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Caste, a crooked eye

india Updated: May 27, 2008 22:21 IST
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For a student of history, the ongoing Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan carries a profound level of sadness. Last year, more than a dozen Gujjars had lost their lives in an attempt to demand Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for their community in Rajasthan. This time, 36 people have died in police firing. A lot of justified noise was made when 14 people died of police firing in Nandigram. But Gujjar deaths do not seem to evoke the same kind of media sympathy.

Historically, the Gujjars are effectively ‘1857 forces’, in the same league as Lodhs, Banjaras, Ramoshis, Dhangars, Mewatis, Kols and Gonds who fought in the 1857 Uprising against the British as a community. On May 10, 1857, when the 3rd Cavalry threw off allegiance to the British in Meerut to kick-start what is now recognised as the 19th century’s greatest anti-colonial revolt, the Meerut cantonment had a sizeable 60th Her Majesty Regiment composed of crack British soldiers. The 3rd Cavalry sowars and 11th and 20th Bengal Native Infantry sepoys did not have artillery; but the 60th Foot Regiment was well supplied with cannons. The 60th HMR men could have easily pursued and cut the march of Meerut revolutionaries towards Delhi. But it was the turbulent Gujjars of the Meerut countryside who surrounded the British cantonment in such large numbers that British soldiers found it difficult to advance.

The Imperial Gazetteer of India states that throughout the “Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Gujars and Musalman Rajputs proved the most irreconcilable enemies of the British. A band of rebellious Gujjars ransacked Bulandshahr after a revolt by the 9th Native Infantry on May 21, 1857. The British forces were able to retake the town with the help of Dehra Gurkhas, but the Gujars rose again after the Gurkhas marched off to assist General Wilson’s column in another area. Under the leadership of Walidad Khan of Malagarh, the British garrison was driven out the district. Walidad Khan held Bulandshahr from July to September, until he was expelled after an engagement with Colonel Greathed’s flying column. On October 4, the Bulandshahr District was regularly occupied by the British Colonel Farquhar and measures of repression were adopted against the armed Gujars.”

During the revolt of 1857, the Muslim Gujjars in the villages of Ludhiana district showed dissent towards the British authorities. The British interests in Gangoh city of Saharanpur District were ‘threatened’ by the rebel Gujjars under the leadership of Raja Fathua. The Gujjars of Chundrowli rose against the British, under the leadership of Damar Ram. The Gujjars of Shunkuri village, numbering around 3,000, joined the rebel sepoys. According to further British records, the Gujjars plundered gunpowder and ammunition from the British and their allies. In Delhi, the Metcalfe House was sacked by the Gujjar villagers from whom the land was taken to erect the building.

Gujjar turbulence owed a lot to their nomadic status and the British attempt to settle them as peaceful land revenue paying peasantry. During the Mughal era, Gujjars were known for their entrepreneurial role — they not only exchanged milk and other commodities but also guarded the trade routes of North India. The colonial-British State, keen to turn every rural element into a peasant, did not understand the community’s entrepreneurial role. So after 1857, the British classified the Gujjars (and around 150 other Indian communities) as ‘criminal tribes’ through the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. In this move, communities that had fought for Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857 were openly targeted. Several other forces like the Pardhis of Vidarbha and the Dhangars and the Ramoshi-Berads of Maharashtra and Karnataka also suffered. Most of them were warrior-nomads or warrior-hunters of the Mughal and Maratha era. During the colonial era, basic human rights were denied to these communities. They were literally given an ‘anti-social’ tag. Their position became worse than that of many Dalit communities in the country.

The Government of India repealed the noxious British act in 1952. But the after-affects of the social exclusion of these communities impacted heavily when it came to granting them reservations. Listed separately as De-Notified Tribes (DNT), they were not at first put in the Other Backward Classes (OBC), the Scheduled Caste (SC) or the ST category. By the 1970s, Gujjars of several areas, including Rajasthan, were granted OBC status. But this created a discrimination as the Gujjars of North India and the Dhangars of West India were unable to compete with upwardly mobile OBCs like the Yadavs, the Kurmis, the Jats (in Rajasthan), the Kunbis (Maharashtra), and the Lingayats and Vokalligas (Karnataka). A special category of Most Backward Caste (MBC) with a ‘quota within quota’ situation ought to have been created for them.

In Bihar, Karpuri Thakur, the MBC Chief Minister of the state in the late 1970s, created ‘Annexure 1’ and ‘Annexure 2’ especially for the MBCs. If applied to areas like Rajasthan, this formula could have gone a long way in ameliorating Gujjar grievances. But apart from Bihar no other state took the pain of adopting this methodology.

The Gujjars are not alone in agitating. The Kurubas of Karnataka and the Dhangars and the Ramoshi-Berads of West India, too, have been demanding ST status for long. So the Gujjar agitation touches a wider political nerve. Slowly, the ST/SC categories have become more the monopolies of certain sub-castes within the Dalits and the Adivasis. While the ‘Chamars’ of Uttar Pradesh and the ‘Mahars’ of Maharashtra have received the maximum benefit of the SC category, the Meenas of Rajasthan have exercised a near monopoly in the ‘ST-reserved’ tag in Rajasthan. So much so that there is a powerful Meena lobby in Delhi and Rajasthan structures — powerful enough to make even Chief Ministers and Cabinet Ministers sweat.

The game gets murkier when one comes to UP. Here the Kols, designated as ST in Bihar and Jharkhand, are listed in the SC category, where it is almost impossible for them to compete with upwardly mobile Dalit groups. The Gonds of UP are tagged as ST — but ST is not even a recognised category in UP! So there are no jobs or electoral reservations for UP Gonds while Madhya Pradesh Gonds can take advantage of these privileges as MP recognises the ST category.

The political leadership in the country does not seem interested in the problem of MBCs, who constitute more than half of the OBC population and about 30 per cent of India’s population. Either the Bihar formula should be followed everywhere, or special provisions should have been made for them. Unless this is done, the desperately poor and backward MBCs, who unlike Dalits have failed to create their urban middle class, will continue to agitate over their exclusion from the ST or other beneficial categories. Their agitation now holds the prospect of altering political equations. It’s time to take a look at the ongoing demand before it spills further out of control.

Amaresh Misra is the author of War of Civilisations: India AD 1857