Rajasthan: Gujjar ire’s roots lie in BJP’s caste politics
While violence and disruption caused by Gujjar agitations for reservation must be condemned, it must be recognised that their resentment is largely a result of cynical vote-seeking politics
Gujjars, who are demanding five per cent reservation in government jobs and in educational institutes, have once again taken to disrupting rail and road traffic in Rajasthan. However, they are aware that the Ashok Gehlot government can’t meet their demand. The quota can be implemented only if the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre brings in amendments in the Constitution. They make up roughly five per cent of the state’s population, get one per cent reservation under the Most Backward Class (MBC) category, apart from getting benefit of OBC reservation.
In Rajasthan, 49 per cent seats in educational institutes and government job vacancies fall under reservation – 16 per cent for SCs, 12 per cent for STs and 21 per cent for OBCs. There’s a 50 per cent ceiling on reservation on the basis of caste. Earlier, attempts by state government to provide the Gujjars (and three other communities) five per cent reservation fell flat because that would have exceeded the 50 per cent limit. The Gujjars are a pastoral agriculturist group. There are both Hindus and Muslims among them. They are linguistically diverse and are found in north and central India, Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Gujjars initially tried to get categorised as a Scheduled Tribe that would have brought them closer to the Meenas. Gujjars are classified as OBCs in some states and UTs, but in Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of Himachal Pradesh, they are categorised as a Scheduled Tribe. In Rajasthan, the Gujjars were irked by the fact that the brethren community of Meenas established themselves very strongly in the society - politically, educationally, and also in bureaucracy and other government jobs after getting included in the Scheduled Tribe list.
The similarity between the Gujjars and the Meenas appear over the way in which the British Raj treated them. After 1857, Gujjars and Meenas were listed as criminal tribes. The Criminal Tribes Act was abolished by the De-notified Tribes Act in 1952. At that time, Gujjars and Meenas were almost equal with respect to economic and social standing. Initially, the Meenas of Rajasthan were given ST status and the Gujjars were later given OBC status in Rajasthan and UP. The ST status was originally designed for tribal Bhil Meenas of southern Rajasthan of Udaipur belt. But political exigencies saw the same extended across the state.
According to sociologist Madhumita Mazumdar, who has done a case study on the Gujjars and the Meena community of Rajasthan, the ongoing agitation by the Gujjar community in Rajasthan is a reminder of the dangers of playing competitive caste politics. The immediate provocation for the agitation, which has erupted time and again on the reservation issue over the past nine years, was former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s decision to recruit people for 1,00,000 posts. Gujjars demanded a 5 per cent reservation in them. Although both the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party declared their commitment to give them a five per cent quota in government jobs and educational institutions, the problem lies in giving effect to this.
At one level, there is the legal impediment, something the Rajasthan High Court called attention to recently, when it stayed the operation of a 2008 Act that provided reservations for various caste groups, including Gujjars. The level of reservation under this please-all Act, which earmarked quotas for poor upper castes as well, increased to 68 per cent, considerably above the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court in the Mandal case. At another level, there are serious practical problems about extending a special quota to the Gujjars. It was the Rajasthan unit of the BJP that promised to include Gujjars in the Scheduled Tribes list in the run-up to the 2003 election which it won. While the violence and disruption that has characterised Gujjar agitations for reservation must be condemned, it must be recognised that the resentment of the community is largely a result of cynical vote-seeking politics. The anger and political consolidation within the community assumed worrying dimensions only after the Vajpayee government decided to reclassify Jats as ‘Other Backward Class’. Having promised the Gujjars ST status in 2003, BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was forced to expend considerable time and energy in trying to appease the community with all kinds of sops. Eventually, she bought time by declaring a new quota regime that classified Gujjars as a “separate backward community,” a proposal that found expression in the legally unsustainable 2008 Act that now stands suspended by the Rajasthan High Court