Gujjars' anger

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

Gujjars of Rajasthan rise in violent agitation demanding inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category.


RAJASTHAN burned for four days following the Bharatiya Janata Party government's brutal suppression of an agitation by the Gujjar community for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category. The police action against the agitators claimed the lives of 26 persons and left several injured.

In the first round of firing in Bundi and Dausa on May 29, twelve persons, including three policemen, were killed. In the second round, five persons were shot dead at Bolin in Sawai Madhopur district. The police were trying to disperse thousands of Gujjars who blocked the National Highway on the Jaipur-Kota and Jaipur-Agra routes. While 21 persons were killed in police firing, five persons died in inter-community clashes spurred by the ineptness and political opportunism of the State government. Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria justified the police action saying there was extreme provocation from the mob.

The central leadership of the BJP, which had vehemently criticised the police firing on agitating villagers in Nandigram in West Bengal, remained strangely silent over the developments in the State governed by it, confining itself to calculated and measured responses.

Reacting to the police firing, Gujjars blocked the National Highway at several points, including the Jaipur-Delhi segment, paralysing traffic. Angry mobs set fire to Rajasthan Roadways buses, railway lines, police stations, and government offices and staged protests in the Gujjar-dominated districts of Dausa, Bharatpur, Dholpur, Karauli, Sawai Madhopur, Kota, Bundi and Bhilwara.

Four days after the May 29 incident, the bodies of six persons killed in the firing at Patoli in Dausa district were lying uncremated. Patoli was at the centre of the agitation. The stand-off continued as Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, instead of holding direct talks with the leadership of the Gujjar Sangharsh Samiti, which spearheaded the agitation, sent the second-rung of leadership for discussions. The talks failed repeatedly.

Gujjars in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi took to the streets protesting against the police action. On May 31, the Central government asked the governments of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to beef up security as Delhi and the two States have sizable Gujjar populations. In Delhi, members of the community blocked roads and burnt effigies of the Rajasthan Chief Minister, causing traffic snarls. In Yamunanagar in Haryana, Gujjars were lathicharged as their protests turned violent. Several districts in Haryana observed a bandh. In Faridabad, a police vehicle was set on fire.

Over 2,600 members of the paramilitary forces were sent to Rajasthan to assist the State police. In the affected areas, it was reported that the police almost disappeared from the scene fearing reprisals. Army and paramilitary personnel staged flag marches.

With the Gujjar agitation shifting from the National Highway to the villages, it came into with the Meena community, which already enjoys S.T. status. On June 1, the government issued shoot-on-sight orders in Sawai Madhopur and Bharatpur following violent clashes between Gujjars and Meenas. Colonel Kirori Singh Bainsla, president of the Gujjar Sangharsh Samiti, had informed the government about his intention to launch a chakka jam (road blockade) on May 29. The Samiti did not get the support of the all-India Gujjar body initially and it found itself in the thick of the agitation following the police action on its road blockade. Today, Bainsla, who has taken the issue this far, has emerged as the most effective leader of the community.

It was clear that the Vasundhara Raje government was caught completely off guard by the turn of events. It was not that the government was unaware of the anger brewing among Gujjars, who, along with Jats, are included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

Vasundhara Raje did little to keep her electoral promise, made three and a half years ago, to give Gujjars S.T. status. The Akhil Bharatiya Gujjar Mahasabha approached the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and requested it to conduct a survey to assess whether the community could qualify for S.T. status. The Commission wrote to the State government, following which Vasundhara Raje set up a committee of six Ministers headed by Rajendra Singh Rathore. It met apparently three times but failed to come up with any recommendation. The District Collectors were also told to send in status reports.

Gujjars, who comprise nearly 8 per cent of the population in the State, are not an economically, politically or socially powerful group. The only Gujjar leader who endeared himself to a cross-section of people in and outside the State was Rajesh Pilot. Although his son Sachin Pilot won the Dausa seat in the last Lok Sabha elections, by and large the Gujjar community was left rudderless after Rajesh Pilot's passing away.

The BJP seized upon this vacuum in the 2003 Assembly elections. During her election campaign, Vasundhara Raje promised to look into the grievances of the Gujjar community, particularly its long-standing demand for inclusion in the S.T. category. In what was seen as a clear appeal to caste feelings, the Chief Minister claimed that she was a daughter of Rajputs, daughter-in-law of Jats, and a relative of Gujjars (her daughter-in-law hailed from the Gujjar community). Whatever its worth, the caste card paid off. Jats had been mollified by the previous Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre by including them in the OBC list. Gujjars were aggrieved as they now had to share the OBC pie with the economically, politically and socially dominant Jats.

Coupled with aggressive campaigns in the S.T. belt, the BJP won major dividends in the elections; it secured 120 seats, winning the majority of the 28 reserved seats, unprecedented in the history of the party. Six of the eight Gujjar legislators belonged to the BJP. Clearly, the Gujjar base had begun to shift from the Congress to the BJP.

