In a parliamentary democracy like ours the reservation debate, in the light of the recent Jats’ agitation for OBC reservation in Haryana, unravels many unresolved questions. In 1990, the historical question of “backwardness” of castes marked a fundamental shift from earlier political languages. With the Mandal Commission recommending OBC reservation, caste identity became integral to affirmative action. The Jats then were not included in the OBC category. In 1997, they were not found backward by the National Commission for Backward Classes Act (NCBC), with the exception of Rajasthan Jats, who were included in the Central OBC List.
The recent agitation by Jats for OBC reservation in Haryana opens up important questions.
The first is the question of Jat identity. Historically, a heterogeneous community of peasant proprietors, with a base in the army, the Jats forged a strong sense of communitarian identity in colonial India. Their present assertions draw on their history of dissent and subordination. But their political language has undergone a decisive shift. So has the language of the State.
The second aspect relates to the new legal and political discourses debating the constitutionality of Jats’ demand for OBC reservation. A diversity of positions between the Supreme Court judgment and the Union of India, a disagreement between the judiciary and the executive, shows the irresolution and complexity of the question.
The Congress and BJP have both supported the Jats’ claim for OBC reservation. The UPA-II government gave them OBC reservation in 2014. But the Supreme Court judgment rejected their reservation in the Central List in 2015. This important judgment maintains that the NCBC’s recommendations ought to be considered by the union government. The NCBC report states that “the Jats were not socially backward”, and were actually “adequately represented in the armed forces, government services and educational institutions.” The Supreme Court judgment observed that “politically organized classes [such as Jats]” cannot be included in the list of backward classes. The court discouraged “the identification of a group as backward solely on the basis of caste.” The NDA government, under pressure from the Jat community leaders, filed a review petition before the Supreme Court in 2015, which was dismissed.
The third point concerns the criteria of backwardness, defined by Article 16(4) of the Constitution, as “social backwardness”. Drawing on the Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India case, the Supreme Court judgment observes: “Educational and economic backwardness may contribute to social backwardness. But social backwardness is a distinct concept having its own connotations.”
The picture becomes more complicated when we hear Jat agitators focusing on economic backwardness and undermining their social backwardness. The Jats say that their demand for employment opportunities via reservation is a result of problems faced by farmers from the 1990s such as fragmentation of holdings, government and corporate acquisition of land, women’s proprietary rights and lack of employment opportunities.
Fourthly, the Jats’ language of protest centres around their sense of alienation and victimization by 35 castes in Haryana, but other castes feel insecure, threatened and marginalized. In asking for a quota in the 27% OBC category, the Jats claim to be on the same footing as the existing OBC castes like the Yadavs, Sainis, Gujjars and Lodhas. They do not accept the Supreme Court’s observation that comparison cannot be a ground for inclusion in OBC.
Lastly, Jats across political parties are united on this demand. A caste-based affirmative action may mean a caste battle for power. A large-scale violence in the recent Jat agitation reveals how a caste with a history of subordination can turn aggressively dominant in contemporary times. There was looting and destruction of private and public spaces, an assertion of masculinity, a celebration of violence. There are many silences on this form of public violence.
The BJP’s acquiescence to Jats’ OBC claim may lead to a bigger sinister game in times to come.
Nonica Datta is associate professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal