`No quota, no vote'

Print edition : June 29, 2007

Kirori Singh Bainsla outside his modest residence in Hindaun town.-T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Interview with Colonel (retd) Kirori Singh Bainsla, Gujjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti president.

TUCKED away in the bylanes of Hindaun town, in Rajasthan's Karauli district, is the modest dwelling of the man who led the six-day Gujjar agitation, which paralysed public movement in six States. Surrounded by books, Colonel (retd) Kirori Singh Bainsla, who speaks English as fluently as Hindi, does not appear very militant. Yet, this is the man who sat with six dead bodies on NH 11 for six days, forcing the government to call for a truce. In September 2006, Bainsla's supporters uprooted rail tracks at Hindaun, forcing the State government to set up a committee to look into his demands. His supporters say that Bainsla himself does not stand to gain from his demand of Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status for Gujjars: all his family members hold good government jobs. One of his daughters, for instance, is an Income Tax Commissioner. In this interview, Bainsla appeared less concerned about the reservation demand than about the police excesses against his community. Excerpts:

What motivated you to lead the agitation? What lies behind the Gujjar demand for inclusion in the S.T. category? Are you hopeful that the government-appointed committee will do justice to your cause?

I have come to the conclusion that unless there is an agitation, one's voice isn't heard. This is the 59th year of our independence, and we [Gujjars] have not been able to produce a single Indian Administrative Service officer from the State. There is only one IPS [Indian Police Service] officer, that too in the OBC category. We are educationally, socially and economically backward. Only by getting reservation under the S.T. category will we be able to elevate ourselves. In the contest for the post of tehsildar in 2005, nine of the 11 posts on offer were taken by Jats. Of the 39 who made it to the Civil Services from Rajasthan, 13 were from the Meena community [shows a paper cutting highlighting the Meenas who have qualified]. In Bamanwas village, Sawai Madhopur district, there is a single Meena family that has produced 28 IAS and IPS officers. There are more than 200 Meena IAS and IPS officers all over the country.

We took up the issue seven years ago with the government. Long before that, in 1961, the Locur Committee, which submitted a report on S.Ts, recommended in Section 147 that Gujjars, Gaddis and Banjaras be treated as S.Ts. This committee's recommendation was never taken up.

We approached the Congress government in 1999-2000. Earlier, another Congress Chief Minister, Shiv Charan Mathur, took it up in his tenure in the early 1980s, but nothing happened. Soon after, I busied myself creating awareness about the cause. In April 2001, a letter came to the State government from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes inquiring if Gujjars deserved S.T. status or not. They must have seen some merit in our demand - as they did not query about any other community. For six years, that letter was ignored. We agitated during the Congress regime, but only to create some awareness amongst our community. As soon as the BJP government took over, our movement picked up momentum. In September 2005, Ram Gopal Guard, the State president of the All India Gujjar Mahasabha, who was close to the present government, said he would write a letter within three months. The government appointed a five-Minister committee, but there was no gazette notification. Then we were told that reports from District Collectors had been asked for. But with Meenas dominating the bureaucracy, the information collection system would be flawed. For any Collectors' report to be relevant, a high-level, in-depth survey needs to be done. It should also be based on where Gujjar populations are dominant, not sparse.

We are optimistic about the latest committee but our voices also have to be heard. We should be empowered to show the committee the ground realities about Gujjars. The present movement has spread beyond Rajasthan. Our demands are relevant for the entire community of 11 crore Gujjars now.

Do you think the agitation could have been avoided and the deaths due to police firing prevented had such a committee been set up earlier? Why has the agitation taken the form of a "Meena-versus-Gujjar" conflict?

Absolutely. The government's attitude has all along been lukewarm and irresponsible. It looked down upon our demand. I met the Chief Minister in September 2006, had a face-to-face talk with her. She said she was exploring the possibilities, but eventually did nothing. It was not meant to be a violent agitation. The police fired on innocent protesters. I never allowed nor authorised anyone to destroy property. I feel bad about those who suffered because of the agitation, but it is up to the government to take timely notice of such demands. I told Public Works Minister Rajendra Rathore about the chakka jam [roadblock] two weeks before the actual blockade. On May 29, I was addressing a peaceful gathering when we heard the sound of firing around 7-10 a.m. In a few minutes, six people were dead. The police, who were in large numbers, were led by an Additional Superintendent of Police, Kalyan Mal Meena. The police beat up women and children.

We are not hooligans. But if the government wants normalcy to return, it should begin with transferring certain police officers from Gujjar-dominated areas. [He places two thick books next to each other and says they represent Meenas and Gujjars.] We live side by side, use the same water sources as well, but now the entire atmosphere has got vitiated. The government is not taking the initiative to set up peace committees.

What is wrong with being designated under the Other Backward Classes category?

The Gujjars in Rajasthan are socially, economically and educationally very backward. Nothing less than S.T. status will suffice. In Gangapur, Karauli district, there are 12 villages of Khatana Gujjars who reside in hillocks. If you are able to spend a single night there, we promise we will take back our demand for reservation. In general, the average Gujjar landholding does not exceed more than two or three bighas of unirrigated land. They also own negligible quantities of livestock. With an average family size of six persons and no regular source of income, the Gujjars are in a bad shape. The women have no access to health care; the girls do not go to school. In the whole of Karauli and Sawai Madhopur, you won't find a single woman doctor from our community. Literacy levels are very low compared with other communities. I live amongst them and share my joys and sorrows with them. In my heart of hearts, I am convinced that they deserve reservation. It is a national joke that Meenas consider reservation to be a birthright. The Constitution lays specific criteria for eligibility in the S.T. category. After 10 years of reservation, there was supposed to be a review to exclude those who did not deserve them and to include those sections that deserved reservation, but that has not happened. It is a pity they have started fighting against Gujjars when actually they should be sharing the benefits with them. There is a quote in King Lear that goes roughly thus: "A dog is feared in the chair. Look at the effects of power."

Did you expect that the agitation would spread to most parts of northern India? What will you do if the committee does not come up with favourable recommendations? There is a feeling that despite so many people getting killed, you did not get anything concrete from the government.

First, we did not expect such a great outpouring of support from other States. They have done a commendable job. At least Gujjars are united today. The movement will pick up again all over northern India if reservation is not given. The protests outside Rajasthan were mainly in response to the police firing. If the BJP government does not do justice, the Gujjar vote will definitely not go to them. The Congress betrayed us; they paid the price. If we so decide, we can influence the electoral outcome of any political outfit in at least 42 constituencies. If political parties think our votes are no good, we will at least play a role in defeating such parties.

Our people have been cynical about the efforts of the government. But now, to push our demand we need a case, and this committee will do that for us. We have proceeded very cautiously. We are certain something will come out of it. After all, we are demanding something from our Constitution; not from the Meenas. Where is the problem?

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