The speed with which the Jat reservations issue exploded in Haryana seemed to take everyone by surprise. For it to acquire the proportions that it took, with several deaths, calling out of the army and several of the major cities being effectively closed seemed to have not been anticipated by anyone, least of all the government of the day. This raises several issues such as why it happened in the first place, was it the real issue or was there something else underlying it, could it have been avoided, and lastly what can be done now.
First, why did it happen? Several possibilities present themselves but first, here are some facts:
One, it is clear, to anyone who cares to think about it, that the incumbent Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is not really one “elected” or even chosen by the MLAs belonging to the ruling party. He was not among those prominent in the political landscape of the state before, during, and even after the elections. The question why and how he was chosen or foisted on the legislature party can be answered only by whatever is the equivalent of the so-called High Command of the party or those who might be privy to the working and the minds of the real decision makers in the party.
Following from the above, it seems highly unlikely that he commands the respect, much less loyalty of a majority of the ruling party MLAs. It is no secret that there are quite a few who harboured, and still harbour, chief ministerial ambitions. Being ambitious is obviously not necessarily a undesirable trait but it can certainly be dysfunctional to a state government if its key functionaries and supposed supporters keep taking out their frustrations surreptitiously.
Next, given the undeniably important role that caste plays in politics in India as a whole, the fact that the Chief Minister is not a Jat may be of some relevance. Caste loyalties cut across all other social divides and political divides are no exception. Given that Haryana has at times been referred to as the Jatland, having to live with a non-Jat chief minister might even be construed as a slight, nay an insult, by the proud community. If this is acceptable, then the community avenging the insult in whatever way it can follows.
Now, is reservation for Jats at all possible? It is widely known that the Supreme Court has laid down clear limits that cannot be exceeded for reservations. Any attempts to exceed those limit by state governments have been struck down by the courts. This has also happened with reservations for Jats in Haryana in March 2015 when the Supreme Court set aside a government notification to include Jats in the OBC list. Without going into the details of the mechanics that are being thrown around for giving reservations to Jats in Haryana, the experience of Gujars in Rajasthan might be instructive. A similar agitation was launched by Gujars in Rajasthan in 2008. After a prolonged and sometimes violent struggle, the Rajasthan government promised to provide reservations to Gujars. As expected, those provisions were struck down by the courts and everything came to be square one.
Given that almost everyone knows reservations cannot be provided to the Jats, why did this agitation come about? In addition to what has been discussed above, the next set of issues go a little deeper. Was reservations for Jats the real issue? Two events in not-too-distant past need to be recounted to try and decipher this question. One is the Hardik Patel phenomenon in Gujarat where the demand was either give reservations to Patels/Patidars or abolish reservations altogether. The other is the statement by Mohan Bhagwat that reservations have outlived their utility. The statement came when it could have an impact on the Bihar elections and possibly therefore vociferous attempts were made to distance the Haryana ruling party from the statement. This raises the possibility that the demand of reservations for Jats in Haryana might well be part of a larger strategy to create conditions for abolition of reservations altogether.
Now, abolition of reservations altogether might not be a bad thing in and of itself. Almost all government-appointed committees and commissions over the years, starting with the first Backward Classes Commission in January 1953, under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar, which submitted its report on 3 March, 1955, have opined against reservations. Kalelkar himself did not agree with caste being a basis for reservation, and said so in his letter while forwarding the report to the President. He went on to make the incisive remark: “Once we eschew the principle of caste, it will be possible to help the extremely poor and deserving from all communities…” (para 23).
The concluding remarks of Kalelkar are very instructive: “Two years of experience have convinced us of the dangers of the spread of casteism and… have also led us… to the conclusion that it would have been better if we could determine the criteria of backwardness on principles other than caste” (page xiv, para 60).
The view of the Supreme Court has been similar. Starting with MR Balaji and others vs the State of Mysore (AIR 1963, SC 649), till Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs Union of India & Others, the judgment for which was announced on April 10, 2008, the Supreme Court has consistently held that categorisation of any class as backward solely on the basis of caste is not permitted by Article 15(4) of the Constitution although it is a relevant factor to be considered.
In Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs Union of India & Others, Justice Dalveer Bhandari observed as follows:
“…4. On careful analysis of the Constituent Assembly and the Parliamentary Debates, one thing is crystal clear: our leaders have always and unanimously proclaimed with one voice that our constitutional goal is to establish a casteless and classless society. Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘The caste system as we know is an anachronism. It must go if both Hinduism and India are to live and grow from day to day.’ The first Prime Minister, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, said that ‘no one should be left in any doubt that the future Indian society was to be casteless and classless’. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar called caste ‘anti-national’.”
If the cynical-sounding speculation that the Haryana explosion is part of a grand design to abolish reservations altogether has any veracity then it is a classic case of using wrong means to attain a right end. While abolishing reservations may well be a laudable end but doing what is happening in Haryana as a means to do that is just not acceptable.
The last question was: What could be done? It has been decided that “A Bill for granting the OBC status to Jats will be introduced in the coming Budget session of the Haryana Assembly,” and “A committee headed by a senior Union minister will be set up to look into the demands of Jats.” Khap leaders of the Jats are reported to have “claimed that a law to bring the Jat community under the OBC category at the Centre will be enacted in the forthcoming Budget session of Parliament. In Haryana, reservation to Jats would be granted under the Special Other Backward Classes, (and that) the law in the state will be enacted in the upcoming session of the Assembly.”
All it does is to buy time till the courts strike it down.
What could, should, and needs to be done is to face the issue of reservations squarely, in the public domain, in an open national debate. Let every political party say honestly what its stand on reservations is. Those who are not in favour of caste-based reservations need to have the courage to not choose candidates for elections on the basis of caste and to stop asking for votes on the same basis. And the voters need to stop voting on the basis of caste.
None of this will of course happen. Simple, naïve folks, particularly young folks, will continue to be fed on the fiction of reservations by self-serving politicians and other opportunistic groups resulting in disruption and deaths. The charade of providing reservations based on political and electoral expediency will continue.
Jagdeep S Chhokar is a former professor, dean, and director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad.