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Conflict is just the beginning

Rajasthan’s caste war between the Gujjars and Meenas is a result of its well-entrenched sectarian politics, writes Vipul Mudgal.

delhi Updated: Jun 04, 2007 04:31 IST
Vipul Mudgal

The absurdity of Rajasthan’s caste war between the Gujjars and Meenas hits you when you visit a settlement of Sansis, Kanjars or Kalbelias, within walking distance from ground zero of the skirmishes.

Some of these most-deprived people, and many others like the Bagrias, Nats or Gadolia lohars, are untouchables even for better-off Dalits.

Castes like the Banjaras or Kalandars cannot afford even abstract possessions like a postal address or proof of citizenship.

Their settlements are rarely covered by development plans like rural road schemes that require villages to have at least 500 households, says MS Rathore, a Senior Fellow at Jaipur based Institute of Advance Studies.

Unlike Gujjars or Meenas, who live in bigger villages and possess some land, cattle or small businesses, entire families of these tribes mostly work on road construction sites in Rajasthan’s most backward areas like Karauli, Nagaur, or Viratnagar.

Some are forced into prostitution and other illicit trades. These tribes would perhaps never be on the ST list because they lack the numerical strength essential for political bargain.

Says Prof Ajay Dandekar of Dheerubhai Ambani Institute, Gandhinagar, that despite their extreme backwardness, Rajasthan’s de-notified tribes (formerly criminal tribes) are India’s forgotten people.

Contrast this with the way the Jats got the OBC reservation and you would see the sad part of grassroot democracy at work.

Jats form one-fifth of Rajasthan’s population; control the state’s agriculture and transport business; and have benefited from irrigation and rural development schemes since Independence.

After an aggressive agitation, the BJP government in New Delhi included the Jats of Rajasthan among the OBCs in 1999, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

This was done without a discussion with the Congress and other parties participating in a conspiracy of silence.

The reservation attracted doomsayers from the day it was announced. In many jobs, well-off Jats cornered between 25 and 90 per cent seats in the OBC category meant for 80 diverse groups.

For political posts like that of Zila Pramukh, they got reserved seats in addition to general seats in districts where their writ runs.

Initial protests came from the Brahamins and Rajputs, who wanted reservation on the economic criterion. The two rival castes formed a Social Justice Front, later joined by many other castes. A mass agitation followed and pitched battles were fought with the police in 2002-2003.

Once again, mainline political parties failed to take clear positions. Satya Narayan Singh, an SJF patron in the organisation’s heydays, says it is only a matter of time when the Brahmins and Rajput will erupt again.

The Gujjar agitation has exposed the fact that Rajasthan is hopelessly divided in caste camps. The SJF-led Brahmin-Rajput agitation took a violent turn just before the 2003 Assembly elections. It later splintered into more radical groups like the Karni Sena of the Rajputs, two factions of Brahmin Mahasabha and Arakshan Adhikar Manch of the remaining castes.

This month’s Gujjar agitation has further deepened the caste alienation caused by reservation for Jats. The 10 Gujjar and 31 Meena MLAs, including those in Vasundhra Raje’s ministry, have placed their assembly memberships at their community’s disposal.

Meenas are opposed to the Gujjars getting ST status because it might end their dominance in the lowest SC/ST segment. As a result, caste Panchayats are taking place all over Rajasthan and inter-community clashes have spread.

Rathore maintains that sheer frustration has forced the nomadic Gujjars into the agitation. “Earlier, the shepherds of Rajasthan used to migrate to MP, Haryana, UP and NCR, but they are now being denied transit routes,” he says.

Construction of roads, schools, and implementation of social forestry schemes, such as the 99-year lease for jethropha cultivation for bio-fuels, have shrunk pastures leading to loss of livelihoods.

In Rajasthan, Meenas and Gujjars have remained close for centuries. Social activist Kavita Srivastava believes the upward mobility of Meenas has compounded the Gujjars’ frustration and raised aspiration levels.

“The state has failed to provide normal education and health services and the political parties have failed to give them participation in the political process,” she feels.

Many observers feel Rajasthan’s caste wars will not disappear soon because politics is moving consistently on narrow sectarian lines.

Rathore, Dandekar and Srivastav believe the only way is to rethink India’s reservation policy in a non-partisan way. Right now it is difficult to decide if caste is altering politics or politics is shifting caste equations.