JASSIA, A SLEEPY village in Haryana that has become a hotbed of the Jat agitation for reservation, lies some 10 km off the Rohtas Bypass, a local landmark on National Highway 10. As we reach Bahadurgarh on our way from Delhi, we confront legions of tractors flying the national flag and trolleys full of enthusiastic men and women. Also to be spotted are ‘Chalo Jassia’ stickers on SUVs. Everybody seems headed for the village.
Huge tents have been put up in Jassia, and thousands of people have been gathering all morning. “The crowd will swell to more than double this size in less than an hour from now,” predicts 29-year-old Pawan Hooda, who is taking care of the stage built for leaders of the community to address the crowd. Jats have already held demonstrations in various other places in the state this year to demand their inclusion in the country’s job and education quotas for Other Backward Classes (OBC). As a culmination of the current mobilisation, they plan a mass protest in Delhi on March 20th that they expect will be attended by more than a million people. Jats not only from Haryana but also from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab are expected to march into the national capital to make their case. “We will occupy all the seven highways connecting Delhi to the outside world and stop the supply of essential commodities,” says Somveer Jassia, a 31-year-old lawyer from the village. “We won’t come back until we get our demands fulfilled.”
While such protests are almost an annual ritual in Haryana, the mere mention of a ‘Jat agitation’ brings back horrific memories of the particularly violent protests last February which saw mobs go on a rampage in many parts of the state, resulting in 30 deaths and leaving more than 200 injured. The police had failed to maintain law-and-order, and there were also allegations of murder and rapes committed by agitators. Sensing that the state government will come down heavily on any havoc this time, Jat leaders are keen to emphasise that this is a ‘peaceful protest’. Last year’s law-breakers were “some miscreants sent by the state government to damage our reputation and image”, alleges Krishan Lal Hooda, Rohtak district general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti (ABJASS), which is leading the current round of protests that began on January 29th. “No one can create trouble, as you can see there are more women protestors than men,” says Krishan Lal.
Jats account for 22 per cent of Haryana’s population. They are estimated to hold one-third of the state’s land and their social dominance is visible in villages as well as in cities such as Gurgaon and Rohtak, where escalating property prices over the past few years has enriched many of them. “It is plain absurd that a community that dominates every sphere of a state’s life should cry discrimination,” argues Vipul Mudgal, director and chief executive of the advocacy group Common Cause. “If the basis of affirmative action serves the powerful, then the whole idea goes for a toss.” Yet, the clamour for reservations has grown louder among Jats, who tend use their demand as a bargaining chip with political parties in exchange for votes.
Jats are classified as OBCs in UP, MP, Bihar and Rajasthan (except Jats of Dholpur and Bharatpur). In 1990, they were placed on the OBC list even in Haryana, but the Bhajan Lal government revoked it in 1994. More recently, an inclusion order by Haryana’s previous Bhupinder Singh Hooda government was struck down by the Punjab & Haryana High Court. The National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) has turned the demand down not once but twice
In 2015, the Supreme Court flatly rejected the UPA’s move to include Jats in the Central list of OBCs. In the judgment, Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F Nariman dismissed the argument for a Jat quota on lack of support for the case, saying while ‘caste may be a prominent and distinguishing factor for easy determination of backwardness of a social group’, such identification could not be ‘solely on the basis of caste’. The apex court asked the state to conduct a continuous evaluation to identify groups eligible for reservations, and to look beyond caste. Backwardness, it held, cannot be a matter of perception.
LAST MARCH, JAT lobbyists got the Haryana Assembly to pass the Haryana Backward Classes (Reservation in Services and Admission in Educational Institutions) Bill, 2016, to secure reservations for themselves, but the move was stayed by the Punjab & Haryana High Court. This was welcomed by many observers. They point out the anomaly of a caste that has had nine of the state’s 11 chief ministers claiming itself underprivileged. “What is so absurd about such knee-jerk legislation is that rather than providing comfort to poorer OBCs with little assets, it forces them to compete with their powerful neighbours,” says Mudgal. “A rational answer lies in addressing rural India’s economic stagnation and removing weaknesses in reservations through consensus rather than recklessly expanding the list of beneficiaries.”
Aggrieved Jats, however, feel an injustice has been done unto them vis-à-vis other castes. “People think we have land. But so do other castes like Yadavs and Sainis,” argues Kaala Malik from Mokhra village who has been on protest for over a month now. “Why do they get reservations?” Leaders of Jats, who are mostly farmers, argue that with farming becoming less lucrative, their social status has been on the decline. They are frustrated that the average land-holding per farmer has fallen to less than an acre, which they say has rendered their status as landowners meaningless. According to a Lok Niti Survey on the state of Indian farmers carried out in 2014, around 60 per cent of all farmers in the country have 1-3 acres of land. Over generations of being passed down, the holdings have been getting subdivided. “There is no one is my village who owns more than an acre,” says Satpal Hooda of Dhamar village in Rohtak district. “I am not able to pay the school fees of my kids through agricultural income. If I don’t protest today, tomorrow my son will have nothing to eat.”
The government tried to instigate a Jat versus others fight in UP and Haryana. But they won’t be successful now
The demand of Jats in Haryana is similar to that of Patidars in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra. What is common to these states is that land-holding castes feel that other group beneficiaries of affirmative action are forging their way up the social hierarchy while they are left to lag on various socio-economic parameters. “It is time to question the equation of reservations with the redressal of caste inequality,” says Satish Deshpande, a sociologist at Delhi University, “not because a reservation policy is no longer needed, but because it is no longer enough.” Yogendra Yadav, a social scientist and politician, says that reservations should go beyond the caste matrix to address changing socio-economic structures, ensuring that no one feels left behind.
