Jats' fight to retain domination

Quota riots: Demands for reservation hinges on fear of losing ground to 'others' in Haryana

Jats' fight to retain domination

Haryana is not a state known for communal or caste-related incidents but those five days starting February 19 saw one of the worst riots in its history leaving 30 dead and property worth crores of rupees burnt down or damaged. The reason was demand for reservation in backward classes for the Jats, known to be financially and socially forward. An ambivalent BJP government headed by first-time MLA-CM did not help. The violence has subsided now but it may rise its ugly head again…

Caste is best understood in regional frames. Its popular textbook view, the “varna” system, only provides a very broad model of hierarchy that presumably applies to all of India. It often, however, creates more confusion than clarity. Drawn from select ancient texts, this model was made popular by the British colonial rule. They began enumerating communities in 1872 using this model of caste. Despite reports from the field of the confusion it created during the process in diverse regions of the subcontinent, they did not revise their notion of caste.

Later, social anthropologists introduced the concept of “jati”, an empirical unit based on kinship, but they, too, have mostly continued to think of caste as a pan-Indian reality with a more or less similar kind of structure of hierarchy everywhere. This view has also come to be accepted and institutionalised by the Indian state for its policy of reservations.

Thanks to these policies, caste communities have also begun to see themselves from such an official view of the Indian social structure and put forward their claims for inclusion in the OBC list invoking the notion of “varna” hierarchy. Even the political activists who
mobilise against caste often tend to think of caste through a similar kind of imagination.
The case of Jats of Haryana and Punjab is a good example to show the obvious inadequacies of such a model. A lay observer of social and political life of north-west India would agree that the Jats have been the most powerful caste community of the rural landscapes. The introduction of electoral democracy also made them the most powerful community at the regional level. They also consider themselves to be socially superior to everyone else in their proximity, a claim rarely contested by “others”.

The sources of Jat dominance has typically been their control over agricultural lands, their demographics and their networks beyond the village. Though they would make for around a quarter of the total population of Haryana, they control nearly three quarters, if not more, of the agricultural land in the rural settlements.

The institution of caste has been and continues to be pretty strong in the region, but the hold of Brahminical ideology has always been rather weak in north-west India. The values of “khudkasht” (self-cultivation) that has dominated this region for long also provide the frame of reference for arranging social hierarchies of castes in the region.

No one was as good as a zamindar, and the category did not imply an absentee landlord here, as it did in some other regions of India. Anyone who cultivated his own land and did not have to work for others as a farm labourer could qualify to be a zamindar, provided he belonged to the right caste. Even a Brahmin in rural Haryana would prefer to identify himself as a cultivator, which made him resemble the dominant Jat. 

The success of the Green Revolution in the region during the 1960s and 1970s brought the Jats prosperity and further reinforced their dominance in the region. Though like other caste communities Jats, too, are internally differentiated with some rich farmers owning big farms and a large majority falling into the category of middle and small farmers.

However, their enthusiastic participation in commercial agriculture brought them closer to urban life. Not only did they begin to travel frequently to nearby towns for farm related work, they also began to send their children to colleges and universities. Richer farmers even sent their daughters to study in the university located in far-away towns and cities.
Agrarian crisis, with a difference

Reports of farmers committing suicide to escape the humiliation of debt and downward mobility are being heard from almost all parts of India for sometime now, but the experience of this agrarian crisis varies across regions and communities. Rural landscapes of India are divided not only on caste lines but also on the patterns of landownership.

For example, the Dalits and those in their neighbourhood (the lower OBCs), own very little agricultural land. My own study of two villages in Haryana completed in 2009 showed that more than 90% of the households from these two categories were landless. The Jats, too, are internally differentiated but the proportion of landless among them is much lesser. Being members of the dominant community also provides access to networks and other resources which the Dalits and other landless communities almost completely lack.

The Jats are also not untouched by the crisis. With generational progression, their landholdings are becoming smaller. In the absence of new innovations, the only way ahead is to occupationally diversify and move out of agriculture, the prime reason behind investing their surplus incomes in educating the younger generation, which they hope would help them find dignified employment outside agriculture.

The crisis is not only economic, it is also cultural. The pride that the agrarian communities of north-west India took in cultivating land has all but disappeared over the past two decades. The valued jobs in the post-liberalisation India are urban, and mostly in the corporate sector. While inclusion in OBC quotas would not give them access to valued jobs in the corporate sector directly, it would enable them to send their children to institutions like the IITs and IIMs, which would prepare them for those jobs, that they see their neighbours from “lowly” castes who possess OBC certificates entering with relative ease.

Though communities like Jats of Haryana or the Patidar Patels of Gujarat invoke their presumed “shudra” status to back-up their claim for inclusion in the OBC list, their politics is also directed against those below them, the real OBCs and the Scheduled Castes. Their agitations are almost always also against the idea of reservations. Their struggle is not for leveling the field through equal opportunity but to regain the grounds they seem to be losing.

Their politics of bullying would thus produce an exclusionary effect. Their gains from being in the OBC list would be at the cost of those who truly deserve to be in the list. The deserving ones would have to compete with the Jats for limited seats in the category and are almost certainly likely to lose out.

(The writer is Professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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