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Jat agitation reaches Delhi

Jat agitation reaches Delhi
The agitation by Jat community for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions reached the national capital on Thursday. Thousands from the community, under the umbrella of the All India Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti (AIJASS), descended at Jantar Mantar to extend their support for the movement in Haryana. In a bid to exert pressure on ruling dispensation at the Centre and Haryana, Yashpal Malik, president of the AIJASS, told journalists that they had started a non-cooperation movement, in which they will not pay electricity and water bills and the instalment of loans that they owe to the government. Besides seeking quota in education and government jobs under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, the demands of the Jats include the release of those jailed during last year's agitation, withdrawal of cases and government jobs for the family members of those killed and injured while taking part in the stir. Both the Centre and BJP-led government in Haryana have a good reason to be wary. Almost a year ago, the state-wide agitation for quotas descended to full-scale riots, where more than 30 people lost their lives and property worth approximately Rs 20,000 crore destroyed. Although demands for Jat reservation go back almost three decades, the past five years have witnessed a dramatic push, driven primarily by agrarian distress.

The protests in 2012 had forced the Congress government under Bhupinder Singh Hooda to push for Jat reservations—a move struck down by the Supreme Court. After the riots last February, the BJP government did pass legislation providing for Jat reservations, but the Punjab and Haryana government put a stay on it on May 26. Members of AIJASS want Jat reservations to put into the Schedule IX of the Constitution so that the courts can't strike them down.

One must place the Jat agitation in the context of similar movements by other socially dominant and landed caste communities like the Patels of Gujarat and Kapus of Andhra Pradesh. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Patels and Jats are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. The Jats, for example, drew their political power from the land, as cultivators in a region that had borne the fruits of prosperity driven by the Green Revolution. Nonetheless, this apparent paradox is resolved when one recognises that sections of these socially dominant communities are economically backwards today. It is particularly the case of these erstwhile traditional landowner communities, many of whom have seen their landholdings shrink through generations, allied with pressure from the real estate sector.

Moreover, since the Green Revolution, there has been little progress of note in the agricultural sector. Lack of farm mechanisation, out-dated cultivation techniques as witnessed through low crop yields, and excessive dependence on paddy and wheat, which has caused serious degradation in soil fertility and severe depletion of ground water, has made agriculture less attractive to the current generation of Jats. Those who move away from the farm, often find that the education they receive is often not good enough for the job market. To some extent, Jats have been unable to leverage their once-held agricultural prosperity to branch out into white-collar jobs. Going by the KC Gupta Commission report in 2011, Jats are woefully underrepresented in institutes of higher education, forming merely 10% of the student. Concerning government jobs, Jats held 18% of class 1 and class 2 government jobs. Making up nearly 30% of Haryana's population, they can indeed make a case for reservations.

The Commission recommended the inclusion of Jats and four other caste groups in the Special Backward Classes (SBC), something which the then Congress government accepted. They even announced a 10% quota, but the order was soon cast aside by the apex court. While a large segment of these communities remains economically backwards with little scope for employment in the cluttered job market, they still share that sense of social dominance and entitlement with their more prosperous brethren. They Jats are a remarkably well-organised community, a fact understood during last year's violence and reports that sections of the Haryana administration refused to take action against the rioters out of a sense of case solidarity. At any protest site or sit, there is always talk of "Jat quom", the Jat community, by members from the community cutting crossing state lines.

Of course, what is impossible to ignore here is the changing political dynamics of Haryana in the past few years, led by the rise of the BJP. Its strategy in winning the Assembly election in 2014 was driven by a consolidation of non-Jat votes. The Jats make up 30% of the state's population, and since the creation of the state, seven out of 10 of its Chief Ministers have come from their community. The BJP secured a majority on its own by establishing a rainbow coalition of more than 30 non-Jat castes. Since the elections in 2014, the ruling party has made little efforts to reach out to them. In fact, the BJP went a step further and appointed Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi, to the post of Chief Minister.

In the state, where caste is an essential element of the political climate, appointing a Punjabi migrant from Pakistan to the top office was seen in many quarters as a major snub to the Jats. Propelling the popular agitation and last year's violence beyond demands for reservations is the BJP's attitude to the community, a fact borne out of comments made by the party's Parliamentarian from Haryana, Raj Kumar Saini. Before the riots last year, he had issued a series of provocative statements about the Jats, which led to demands for his arrest. Many perceived that the BJP implicitly endorsed his comments. Is it any surprise that during the riots, shops and business establishments belonging to the Saini caste were targeted?

On the subject of reservations, however, is where the BJP find itself in a real quandary. Young Jats, who are seeking a slice of the OBC quota in government jobs, are left in a confrontation with other communities in the OBC list. How will the Haryana government placate the Jat community, since the Supreme Court of India had rejected the idea of reservations for Jats? The court said that they are not socially and economically backwards, referring to National Commission for Backward Classes' (NCBC) opinion. In the Indra Sawhney versus Union of India– popularly known as the Mandal case –the court also ruled in 1992 that reservations cannot exceed 50%. If the Centre indeed passes legislation to include reservations for Jats under the Ninth Schedule, it could alienate other non-Jat caste communities, and dent their carefully crafted rainbow alliance. Big picture, the reservation system, especially the one based on the Other Backward Classes model, has failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste.
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