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#JatQuotaStir: how Haryana CM Khattar dug himself into a hole

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:44 IST

As the ongoing Jat agitation in Haryana claimed five more lives Saturday, Manohar Lal Khattar is being forced to walk a tightrope. And that is putting it mildly. The agitation for OBC reservation threatens to severely undermine him politically. For caste remains key to the political calculus of Haryana.

Also read - Khattar is firefighting, but could #JatQuotaStir cost the BJP in UP?

Already, the chief minister's assurance to give the Jats a share in the SBC quota isn't being accorded much heft. Nor his repeated appeals for peace: "I appeal to all my fellow Haryanvis to maintain law and order in the state and ensure that harmony is maintained in society."

If anything, the violence is only spreading, despite the army being out in Rohtak, Sonepat, Jhajjar, Panipat, Jind, Hisar, Bhiwani and Kaithal - the eight districts that comprise Haryana's Jat heartland. Rohtak, Bhiwani, Kaithal, Jind, Narnaul, Gohana and Sonepat are under curfew.

No let up

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Photo: PTI

On Saturday, four agitators were killed in clashes with the security forces in Jhajjar and one in Kaithal, taking the toll to eight in two days.

Through the day, a mob reportedly torched a petrol pump and a government building in Meham, Rohtak. In the same district, the agitators had dug up roads apparently to keep out the army, called in from Delhi, forcing some armymen to be airlifted.

The army, which is carrying out flag marches in some of the affected districts and has been given a shoot-at-sight order in Rohtak and Bhiwani, has warned the people not to leave their homes.

Yet, the agitators reportedly attacked the Sasidon and Budha Khera railway station Jind and Rohtak, respectively. And there were reports of the agitators stalling "movement of 11 army trucks" in Narnaul, and others "stoning" the residence of Agriculture Minister Om Prakash Dhankar in Jhajjar.

Rail and bus services remain disrupted, with nearly 450 trains cancelled and dozens diverted since the stir intensified four days ago.

Ten columns of paramilitary forces have reached the state, 23 are on the way: DGP Yash Pal Singhal

The state's police chief Yash Pal Singhal claimed that the "situation has improved since Friday" as the army is assisting his force in bringing the situation under control in the worst-hit areas.

"Ten columns of paramilitary forces have reached the state while another 23 are on the way. Some of these will be airlifted," Singhal said.

The army has deployed at least 11 columns - each has 75-100 personnel - so far. The state, however, has requested for more columns.

Singhal's assurance notwithstanding, the "situation" could get worse, not least because a political solution is still to be found. The biggest challenge Khattar faces in dealing with the crisis is that the Jats aren't agitating under one leadership.

Also read - #JatQuotaStir: Rohtak protestor's killing adds fuel to the fire

In a fix

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Photo: PTI

Indeed, when he decided to hold a meeting on 17 February to seek a solution to the crisis, Khattar had to call as many as 126 leaders, including some Khap elders who have joined in the stir. His predecessor, the Congress's Bhupinder Singh Hooda, on the other hand, had to primarily deal with only the All India Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti led by Yashpal Malik.

Although Khattar's regime had initially manged to contain the stir launched by the Jats in Hisar's Mayyar, it failed to anticipate and stop similar protests from erupting in Rohtak, Jind, Bhiwani and other areas.

For Khattar, being a non-Jat is both an advantage and a disadvantage right now. As political analyst Balwant Takshak explained, "The BJP has come to power with the help of communities other than Jats. The state had been under the rule of Jat chief ministers for the past two decades and other communities were feeling ignored. I think the BJP will again be looking at consolidating its non-Jat base in the state once this issue of Jat reservation is taken care of."

Fresh violence: attack on Jind, Rohtak train stations, stone pelting on Om Prakash Dhankar's house

On the other side, the Jat agitators are accusing Khattar of working to deny them reservation benefits because he's non-Jat. Such a view, if it takes hold, could be costly for Khattar and the BJP - for the simple reason that the Jats comprise over a fourth of Haryana's electorate and are key to winning about 30 of the 90 assembly seats.

The Jats also wield significant influence on electoral politics in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, which go to the polls this year.

Split within

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Photo: PTI

If this wasn't headache enough for Khattar, he also faces a split within his party on the issue. His failure to stop Kurukshetra MP Rajkumar Saini from speaking against a quota for the Jats has added fuel to the fire. Although the chief minister went public on Friday saying Saini's statements "should be considered withdrawn", the damage had been done.

On the other hand, Finance Minister Abhimanyu Sindhu, a Jat, squaring off with Saini has damaged attempts to contain the situation. Had Khattar reined in Saini and Sindhu in time, observers have argued, the damage could have been limited.

In fact, the Khattar government has been criticised from the beginning for being slow in reacting to contentious issues. Observers say it looks towards the RSS for resolving every major issue, which delays decision-making.

In this instance, too, it could have announced the decision to bring a bill for providing state quota to the Jats at Khattar's meeting with the Jat leaders, or after the cabinet meeting Thursday. Instead, it waited until Friday, by when the stir had already turned violent.

It is also being argued that Khattar could have employed his senior ministers Dhankar and Abhimanyu as well as other important Jat leaders from the state, including the Union minister Birender Singh and MP Dharambir, to pacify the agitators. That he failed to do so reflects poorly on his judgement and leadership.

Now, he finds himself in a fix. If he includes the Jats in the SBC category, he risks angering other communities like the Sainis, Yadavs and Gurjars, both in Haryana and elsewhere.

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Photo: PTI

"The message that will go out is that the Jats managed to have their way through muscle power. The BJP would also stand to lose its non-Jat base in Haryana, western UP, Delhi and some parts of Rajasthan," Takshak pointed out.

Not coming good on his promise to the Jats, on the other hand, would only push them closer to the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal.

So, what choice does Khattar have right now?

Having promised to bring a bill for Jat reservation in the budget session of the assembly, Khattar won't face much problem in delivering on it. No party is likely to oppose such a bill for fear of angering the Jats. Whether the quota granted by the assembly would stand the test of the courts shouldn't worry Khattar much. "He can always claim he did whatever was in his hands," Takshak said.

More in Catch - Rajasthan govt approves new quotas: will caste cauldron boil again?

Modi's 'jumla' nailed: how BJP tampered with reservations in the past

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First published: 20 February 2016, 9:29 IST