Print edition : March 15, 2019

Gujjars blocking National Highway 58 on February 10. Photo: PTI

Shailendra Singh of the Gujjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti.

Rajasthan’s newly elected Congress government tries to do a fine balancing act in pacifying Gujjars, who can be crucial in at least five parliamentary seats from the State in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

RAJASTHAN'S newly elected Congress government faced its first major challenge as the Gujjar community agitated, from February 8 to February 16, demanding reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The agitation, which had its epicentre at Malarna in Sawai Madhopur district, sought legislation granting 5 per cent reservation to the community. As agitators paralysed rail and road services, the government struggled to find a solution that would have the least impact on the outcome of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. That the agitation was also planned with the elections in mind was not totally a coincidence.

On February 13, the government passed the Rajasthan Backward Classes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutes in the State and of Appointments and Posts in Services under the State) Amendment Bill, 2019, and issued a notification signifying its coming into effect. The Bill provides for 5 per cent reservation to five castes, including the Gujjars, in government jobs and educational institutions. This effectively raises the total quantum of reservations in the State beyond the mandated 50 per cent as laid down in the Indra Sawhney judgment. It is a legal hurdle that the community expects the Centre and the State to resolve. Shailendra Singh Gujjar, general secretary of the Gujjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, told Frontline: “We wanted a legislative assurance from the government from which it would not backtrack. The ball is now in the Centre’s court.”

A six-point agreement was brokered by a delegation led by Cabinet Minister Vishwendra Singh and an Indian Administrative Service officer who was reportedly acquainted with the issue and had a personal equation with Kirori Singh Bainsla, 75, the leader of the Sangharsh Samiti. The government gave an assurance that it would deal with any legal hurdles that the legislation might encounter. Keen to placate the community, which has the numbers to decide the electoral outcome in five or six Lok Sabha constituencies, the government made a string of other promises. It agreed to take a sympathetic view in all the cases registered against Gujjars since 2006, the year they first started their agitation for reservation; promised to strengthen welfare schemes such as the Devnarayan Yojana; and undertook to honour any pending backlog of appointments and agreements made with previous regimes. The creamy layer income cap was raised to Rs.8 lakh, which is also the Central government’s creamy layer limit for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), as revised in September 2017.

‘10 per cent’ clincher

It would not be incorrect to say that the Gujjar agitation received its impetus from the Central government’s move to provide 10 per cent reservation to the economically weaker section category. “The fact that it could be done at the centre motivated the leadership of the Gujjars,” said a Congress insider. In fact, the State government cited the constitutional amendment in Parliament providing for 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections as a justification for the legislation amending the Rajasthan Backward Classes Act, 2017.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons said: “The more backward classes identified in the aforesaid Act (Rajasthan Backward Classes Act, 2017) are extremely backward classes and the State government is satisfied that there exist more compelling circumstances which warrant the urgent upliftment of these classes by providing five per cent reservation both in educational institutions and in appointment and posts in the State.”. The power to prescribe the percentage of reservation has been provided and delegated to the government under Sections 3 and 4 of the Rajasthan Backward Classes Act, 2017, it was stated.

Proportionality principle

The Rajasthan Backward Classes Act of 2017 provides for reservation of seats in educational institutions, appointments and posts in the State for more backward classes. The proportion of the backward classes to the total population of the State should be taken into account in determining the extent of reservation, the government said in the Statement of Objects and Reasons for the Bill amending the 2017 Act. It pointed out that this principle had been followed by the Central government in the provision of reservation to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

It also argued that when the government provided reservations for members of Backward Classes in 1991, the proportion of Backward Classes in the population was 52 per cent, though only 27 per cent reservation was provided. As the population of Backward Classes in Rajasthan was estimated by the State Backward Classes Commission at around 52 per cent, the percentage of reservation for them needed to be raised.

It was also stated that as “all castes included in the list of Backward Classes were at different stages of social and educational development and therefore the objectives of the directive principles of State policy mandated in the Constitution cannot be fully achieved unless these classes are subdivided in backward and more backward classes according to the level of their social and educational development.” The Statement says that “in order to ensure class equality” the matter was referred to the then State Backward Classes (SBC) Commission headed by retired Justice Indersen Ishrani.

The SBC Commission’s report in 2012 held that five castes, including Gujjars, were extremely backward and needed special protection. A high-powered committee appointed by the government held that “special circumstances envisaged in the Indra Sawhney case do exist in the State and there are reasonable grounds to exceed the limit of 50 per cent laid down in that case to ensure adequate representation of Backward Classes in admissions and appointments.

It was pointed out that the committee as well as the SBC had recommended that these castes should be categorised in a separate class under the nomenclature of ‘More Backward Classes’ and should be provided one per cent reservation from within the limit of 50 per cent and four per cent from beyond that limit for which compelling circumstances existed. Therefore the total reservations for these castes would be five percent and the total reservation for backward classes at 26 per cent.”

