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Lost power, farm distress: what's really driving the #JatQuotaStir?

Anand Kochukudy | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:46 IST

For the past 10 days, Haryana was on the boil. The dominant Jat community was out on the streets, demanding OBC reservation. They blocked key roads and railway tracks as the protests turned violent in at least nine districts.

The agitators held the entire state to ransom as the law and order machinery collapsed, leading to anarchy and utter chaos at many places. By the end of it, 18 people had lost their lives, and the damage to public and private property is estimated at over Rs 35,000 crore.

Read: Khattar is firefighting, but could #JatQuotaStir cost the BJP in UP?

While the state government had greatly underestimated the Jats' potential to mobilise, even the central government seems to have been caught off guard. It should have known such an agitation was always coming.

The latest Jat stir can be traced, at least, to the Supreme Court striking down the notification of the UPA regime, issued on the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, including Jats in the central OBC list.

Thereafter, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, taking a cue from the apex court, set aside the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government's decision to put the Jats in the Special Backward Caste, along with four other castes. The Jats had been warning of launching an agitation since that very day, 27 July 2015. Yet, its scale and effectiveness could hardly have been predicted by anyone.

Ominous signs

In late January this year, the Jats, a well-organised community, resolved to put up blockades across Haryana in order to press their demand. The Sarva Jat Khap Panchayat is reported to have even detailed out the exact locations where road and railway blockades would be put up to ensure "maximum impact".

When the Jats did come good on their threat and launched the agitation, the state machinery led by an inexperienced chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, was caught napping. The blockade of NH1 between Delhi and Chandigarh, and other bypasses and highways, all but paralysed the state and affected the neighbouring states as well.

Jats are well-represented in state services despite lagging in literacy. Why do they want a quota?

Now, the centre has intervened on behalf of the clueless Khattar but the Jat leaders are in no mood to relent. As for Khattar, a first-time legislator who was rewarded with chief ministership for his proximity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS, the impasse has been a huge setback.

As it is, he has many detractors within his own party. Now, he will be under greater pressure. Already, the BJP's Kurukshetra MP, Raj Kumar Saini, has thrown a challenge at him. He has warned of raising an "OBC brigade" of some 35 castes to confront the Jat protestors.

What makes Khattar especially vulnerable right now is that he is not a Jat. He's the state's first chief minister from the Punjabi community, and only its second non-Jat CM after the Congress' Bhajan Lal.

Off their perch

The Jats make up Haryana's single largest community. And at 30% of the electorate, they hold the key to winning at least a third of the 90 assembly constituencies. The BJP's rivals, the Congress and the INLD, are both led by Jat leaders, earning them the support of a vast majority of the community.

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

In the last election in 2014, it was the calculated consolidation of the non-Jat voters against Jat dominance that carried the BJP to power. The party won 47 of the 90 assembly seats, a remarkable result given that it previously had only four seats.

It was a major setback for the Jats, eroding their dominance in every sphere of the state's establishment.

The Jats' struggle for reservation is much older, however. They were first promised a quota by Hooda's Congress government in 2004. When it didn't come their way, the community, beginning June 2008, upped the ante by forming "pressure groups" to press the issue with the government.

The Jats had been threatening a stir since July 2015. Why was Khattar's regime caught napping then?

It was only Hooda's influence and skilful negotiation with the Khaps that kept the issue from spiralling out of control. But aware that assurances alone weren't going to cut it, the Hooda regime set up a Haryana Backward Classes Commission.

Accepting the HBCC's recommendations, the government gave the Jats, along with four other communities, 10% reservation under the SBC quota. The decision more or less settled the issue but only for a while - until the high court struck it down.

In a spot

The problem for Khattar is two-fold. One, even if he comes up with a solution - one identical to Hooda's plan has already been announced - it's likely to be struck down by the courts, again. The courts have concluded that the Jats are not socially backward and that caste alone cannot determine the handing out of reservations.

As of today, more than 5,000 caste or communities are listed for quotas, and unlike most of them, the Jats in Haryana are well-represented in government services, almost proportional to their numbers despite lagging in school and college enrolment. Indeed, the Haryana Police, with a sizeable representation of the Jats, has come under scrutiny for colluding with the agitators.

Two, including the Jats in the OBC list poses social and political problems as well. The size of their population means they would corner the lion's share of the 27% quota in the state - to the disadvantage of the other OBCs.

So, what's the solution to this impasse?

Since judicial sanction for raising the reservation ceiling above 50% is unlikely, Haryana must look at other options. It's necessary to look at this crisis in a larger context - demands for reservation are also being made by the dominant communities of Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and Gujjars in Rajasthan.

A key factor driving all these demands is agricultural distress. Agriculture is no longer a viable source of livelihood, so land-owning farming communities are looking for other avenues such as government jobs, which are seen as that much harder to get without quotas.

Read more- Rajasthan govt approves new job quotas: will caste cauldron boil again?

So, for a start, the Khattar regime can make efforts to mitigate the agricultural distress in the state.

Postscript: The violence in Haryana is, coincidentally, taking place at a time when the NDA government has launched a crackdown on the JNU, going to the extent of slapping sedition charges against some students for shouting allegedly "anti-national" slogans.

It's ironic that while a state's dominant community has gone on a rampage destroying public and private property worth crores of rupees and, through these violent tactics, bullied the government into acceding to its demands, hapless students are being oppressed for merely shouting slogans on a university campus.

Where is our democracy heading?

(The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.)

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone

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First published: 24 February 2016, 20:25 IST