentation of land, the majority of farmers do not own more than one or two acres. Added to this is the argument of the non-viability of agriculture due to high costs of inputs and rampant land acquisition.

Economic insecurity

Overall, this has resulted in a certain degree of economic insecurity among large sections of the population, who find themselves unrepresented either in the government or in the private sector. A government job, offering a sense of permanence, is the next best option, observers feel, and hence the demand. But then it is not only government jobs at the State and the Central levels that the Sangharsh Samiti is aiming at; it knows that the benefits will extend to educational institutions as well once the OBC status is conferred on Jats.

Whether Jats consider themselves to be socially, economically and educationally backward is not the issue; in the widely held opinion of the rest of the communities in the State, Jats by and large call the shots in almost every respect in the State.

Political analysts opine that a concrete Jat identity took shape in the pre-Independence and pre-Partition days with the emergence of Sir Chotu Ram, who was the leading Jat ideologue in undivided Punjab. The Green Revolution, which came two decades later, helped the Jats rise as a community in economic and social terms.

The Sangharsh Samiti argues that Jats primarily form a peasant class with a presence in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. It says Jats are on a par with several castes in the present OBC list in terms of occupation, social status and economic background. Jat leaders claim that members of their community share hukka-paani (a term symbolising equal status) and relations extending up to the kitchen with members of the castes already coming under the OBC category in the State list.

The government is discriminating. How can a Jat in U.P. or Rajasthan, with whom we may have conjugal relations, be backward there but forward' in Haryana? asks Yashpal Malik. But then there are castes that are considered advanced in some States but backward in others. For example, Vishwakarma is a non-backward caste group in Maharashtra but in Bihar and U.P., it is listed under the OBC category. A number of sub-castes among Banias too are listed as OBCs. Similarly, Kurmis or Kunbis are non-backward castes in Gujarat but in U.P., Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan they come under the OBC category.

Malik told Frontline that the fight was not for more government jobs or about the crisis in agriculture these issues would be taken up later but for the rights denied to Jats in Haryana. We want the State government to take up the issue with the Central government. Let them give us a time frame at least, he said. He pointed out that the report of the Backward Classes Commission of Haryana (Gurnam Singh Commission), set up in 1991, had declared Ahirs, Gujjars, Jats, Jat Sikhs, Bishnois, Sainis, Rodes, Tyagis and Rajputs backward castes. Malik said this report was never accepted by the Bhajan Lal government. It took a court order to prevent the implementation of the report. However, it is also true that subsequent governments did not take up the issue of reservation for Jats.

While the position of the present government has been ambiguous, the stand taken by the main opposition party, the Indian National Lok Dal, has been equally vague. The State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a statement, demanded an impartial probe into the firing incident and pointed out that large-scale unemployment and the agrarian crisis, which affected everyone, were responsible for the frustration among the educated youth.

Instead of creating more jobs, the government was resorting to newer forms of privatisation and outsourcing. Government jobs were being sold for lakhs of rupees, it noted, and said that reservation by itself would be meaningless if the policies were not reversed. Whatever be the reasons for the present agitation, it is clear that the Jats' demand for inclusion in the OBC list is not going to dissipate. Significantly, the Mandal Commission report made the following observation about government jobs: In India, government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power... as most of the functionaries of government are drawn from the top peasantry, the caste and class linkage between the functionaries of government and the top peasantry remain firm.

The struggle of the dominant groups to be included in the OBC list could be a manifestation of the urge to regain power and prestige, which is being increasingly challenged by the hitherto oppressed classes and castes in the State today. The question is how the Centre and the State will deal with the issue taking into account the socio-economic realities of Haryana, which means looking at the other groups as well.

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