Stooping for the spoils

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Jats at a panchayat at a school in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, in November 2013. Photo: R_V_Moorthy

That certain communities are able to get their way even if it means stepping down the social ladder is indicative of their clout in political, economic and social terms. The Union Cabinet’s decision to grant OBC status to Jats is a case in point.

ON March 3, in a politically calibrated decision aimed at wooing an influential section of the electorate, especially in the aftermath of the violence in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, the Union Cabinet cleared the route for the inclusion of Jats from nine States on the list of Other Backward Classes, making them eligible for reservation in Central government jobs and admission to educational institutions. A few days earlier, on February 26, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), the nodal agency and recommendatory body, had unanimously rejected the inclusion of Jats as a Backward Class on the Central list of OBCs. “Ethnically, they are at a higher level; they are of Indo-Aryan descent, their educational level is high, and the social status they command is far higher than the ordinary Shudras,” it held. Its unanimous opinion was that the Jat caste/community had not fulfilled the criteria for inclusion as an OBC.

Politics of reservation

But the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in a tearing hurry. The results of the recent Assembly elections in which the Congress got a drubbing, the impending Lok Sabha elections, and the influence enjoyed by the Jat community in several of the northern and north-western States were the factors that influenced the Union Cabinet’s decision.

The urgency with which this was done and the manner in which the NCBC was literally ramrodded into giving a decision one way or the other was too obvious to be ignored. No political party wanted to be seen as opposing the Union Cabinet’s decision, though, to the credit of the NCBC, it held its ground. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief, Ajit Singh, thanked the UPA chairperson for the decision, though Rashid Alvi, a key Congress spokesperson, let it out that Muslims were deeply unhappy.

In December 2013, the Union Cabinet asked the NCBC to expedite the process, going against established norms and procedure. This was the same NCBC that had in 2011 rejected the proposal. It was in 1997 that the demand for the inclusion of Jats on the Central list of OBCs first came up, from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. After examining all the material before it and conducting public hearings, the NCBC rejected the claims, including those made by Jats in Delhi. But the Central government’s stance remained ambivalent for obvious reasons. The view of the commission was that the NCBC Act, 1993, did not empower the NCBC to review an advice that it had tendered to the government. On May 3, 2011, the Central government paved the way of empowering the NCBC to review its own advice through a notification. This was unprecedented.

The amended mandate of the commission now empowered it to review its own decision and to subsequently recommend whatever the Central government desired. In July 2011, the commission suggested a survey be conducted in six States to determine the socio-economic status of Jats, and approached the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) for a full-fledged survey. As the Registrar General of India was also conducting the Socio-Economic Caste Census, the comprehensive survey initially planned was reduced to a sample survey, to be supplemented by data from the SECC. Even as all this was going on, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment wrote to the NCBC that the Union Cabinet had decided on December 19, 2013, to get the NCBC to reconsider its decision and to tender its advice on the inclusion of Jats on the basis of the material already available. As there was no time for a survey, the ICSSR was asked to undertake a literature survey.

The expert committee of the ICSSR conducted its study in a month’s time. Several reports, monograms and documents were studied as well. The NCBC said its views were based on a study of the ICSSR report. The NCBC looked keenly at all the reports and the arguments of the State Backward Class Commissions and came to the conclusion that it was unable to give any advice in favour of OBC status for Jats as requested by the Union government. Jats should not be treated on a par with or like other Backward Classes merely because they were an agricultural community, said the NCBC in its advice with respect to Delhi Jats. Further, it held that if there was no social discrimination and its men and women were not doing agricultural work on daily wages, a community could not be treated as a backward class.

NCBC conclusion

After a study of the reports available, the NCBC concluded that “the Jat community in any of these nine States does not deserve to be included as a Backward Class on any of the criteria and parameters laid down by the Mandal Commission and the subsequent judgments of the Supreme Court, including the Indra Sawhney case”.

The NCBC also noted that even the Haryana government did not recognise Jats as a backward community eligible for 27 per cent reservation earmarked for Backward Classes. The NCBC also found that in the oral statements made by the Jat community in the public hearings, none of those who deposed was a daily wage worker or an agricultural labourer and therefore no survey was required for determining their social backwardness. The examination of various reports, material, books and oral depositions convinced the NCBC that Jats could not be treated as a Backward Class.

But the NCBC does have a history of succumbing to political pressure. In 1997, the commission sent its advice accepting the request of Rajasthan Jats, barring those of Bharatpur and Dhaulpur (who belonged to the royal family), for inclusion in the Central list of OBCs. This was at the request of the Central government. In 1999, the Central government, then led by the National Democratic Alliance, notified Jats’ inclusion in the list. This move paid rich dividends to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both in the State and at the Centre. Soon after, without as much as waiting for the State Backward Classes Commission report, the State government issued a gazette notification for the inclusion of Jats on the State list of Backward Classes. But to give the NCBC its due, in its report of November 28, 1997, it stated that on the basis of data and analyses, the Jats of Bharatpur and Dhaulpur districts in Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were not socially backward and in fact were socially advanced. In Rajasthan, for instance, the majority of Jats were found to be in possession of some land or the other. A report by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), too, affirmed the views of the commission that Jats as a class could not be treated as backward.

A government in a hurry

In the recent case, Bihar was not included in the six States that the ICSSR was asked to survey. But the Union Cabinet, in its December 2013 meeting, requested the NCBC to include Bihar in the survey. In fact, a special Group of Ministers (GoM) was constituted in August 2013 to “engage with representatives of the Jat community” periodically. In a parallel movement, perhaps engineered to have the desired effect, Jat organisations also renewed their calls for protest in December.

Even as the matter hung fire, the Akhil Bhartiya Jat Arakshan Samiti took to the streets. In July and September 2010, dharnas were held in Delhi and elsewhere, with the epicentre of the campaign in Haryana, where a youth lost his life in the agitation. In March 2011, railway tracks were blocked in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Protests resumed in February 2012, and another youth lost his life. The Samiti claimed it had influence in 120 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Whether this reverse “Sanskritisation”, the demand to be included in the backward classes category, or the yet unfulfilled demand of the Gujjars to be included in the Scheduled Tribe category, is a positive development as far as social change is concerned is doubtful. That certain communities are able to get their way even if it means stepping down the social ladder is actually indicative of their greater clout in political, economic and social terms. It is equally strange that political parties that espouse such affirmative action have been tardy in creating more jobs in the government. Instead, all their efforts have been directed at privatising employment.