A decade-old demand

The Gujjars’ demand for reservation dates as far back as 2007. Kirori Singh Bainsla, a retired colonel with an unknown political background, steered the agitation, which spilled over into 2008. That year, Gujjars demanded inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category. Soon, Meenas, who already had S.T. status and had benefited from it, began asserting themselves, fearful that their quota might get diluted. There were violence and casualties as the communities clashed with each other and with the government.

The government constituted a high-level committee to inquire into the community’s social status in order to ascertain whether it could be considered a tribe. The committee did not recommend tribal status but said that the community was backward and under-represented in educational institutions and services. Under the Rajasthan Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes, Special Backward Classes and Economically Backward Classes (Reservation of seats in educational institutions and in the State and of Appointments and Posts in Services under the State) Act, 2008, the quantum of reservation in the State was increased from 49 per cent to 68 per cent and two categories, Special Backward Classes and Economically Backward Classes, were added to the list of groups eligible for quotas.

The distribution was 16 per cent for Scheduled Castes; 12 per cent for S.T.s; 21 per cent for Backward Classes; 5 per cent for Special Backward Classes; and 14 per cent for Economically Backward Classes. Four castes, including Gujjars, were included in the Special Backward Classes category. Three writ petitions challenged the Act, and the High Court granted a stay on t the grounds that total reservation could not exceed 50 per cent. On September 12, 2009, the State government passed an order providing 1 per cent quota to Special Backward Classes in educational institutions and public employment.

The State Backward Classes Commission had submitted a detailed report to the government following directives from the High Court in December 2010. A survey was undertaken with an autonomous organisation based in Jaipur, the Institute of Development Studies, to collect quantifiable and comparative data of 82 different castes included in Other Backward Classes categories with respect to their social, educational and economic backwardness and their representation in government services. The Commission’s report (November 2012) concluded that as a special case, 5 per cent reservation in the SBC category could be granted to five caste categories: (i) Banjara, Baldia, Labana; (ii) Gadia, Lohar, Gadolia; (iii) Gujjar, Gurjar; (iv) Raika, Rebari; and (v) Gadaria (Gaadri), Gayari.

Writ petitions were filed challenging this. In an interim order on January 29, 2013, the High Court held that the government order and notification granting the proposed quota would be stayed until the disposal of the writ petitions. It also, however, referred to the Indra Sawhney case in which the Supreme Court had ruled that the 50 per cent limit could be exceeded in certain exceptional situations but observed that the matter needed further examination.

The State government filed an application the same year, seeking clarity on whether its previous notification of 2010 providing 1 per cent reservation would hold good. Much to its relief, the High Court clarified that its interim order pertained only to the State government’s order of November 30, 2012, which granted 5 per cent reservation to the Special Backward Classes.

Acting on the SBC Commission’s report once again, the State government enacted a piece of legislation in 2015 providing 5 per cent reservation to the Special Backward Classes category. The Act came into operation on September 16, 2015. A slew of petitions challenged the government order of November 2012 but got dismissed as infructuous by the High Court as the government had already passed an Act in the Assembly. However the petitioners were given the liberty to raise the issues, including challenging the Act of 2015.

There were constant legal challenges to the Act. A High Court order struck down the Act, and a government notification of September 2015 and also the State Backward Classes Commission. The State government filed a Special Leave Petition in 2017. The High Court directed the appellants, that is, the State government, to maintain the status quo as on that date while directing that admissions and appointments made under the Act would not be disturbed pending the final hearing of the case. The matter is still pending in court.

In 2010, the State government was directed also to revisit the 2008 Act as the committee on whose recommendation reservation was provided to castes in the SBC category was only mandated to examine whether Gujjars were Scheduled Tribes or not. There were not enough data to conclude that Gujjars should be included in the SBC category.

Electoral compulsions

Unlike agitations under previous governments, the recent agitation was handled without any major human casualties. In 2008, for instance, there were more than two dozen casualties. The damage to the exchequer, especially to Indian Railways, is yet to be assessed. Over 200 trains were cancelled or diverted as agitators thronged rail tracks and toll points of State and national highways.

With the Lok Sabha elections just around the corner, the leaders of the agitation were confident that the protest would be handled gently. The ruling Congress, which has a wafer-thin majority in the State Assembly, cannot afford to spoil its prospects in the 25 parliamentary constituencies from Rajasthan. In 2014, the BJP mopped up all the 25 seats.

“The government therefore was very cautious,” said Naresh Dadhich, a former Vice Chancellor of Kota University and a member of the Congress think tank. Gujjars backed the Congress in the recent Assembly elections. One reason for this was that they expected Sachin Pilot, a Gujjar, to be the Chief Minister. In the event, he was inducted as Deputy Chief Minister. That all is not well in the top leadership of the State Congress is an open secret. Pilot did not participate in the parleys at all. At a press conference, there were attempts to force him into being depicted as a Gujjar spokesperson, which he cleverly deflected.

Observers feel that this is not the end of the story. The Act could be challenged, and a court stay secured on appointments. This will buy time for the ruling Congress.