Playing with caste fire: the Gujjar upsurge in Rajasthan

By Amulya Ganguli

The poisonous seeds of caste-based reservations, which were sown in the 1990s, have begun to bear fruit.

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When the quotas were first announced for the Other Backward Castes (OBC), in addition to those that already existed for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), the politicians could ignore the protests of the upper castes since the latter were small in number.

But now it is different because the jostling is taking place between the lower castes themselves for a share of the reservation pie.

As a result, a new problem has cropped up with castes like the Gujjars demanding relegation to a lower status – from OBC to ST group – because availability of employment and educational facilities in the first category is limited.

In Rajasthan, for instance, where the Gujjars have been involved in widespread violence, the OBC classification is not big enough for both the Gujjars and the Jats, who were recognized as OBCs in 2003.

This downward movement from a higher caste to a lower one is a new phenomenon. In the past, the tendency was to seek a higher caste status because of the greater social prestige. The process was described as Sanskritisation by the well-known sociologist M.N. Srinivas.

But the present reverse trend is understandable because the opportunities for assured jobs and educational facilities via reservations are greater in the lower categories.

This is another fallout of the quota system that the politicians, with their eyes fixed on electoral dividends that reservations would pay, could not foresee. Yet, when caste and religion were introduced into the census data in the late 19th century, the people began to ask "questions about themselves and about their cultural and social systems", as G. Balachandran says in his essay "Religion and Nationalism in Modern India".

As a result, "the groups involved grew self-conscious enough to take steps to alter them in their own favour". The aim of such changes was the same then, as it is now: the lure of government jobs and also political clout.

However, there is little doubt that the latest upsurge of violence is a direct result of the propensity of politicians to stoke casteist and communal fires by emphasizing the distinctive identities of the various groups.

Cynical political calculations of this nature were evident when former prime minister V.P. Singh floated the Mandal balloon in 1990 to challenge his potential rival Devi Lal's influence on the OBCs.

Similarly, when Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani set out on his 'rath yatra' (chariot ride) in the same year with the avowed aim of "liberating" – in effect, attacking – the Babri Masjid, which was supposedly built on the site of a destroyed temple, his intention, first, was to mobilize the Hindus behind his party.

More recently, when Arjun Singh decided to reserve seats for OBCs in institutes of higher education, his aim was to undercut Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by posing as the champion of the underprivileged.

As is obvious, all these luminaries were guided mainly by political as well as personal calculations in initiating measures ostensibly in favour of caste- and religion-based communities although they were careful enough to camouflage their objective behind high-sounding phrases.

Inevitably, the focus on the empowerment of specific castes and communities resulted in violent outbreaks simply because such upliftment could not take place in isolation. Other castes and communities were bound to feel threatened – the higher castes where OBCs were being favoured and Muslims where Hindus were being mobilized.

Both V.P. Singh's and Arjun Singh's pro-OBC moves led to bloodshed and an intensification of caste antagonism. Advani's 'rath yatra' was followed by the destruction of the Babri mosque, leading to countryside communal riots.

However, all these examples of the perils of politics based on casteist and religious identities do not seem to have taught the politicians any lesson. They are still intent on playing the same dangerous game of promising various bounties, especially with regard to education and jobs, to individual groups, notwithstanding the virtual certainty of violence.

The scope for outbreaks has increased all the more not only because the share of the cake is becoming small, but also because of the rising aspirations of the new generation.

Yet, the politicians have been putting the cart before the horse by promising employment without first setting up the requisite educational infrastructure. As long as government jobs were available aplenty, the ruling classes didn't worry, especially because merit was never a criterion for securing an official post at the lower levels.

But in the new age of economic deregulation and the downsizing of government departments, such opportunities are no longer available. Moreover, merit is now at a premium, as is a working knowledge of English.

The preference of the Gujjar community for ST status is a fall-out of the shrinking opportunities. Hemmed in by Jats in the OBC category and Meenas in ST group, the Gujjars want to drop down from their present OBC status to that of the ST.

But the Meenas, who claim Rajput lineage, are not likely to take kindly to a squeezing of their present education and employment opportunities by the induction of the Gurjars.

It may not be out of place here to recount the colourful history of the Gujjars. They were said to have come to India from Georgia with the Huns in the 5th century and the Gujjar Pratihara kings had ruled over large parts of north India for long periods.

It was defeat at the hands of Alauddin Khilji in the 17th century that marked the beginning of their decline.

However, memories of their proud past are likely to play a role in their demand for a fairer share of the existing and future opportunities.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])