Caste calculations

The Jat agitation blows up in the Haryana government’s face, bringing the issue of reservation back into focus and widening the divide between various communities.

Published : Mar 02, 2016 12:30 IST

Buses set on fire in Sonipat, Haryana, on February 20.

Buses set on fire in Sonipat, Haryana, on February 20.

THE violent 19-day-long agitation for reservation by sections of the Jat community in Haryana was a textbook case of inept handling by the State administration, failure of intelligence agencies to anticipate the growing resentment, and opportunistic caste politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments at the State and the Centre. The violence left 28 people dead and caused huge losses to the public exchequer.

Reservation demand

The Jat community’s demand to be included in the list of Other Backward Classes is not a new one. It was also a settled issue, especially after various courts had set aside the demand and the National Commission for Backward Classes had categorically ruled that Jats could not be considered eligible for such reservation despite their claims to being backward. The community has a strong presence in parts of northern and north-western India, including Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and parts of Punjab.

The agitation began in the second week of February in the form of two nondescript protests—one was a sit-in on the railway tracks in Mayyar village, Hisar district, and the other at Narwana in Jind district. Mayyar village was chosen as the struggle site because it was here that a youth was killed during a previous agitation in 2010. There were only a handful of people at the Mayyar sit-in and the administration did not bother to remove them. Government representatives held talks with the agitators and assured them that their demands would be met. The government maintained that the talks were “congenial”. But there was a growing feeling that both the Central and the State governments were ignoring the community’s demand.

In order to defuse the situation, the State government called Jat leaders for talks and assured them that they would be accommodated in a special category of economically weaker sections that would be given a cumulative reservation of 20 per cent. This category covers all general castes whose annual income is less than Rs. 6 lakh. Jat leaders turned down the proposal. Within three days of the talks they gave a call for blocking roads and highways. “ Koi nahi Neta, bas Jat Ekta ” (There is no leader, but only Jat unity) was the slogan. This was true as there was no one single leader leading the protest, and mobilisation was done on the basis of caste alone.

The third round of protests began in Sampla in Rohtak on February 13 with a call to block National Highway 10. Within a few days, the agitation spread to at least five districts with Rohtak as the epicentre where private and public property was extensively damaged. Curfew was imposed in eight districts. The number of protestors in Hisar soon grew as there was no one to either dissuade them or resume talks. Around the same time, Raj Kumar Saini, a BJP MP from Kurukshetra, voiced his opposition to the Jats’ demand and declared that he would float an “OBC brigade” to oppose the Jats’ “Youth Army”. He became the aggressive face of the non-Jat communities, including traders and others. This, some believe, was the spark that turned the agitation violent. Although the BJP has its own brand of competitive caste politics, it issued a show-cause notice against Saini.

Rohtak, the epicentre

It was in Rohtak that matters got out of hand when two groups clashed. Following the clash, the police entered a college and a hostel and beat up the students, most of them Jats. The genesis of the clash is unclear. Word spread like wildfire that Jat boys had been beaten up, along with rumours that an idol of the iconic Jat leader Chotu Ram was stoned. Soon, the roads were taken over by armed mobs which targeted shops and establishments belonging to non-Jat communities in the Model Town market area, the heart of the trading centre in Rohtak.

Mayhem reigned for a week from February 14 in the predominantly Jat districts of Rohtak, Jhajjar, Bhiwani, Hisar, Sonepat and parts of Jind. Buses were burnt and a railway station was set afire while the State and Central governments “appealed” for calm.

Schools, hospitals, sweet shops, garment shops and even diagnostic centres were not spared, even as the city was under curfew. Nearly 400 shops, big and small, were reduced to rubble. Several shops were set on fire just 20 metres from the police post in the marketplace. “There was no curfew for the mobs. It was only for us,” said shopkeepers in unison. The army was called in, rather late in the day, and army men had to be airdropped as all the entry points to Rohtak were blocked with either heavy vehicles or tree trunks. In nearby Jhajjar district, a bank was set on fire.

Suresh Sharma, whose mall was gutted, was stunned into silence. He told Frontline that he had no wish to stay on in the town as the incident had deeply scarred him. “We voted for this government. And this is what they repay us with. There was no protection. The police fled the scene. I begged them with folded hands not to ruin my life’s savings,” he said. An educational establishment owned by him on the Sonepat-Gohana road was also looted and burnt. “They stole 300 computers, burnt the books and the furniture. What can I say? The loss is colossal. I am from Makrauli Kalan village in Rohtak. I am a local but my caste is different. I have Jats among the hundred employees working for me. There are good people too among them,” he said.