The wider set of demands that Jats are making of the government right now, though, suggest that the movement is at least partly an exercise in flexing social muscle. They want martyr status accorded to all Jats killed during last year’s agitation and their families given ‘fair compensation’ and government jobs. They want police officers controlling the protests to be punished for their actions. This attempt to portray themselves as victims of state oppression rather than vandals flies in the face of what happened and only loses them the sympathy of others.
Aware perhaps of the dangers of aliening non-Jats, the movement’s leaders appear to have shifted tack. Jassia, the control centre of the agitation, has around 5,000 voters that include 35 non-Jat castes. Wary of a widening social divide, Jats here now talk of unity among all: ‘36 Jaat Ka Bhaichara’ (36-caste brotherhood) is a slogan that figures prominently on protest posters. There is another notable feature of the movement this time: since last October, there has been a large increase in the participation of women. ‘Matri shakti’ (women’s power) finds mention in every speech at the protest site. A tent has been erected exclusively for women protestors. “This time, we have decided that women and elder people too would be part of our agitation,” says Om Prakash Hooda, pradhan of Hooda Khap in Haryana. “The women are more enthusiastic about coming out of their homes and fighting for their rights. They understand it is for the future of the community.” Several Jat women address the gathering. Renu Jassia, a 30-year-old woman ascends the stage to give a stirring speech: “Our idol is Deen Bandhu Choudhary Chhotu Ram, who always advised Jats to maintain discipline. Learn to control your aggression and demonstrate at the right time. Victory will be ours.” The crowd cheers for her. Another woman, her face covered with veil, takes the stage. “We won’t celebrate Holi this time. Our Holi would be after the victory. Raise your hands if you agree,” she exhorts.
ALMOST EVERY SPEECH stokes Jat pride. “We are the most humble people till so long as we get respect,” says Atar Singh of Ismaila village. “But if someone plays with our atma samman (self-respect), we can fight to the death.” Most speakers reserve special anger for the state BJP government, and especially Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. “We committed a big blunder by voting for BJP,” says Kishan Lal Hooda. “Last year, they projected us as villains across the country. That was not true. We will teach the government a lesson.”
Yashpal Malik, national president of the ABJASS, which he began in 2009 after quitting his job in the Air Force, has campaigned extensively across western UP for the state’s Assembly polls, asking fellow Jats not to vote BJP. “They say that they will waive farm loans within 15 days of coming to power,” says Malik. “Why didn’t they do it in the state where they have a government? They tried to instigate a Jat versus others fight in UP and Haryana. But they won’t be successful now,” he adds.
Malik’s stature among Jats here is clear from the reverence he gets. “Some BJP leaders say, ‘How can a Jat from UP lead Haryana Jats?’” says Ashok Balhara, who is in charge of ABJASS in the state. “If Rama can become the lord of the country, why can’t Malik become our leader? He is like Lord Rama to us.” The ABJASS chief’s mass popularity is apparent the moment he arrives with a small cavalcade of SUVs. Young men and women rush to greet him as soon as he alights from his vehicle, swarming around.
Malik takes the mike and assumes command of the crowd. “I have to make an important announcement,” he declares, talking about March 20th, “Women won’t march to Delhi on that day. Instead they will keep up the protest here. We want to divide police attention at various places. Besides, you have to take care of our homes when male members are away.” He has been touring various states over the past few days and is pleased with the turnout everywhere. “There are 30 such protests happening simultaneously across Haryana and almost 10 lakh people are participating regularly for more than a month now,” he says. “Despite that, the government has ignored us. We had no option but to announce a huge protest in Delhi.” On March 2nd, he held a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in Delhi where a decision was taken to hold the mega-rally coming up. There will be no shortage of cash for the event. “Collections have reached around Rs 2 crore from each site,” the leader claims. “Also, all the villagers are collecting money and have promised to take care of our basic needs like food and shelter during the protest.” After Vinay Budhwar, 18, died while returning from the March 2nd protest in Delhi, community leaders gave his family Rs 11 lakh with a promise of more.
Rajmani from Kaloi village darts towards the person collecting cash in Jassia, waves a Rs 500 note, and says,“Chhore ke liye Kaloi Mahila Mandal ki taraf se (for the boy from the Kaloi women’s group).” Everyone who turns up at the site has something or the other to offer. Some bring wheat-flour packets, others potato bags, mustard oil and milk to serve the thousands in attendance. “I may not be alive for long, but this protest will help my grandsons,” says 83-year-old Chet Ram who hasn’t returned to his village Ghillour since he came here in late January.
The protestors say they are aware the government is watching them. “Our phones are on surveillance,” says Malik, “So we don’t talk over the phone.” Decisions taken at this meeting are to be conveyed to others in person. Only tractors—thousands from Jassia alone—will be used for transport, it transpires. Water tankers will accompany them, and people are being asked to bring food. “The young will be trained how to break police barriers,” says Malik. “We will do a peaceful protest by blocking everything towards Delhi.” He himself will lead a convoy of tractors from Meerut in UP.
Meanwhile, the Haryana government has constituted a five- member committee headed by Chief Secretary DS Dhesi to hold talks with Jat leaders. “The officers in the committee don’t have a mandate to take a decision,” says Malik, “They have reached us twice, but their intent is to disrupt the movement.” On his part, Dhesi says, “I am personally involved in the talks and am confident something will be worked out.”
The founding fathers of India’s Constitution had seen job reservations as a way to end the caste system with all its inequities, but post-Mandal politics and the extension of quotas to such a vast part of the electorate as OBCs turned the policy into just another political bargaining chip. India’s polity must realise that this is a slippery slope. More and more quotas will make a mockery of the aims of affirmative action.