But compared to Meenas, Gujjars appear to be politically dispensable. Vasundhara Raje remained complacent even after the Gujjar legislators submitted their resignation in protest against the police firing.

According to Yashvir Singh, former general secretary of the Gujjar Mahasabha, it was during the time of the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government that the demand for inclusion in the S.T. category was reiterated by Gujjars. The demand was first made in 1984 when Shiv Charan Mathur was Chief Minister. He rejected the proposal after due consideration.

Vasudev Sharma, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that the issue now was much more than the crisis facing a particular government or a particular individual. The entire State had the potential to get engulfed in the caste cauldron owing to the mishandling of the situation by the government and the politics of caste populism played by the BJP, he said.

At the all-party meeting held on May 31, the Chief Minister reportedly faced criticism from the Opposition parties. It is learnt that she made a demand that the Opposition condemn the violence, which it turned down. At the meeting, Vasundhara Raje disclosed that a report submitted by 26 District Collectors on the status of Gujjars was not in favour of including the community in the S.T. category. However, the rest of the contents of this confidential report have not been disclosed, to the Opposition.

Despite several rounds of discussion with political parties, the State government, and the Chief Minister in particular, continued to be non-committal, leaving the issue in a state of limbo. This was one of the reasons why an appeal for peace by all political parties failed to produce the desired impact.

On June 1, fearful of a Meena reprisal against her government with Meena legislators threatening to resign, the Chief Minister began consultations with a section of the Meena leadership, even as representatives of the Gujjar movement were waiting to hear from her. Minister for Food and Civil Supplies Kirori Lal Meena declared his Opposition to conferring S.T. status on Gujjars.

Even as Gujjars continued with their agitation and the Akhil Bharatiya Gujjar Mahasabha threw its weight behind the movement, the influential Meena community, fearing a dilution of the S.T. quota, decided to "liberate" the blocked national highways.

Naresh Meena, a prominent Congress youth leader, told Frontline that the issue was no longer one of the Congress or the BJP but concerned the "samaj' or the community of Meenas. He decided to support the BJP legislators belonging to the Meena community and floated the Adivasi Meen Sena (the term Meen is derived from the Meena deity, Meenesh). He clarified that this was not only a force of Meenas but of all S.Ts in the State. He said that he was prepared to quit the Congress if the party did not take into account the interests of Meenas.

"Why do they want S.T. status? I think they want to be politically influential so that they can rally the other tribes against us," he said about the Gujjar agitation. He stressed that the Gujjar were not making the demand for their economic upliftment. Sensing the Meenas' anger, the Congress has been rather silent over the reservation issue, preferring to criticise the government on the police action.

The Gujjars maintain that they qualify for S.T. status in every manner. According to Yashvir Singh, in 1857 the British branded the Gujjars as a criminal tribe as the community had taken cudgels against the colonial rulers. In 1924, under the Criminal Tribes Act, Gujjars and other tribes designated as criminal tribes were subject to strict regulations.

In 1951, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel got the Act repealed. Gujjars figured were among the Backward Castes in 1981. Subsequently, in 1993, the community was included in the list of OBCs.

Yashvir Singh said: "We cohabit the same environment as the S.Ts in most parts of Rajasthan. We are landless, we earn a living by grazing cattle, we are economically and educationally backward and there is not a single officer from among us in the Indian Administrative Service. Culturally too, we fulfil the requirements [for classification as an S.T.]."

Anna Patil, national president of the Gujjar Mahasabha, appealed to the media to keep the Meenas out of the picture. "We are not talking about the Meenas here. We are talking about us. Please focus on that."

According to Census 2001, of the 12 tribes scheduled for the State, Meenas (spelt as Mina in the Census) are the most populous tribe, comprising nearly 53.5 per cent of the total S.T. population followed by Bhils. Together, the Meenas and Bhils constitute 93 per cent of the S.T. population, while Garasias, Damords, Dhankads and Saharias comprise 6.6 per cent, and six other tribes, including Bhil Meenas, constitute the residual 0.3 per cent. Meenas mostly inhabit Dhaulpur, Bharatpur, Sawai Madhopur, Karauli and Dausa districts. They also comprise more than 90 per cent of the tribal population in Alwar, Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Tonk and Churu districts. Employment and educational levels are much higher among Meenas compared with the other groups. Seventy-eight caste groups, including Gujjars, figure in the Backward Classes category in the State.

There was no solution in sight for the issue as repeated rounds of dialogue failed. Guided by political expediency, the government not only allowed the issue to reach seemingly unmanageable proportions but has also let certain influential caste groups take the law into their own hands. The open rift in the State BJP only contributed to the mess.

The Chief Minister was recently felicitated at the United Nations for her contribution to the promotion of certain traditional crafts. But back home her government has earned a reputation for being trigger-happy.

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