There were similar stories of the police remaining mute spectator. Angry residents and shopkeepers whose livelihoods had been reduced to ashes said that even the army did not do anything. “It was as if they had been told not to fire as the mobs moved freely while we were indoors,” a shopkeeper said. Surinder Singh, a resident of Rohtak and secretary of the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that for three consecutive nights people stayed awake patrolling their neighbourhoods as rumours were afloat that mobs were coming from various directions. Internet was shut down in the city.

“The mobs targeted foods such as garments and shoes which were easily inflammable. It was a targeted violence under the pretext of agitation for reservation. As elections are over, they do not need our votes any more. After this incident, we need arms licences to protect ourselves. Arsonists were roaming freely, setting shops on fire, despite the curfew. We are going to claim 100 per cent damages and have lost faith in this government,” said Gulshan Dang, the president of the traders’ association.

Mobs were mobilised from within a radius of eight to ten kilometres and were fully armed. “Some of our customers are Jats and many shops here are owned by them. Those shops were untouched. Those who were killed by the army are being made martyrs,” said an angry shopkeeper.

“The Chief Minister did not even come to meet us,” said Yogesh Khullar whose bookstore was gutted. Chief Minister M.L. Khattar did visit the area later but was booed away by angry residents. Former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, too, faced an angry crowd. Jat leaders of the BJP, including two of its Ministers, were not spared. The home of Captain Abhimanyu, the Finance Minister, was set ablaze in Rohtak. The property of O.P. Dhankar, Agriculture Minister, was stoned in Jhajjar. The army found itself helpless. The Munak Canal, which supplies 1,200 cusecs of water to Delhi, was blocked. It was opened after an appeal from the local panchayat.

An All India Kisan Sabha leader said: “There are restrictions on democratic forms of protest. There are examples of cases being filed against ICDS [Integrated Child Development Services] workers, nursing students, women activists, agricultural workers and factory workers for taking part in peaceful protests for their legitimate demands. But when it comes to this community and their demands, the government allows them to run amok.” Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) estimated the losses at around Rs. 20,000 crore.

Vote bank politics

Wooing the Jat constituency has been one of the BJP’s priorities, which was evident in the run-up to the last Lok Sabha election and Assembly elections in Haryana in 2014. But the communal divide in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013 also shifted the allegiance of a sizeable section of the community to the BJP, which reaped the benefits in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2014. For the first time in the history of the State, the BJP formed a government on its own and installed a non-Jat as the Chief Minister. It could not have won 47 of the 90 seats without the support of the Jat community. Jat leaders from Uttar Pradesh campaigned for the BJP. The new Cabinet is skewed heavily in favour of non-Jats. It was, therefore, no coincidence that Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan, a Jat, made the announcement about the formation of the high level committee by the Union Home Ministry to look anew into the Jats’ demand for reservation. Balyan represents Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP leadership is clearly divided on the issue, with Ministers taking contrary positions, depending on the community they belonged to. “It is ironic. They swear on the Indian Constitution and yet project themselves as leaders of particular communities,” said Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the CPI(M). The BJP’s attempts to expand its social base will not be all that easy, say observers. Reservation for Jats within the 27 per cent meant for the OBC category would mean antagonising other communities and would not even be judicially tenable if the quota were to go over 50 per cent.

There are those who feel that the agitation has given the Centre an opportunity to “review the reservation policy” as a whole, a view that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has expresed often. The violent agitations in the State against the Mandal Commission recommendations in the early 1990s was a reminder of the general approach of large sections of the Jat community to the issue of reservation itself. The State faces an acute agrarian crisis, and massive crop failure and government jobs are shrinking. It is an added irony that none of the Jat organisations spearheading the reservation agitation held any protest demanding compensation for damaged or failed crops or opposing the agrarian policies of the government such as low minimum support price (MSP).

The government has now assured the community that it will introduce a Bill in the forthcoming session of the Assembly providing 10 per cent reservation under the Special Backward Classes category. Whether the outcome of these promises will be legally tenable or not is a different question, but more worrying is the divide that has developed between communities over reservation.

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