Gujjar agitation: warning signal
by J P Sharma on 13 Aug 2008 0 Comment

The recent agitation by Rajasthan’s Gujjars, supported by their caste-fellows of neighbouring states, which convulsed Rajasthan and parts of north India for over a month in May-June 2008, has turned the spotlight on one of several fatal afflictions the British injected into our society and left independent India to fight as best she could. Regrettably, successive generations of politicians have not only failed to recognize the dangerous implications of the malady, but in their blind pursuit of power, have actually made the situation worse than it was at independence.   


“Divide and rule” was a strategy used by the British to fragment opposition to their rule over India. Their first pick was the Muslim community which, regarded as the worst enemy in the wake of the Mutiny, ended up as the favourite as the demand for independence gathered strength. As leaders of the Indian National Congress were mostly Hindus, British sought to divide this community into many parts. Aryan-Dravidian, Savarna-Dalit etc. were some divisions strongly fostered by them.


The British sought to win the allegiance of weaker classes by granting them separate reservation in legislatures and government jobs. They even proposed to categorize Depressed Classes as a non-Hindu group like Muslims, Sikhs etc, but Gandhi persuaded Ambedkar to accept reservations out of the Hindu quota.


Accentuating fissures


Birth-based reservation in legislatures and government jobs for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was provided in the Indian Constitution in 1950. Several other measures for ending discrimination against and improving the lot of the Scheduled Castes were also taken.


Unfortunately neither the leaders of the ruling classes or of the SCs and STs made sincere efforts to bring the bulk of the deprived sections up to the level of the rest of society. Members of these sections were generally treated as votebanks for securing the support which political parties craved. Class labels came to be looked upon as a means to secure entry into government jobs. This process was taken a step further by the addition of another privileged category “Other Backward Castes” by Prime Minister VP Singh when he felt threatened by the growing clout of Chaudhary Devi Lal.


Since then, getting classified as SC/ST/OBC has become a goal many communities aspire to. Election time is seen as the most opportune moment for mutually profitable bargains.


Jats a backwards caste in 1999


The Jats of Rajasthan are a good example. This agriculturist, landowning community rivalled the Rajputs for influence in rural Rajasthan. Jat princes ruled the erstwhile states of Bharatpur and Dholpur. Chaudhary Kumbharam Arya (Chief Minister Rajasthan),  Nathuram Mirdha (Minister), Ram Niwas Mirdha and Natwar Singh (Cabinet Ministers at the Centre) were prominent Rajasthani Jat leaders.


But by the late 1990’s, community leaders discovered the benefits of being included in OBC list and demanded inclusion for Jats. As it constituted a sizeable votebank, the demand was accepted by the NDA government in October 1999.


The addition of well-placed Jats in the OBC list raised the hackles of the less numerous Gujjars, who realized their share in the OBC pie would consequently diminish. They sought relief by being shifted to the ST list, where they thought their chances would be much better.


This ran into stiff opposition from the more numerous extant constituents of the ST list – the Meenas, who were loathe to share their privileged position with new claimants. The Meenas of Jaipur Division are not really backward or depressed, but were erroneously included in the list of STs, a concession actually meant only for the Bhil-Meenas of Mewar region.


The BJP government which promised to sponsor the shift of Gujjars to the ST list realized that displeasing Meenas to please Gujjars would be highly unprofitable. It dithered, resulting in the Gujjar agitations in 2007 and the grossly violent repeat agitation of May –June 2008. Eventually BJP worked out a new formula which pleased all sides.


Need to redefine eligibility


For sixty years we have been living under a constitution which promises to all citizens equality of status and of opportunity, and justice - social, economic and political. In this period, the Indian social scene has undergone tremendous change. Most of the oppressive and discriminatory social practices have disappeared and the remaining ones are progressively losing their hold due to the modernizing influence of education, urbanization and the impact of economic forces even in rural areas where professions are no longer hereditary.


Growing political consciousness among SCs/STs/OBCs has seen the rise of a large number of politicians from these categories to positions of eminence and power. One is seen as having a fair chance to become Prime Minister. A look at the list of officers serving in the IAS, IPS and other Class I services will reveal the surname “Meena” occurring frequently, indicating the great advances this tribe from Rajasthan has already made. 


Yet the welcome rise of SCs, STs and OBCs has not been free of flaws. An obvious shortcoming is the virtual monopolization of benefits by groups at the top of each category, leaving the bulk far behind. Some suggestions have been mooted to correct this lopsidedness, possibly by sub-dividing the existing backward classes into “backward” and “most backward” to allow the benefits of reservation to flow to those left behind. A similar attempt was made by the Supreme Court to exclude “creamy layers” from the benefits of OBC reservation. Both initiatives are being resisted by current beneficiaries who have enough clout to deter most vote-conscious parties. The Supreme Court ruling is sought to be overcome by prescribing the proposed exclusion to those with an income over Rs. five lakhs! A report suggests that 80% Indians subsist on Rs. 20/day.


The Gujjar agitation, the Meena reaction, and the efforts of those enjoying a privileged position to prevent a more even spread of reservation benefits within the disadvantaged classes, all reflect the ills in our system. In an era of coalition governments, ruling parties can think of no objective nobler than retaining power, by whatever means. Their opponents share the same mindset of giving top priority to winning power. National interest, ethics or similar non-vote winning considerations have ceased to matter.


Those who have gained access to privileges in independent India will exert all power to retain their privileges eternally. It is for the intelligentsia and opinion leaders to build opinion in favour of bringing the hindmost sections up to an acceptable standard of living. Instead of giving importance to considerations of historical wrongs, more realistic parameters of affirmative action, based on the present conditions of the claimants, should be worked out.


Rule of the law or mob rule


Another affliction exposed by the Gujjar agitation is the open defiance of law by the agitators, and the immunity granted to them by state authorities.


It has come to be commonly accepted that any significant group with a grievance, justifiable or not, can with impunity disrupt the life of common citizens by holding rallies, taking out processions, enforcing “bandhs”, blocking highways, stopping trains, uprooting rail tracks, damaging precious equipment, looting and burning public and private property, including even police stations and armouries, without fear of adverse consequences.


Business establishments, office goers, daily wage earners, those travelling for important engagements or for medical treatment, and all others who suffer in various ways, have nobody to compensate them for the losses/ serious inconvenience suffered due to the State’s failure to safeguard the rights of law abiding citizens. Here again, not losing votes is the top priority, so all transgressions are forgiven. “Equality before law” and “equal protection of the law” have been reduced to pious nothings; what matters is power, and the loaves and fishes of office.

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