The renewal of the reservation stir in Haryana underlines, as never before, the pressing need for Jats to have a new leadership that could take them out of their growing political isolation.
Unable to arrest their economic decline, their frustration has mounted because of the Constitutional and judicial limits on inclusion of a social group into the OBC or Other Backward Classes reservation pool. This has goaded them into expressing their fury against such limits in futile outbursts periodically.
But these limits are now a settled matter of law. The Constitution provides reservation for what is called the Educationally and Socially Backward Classes (ESBC). The Supreme Court has decreed that a social group can be classified as ESBC after a socio-economic survey has been conducted. It isn’t consequently a decision left to the whims of the executive. It has also been laid down that the reserved quota cannot exceed 50% of the total jobs or educational seats that are available.
These norms have seemingly created insurmountable barriers for Jats to be included in the OBC pool. A good many OBC castes believe Jats are prosperous and politically dominant. Their inclusion in the OBC pool will consequently deny other castes of their share in the 27% pie reserved for OBCs. It is, as of now, impossible to provide them a separate quota as it will breach the 50% limit the Supreme Court has provided.
Nor are the upper castes enamoured with Jats, who played a significant role in undermining their earlier dominance of the society. They fear that reservation for Jats will further empower them in the areas where their presence is substantial. On the other hand, Dalits identify Jats as among their principal tormentors.
Against this backdrop of socio-political rivalry, the Jats isolated themselves further because of the violent turn their agitation for reservation took in Haryana earlier this year.
It seems to have consolidated the non-Jat groups, a situation not disadvantageous to the BJP government which is headed by Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi. It is said that one-third of Jats in Haryana voted the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha, but they are certainly not the party’s durable mainstay.
The violence in Haryana earlier this year persuaded the state government to extend reservation to Jats and five other social groups. This was, as was widely accepted, stayed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, provoking the Jats to return to the barricades all over again this week.
It cannot but be asked: To whom are the Jats displaying their displeasure and anger? What is the message they seek to communicate?
It makes no sense for Jats to address their demand to the Khattar government as its decision to extend reservations to them – given effect through two legislative enactments – has been put on hold by the high court. Even the inclusion of the two Acts in the Ninth Schedule will not render it immune from judicial scrutiny.
The government can thus satisfy Jats through a violation of the high court order, which will signal a breakdown of the Constitutional arrangement and abort the Khattar government. It will not risk taking this course and alienate the non-Jat constituency.
This is the point the Jat leaders seem to have palpably missed – that their opposition to the government will drive them into a cul-de-sac, where no other social group is likely to provide them company. Nor is there honour in this isolation, for the very basis of their demand for reservation is the KC Gupta Commission report, which the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) dismissed as biased.
The Supreme Court upheld the NCBC’s opinion when it rejected the UPA government’s decision to include Jats in the Central OBC list of some states. Constituting 25% of Haryana’s population, the Gupta report says the share of Jats in Class I and Class II services in the state is 21 percent. It cannot be anybody’s case that a social group’s representation in government jobs must be equal to its percentage in the state’s population.
No doubt, the Gupta Commission claimed the Jats lagged behind Brahmins and Banias and, therefore, needed to be included in the reservation pool. However, as the NCBC pointed out, it didn’t provide comparative figures of representation for social groups such as Ahirs and Gujjars, traditionally considered on par or lower to the Jats.
Educationally, the Jats at the graduation level were said to have 6.5% enrollment, against the average of 8.3 %; the difference was far less at the postgraduate level. But the educational lag of Jats is not so enormous as to require affirmative action, given that they happen to own three-fourths of agricultural land in Haryana.
They also command enormous political clout – five out of 10 chief ministers of Haryana have been Jats, some with multiple terms. One-third of the state’s 90 Assembly constituencies are Jat-dominated. It has had a fair representation in the Army – the current Army chief, Gen Dalbir Singh is a Jat, as is the Northern Command head, Lt Gen DS Hooda.
This isn’t to say that there exists no reason for disquiet among the Jats. As a predominantly peasant community, the agrarian crisis has had to have an impact on it. Agriculture is no longer a lucrative proposition as it was during the Green Revolution, from which the Jats did gain substantial economic clout. Agricultural yields have decreased, the cost of inputs had increased, and the prices of some produce have crashed.
Worse, the fragmentation of farms has further eroded their profit margins. A NABARD paper illustrates that landholdings in the marginal category (less than 1 hectare) constituted 67% of all operational holdings in the country in 2010-2011. The National Sample Survey Office released data in 2014 showing that more than 60% of the total rural households covered in its survey in 11 states were in deep debt.
The disquiet arising from the decline in prosperity among Jats deepens as they see individuals of other social groups take advantage of reservation. Quite obviously, reservation can’t become the sole instrument for an overnight uplift of social groups on par or lower to the Jats in the social hierarchy.
Yet it stokes their anxiety that the others are catching up with them and may eventually challenge their increasingly tenuous dominance. They also think the denial of reservation is discriminatory as they too are classified as Shudra in the Hindu social hierarchy, as are, for instance, the Ahirs/Yadav and Kurmis in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. But the latter have been granted reservation, both at the Centre and in states, even though the extent they lag behind Jats is debatable.
But all these factors are precisely why Jats need new leaders who could play a salutary role in guiding the community to tackle the crisis they encounter. They need to rally Jats for demanding policies which could help tackle agricultural distress, particularly the rising rural indebtedness.
But Jats can’t trigger changes in policies alone. This can come about only by forging an alliance with other peasant communities to mount pressure on state and Central governments. However, in western UP, the Jat-led social alliance broke down over the issue of reservation. The alliance’s constituents – Ahirs and Gujjars – broke away as Jats opposed the Mandal report in 1990. And because they began to gravitate to the BJP, the Muslims too veered away from their leadership.
From this perspective, the Jats in Uttar Pradesh had no option other than to tail behind the upper caste whose hegemony they had so successfully challenged once. But the isolation could extract a far greater price from them in Haryana, where there supremacy has been state-wide in its impact than being confined to a pocket, as it was in UP. Politics in Haryana has traditionally revolved around in support or opposition to Jats.
Nor is it that reservation can arrest the decline of Jats overnight. As of now, less than 31 lakh are employed in Central government jobs. Just think how many vacancies are created every year! In 15 years or so, when all Central government employees will have been post-Mandal recruits, only 7-8 lakh, or 27%, will have come through the OBC reservation.
Given the extensive Central OBC list, the share of Jats, even if they were granted reservation, can’t possibly be large. This projection tells you that even if government jobs in all states were included – at best, two crore – the mechanism of state employment can’t suddenly reduce the number of people dependent on agriculture. It is very unlikely that reservation will be extended to the private sector anytime soon. Anyway, reduction of population pressure on agriculture is just an aspect of the distress in rural India.
This is precisely why the new Jat leadership has to rethink its strategy of ensuring the community is not perennially caught in a downward spiral. In their rethinking, it cannot but also persuade Jats to redefine themselves and their social relations. For just too long, they have allowed the stereotype of Jats being oppressive and belligerent to persist. A reinforcing of this perception will only isolate them further.
(The author Delhi-based journalist. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)