In 2009, during the Gujjar agitation for Scheduled Tribes (ST) quotas in Rajasthan, villagers in Tonk district worried about the fate of their community. They pointed to villages that were full of civil servants and police officials belonging to the Meena community, who had secured these jobs owing to their ST status. The Gujjars (already in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category), on the other hand, languished in poverty.
The only way things could change, they reasoned, was by being included in the ST quota, or, in a special quota created under the Special Backward classes. The Meenas were obviously opposed to sharing their benefits with the Gujjars, as were the state’s Jats who, having been accorded OBC status in 1999, feared a threat to their power in the state.
Last year, the state ceded to the Gujjars’ demands and passed the Rajasthan Special Backward Classes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions in the State and of Appointments and Posts in Services under the State) Bill, 2015. This took the percentage of total reserved seats in the state to 68%, well over the 50% limit set by the Supreme Court.
The crisis over quotas and the clash over who classifies as “backward” (determined by economic or social criteria), has been going on for decades now. However, the recent agitations by caste groups who have historically been considered dominant — the Jats in Haryana, the Patels in Gujarat, the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh, the Marathas in Maharashtra, and the Rajputs in Rajasthan — can be understood as a battle over access to “productive resources such as education and jobs”, says sociologist Hira Singh, author of Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane (2014).
With a fall in the profits made from agriculture and the subsequent shift to non-agricultural activities, many previously dominant groups — sociologist Satish Deshpande refers to them as the “backward forwards” — who derived power from their control over land, have been staring at a huge crisis. “This [the agitations] has to do with the falling fortunes of agriculture, which predate the 1990s. Over the years, the old oligarchs were cut to size because of shrinking land holdings. At the same time, rural education also took off. But there were few jobs to be had. The village economy was changing too; over 62% of the rural net domestic product now comes from occupations and activities that are non-agricultural,” says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.
In Haryana, for instance, the Jats — albeit better off than their counterparts in UP and Rajasthan — have found themselves in a similar situation, says Ajit Kumar Singh, retired director of the Lucknow-based Giri Institute of Development Studies. “The average household income for a cultivator in the country is about Rs 6400. In UP, it is Rs 4900, and in Haryana, it is Rs 8,000. Rich farmers have branched off into businesses, leaving behind marginal and small farmers with no option,” he says.
Similar conditions have been at work in the case of the Patels too. The community had earlier been the major beneficiaries of Gujarat’s land reform policies that helped them subvert Rajput dominance in the region.
“But the Patels’ economic situation began to decline in the aftermath of industrial units shutting shop in the state, a majority of which belonged to them. Agricultural activities, which they were using to supplement their income, are also not as profitable,” says Sagar Rabari, an activist with the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Farmers association.
Ironically, these erstwhile dominant classes, who are now clamouring for “backward status” based on their economic conditions, have, in the past, opposed reservations. They have also been hostile to oppressed castes in their region.
“Dominant groups will resist any opportunity being made available to traditionally oppressed groups because first, they don’t want to lose control over labour power, and second, they are unwilling to share status symbols such as modern education and jobs,” says Hira Singh. Singh, a professor at York University in Toronto says this reluctance to share benefits with the oppressed is not unique to India’s caste groups, and has parallels in the backlash against affirmative action in the US and Canada.
In India, the antagonism towards newly-empowered caste groups is playing out in inter-caste rivalries: the Jats in Haryana and UP resent the Sainis and Yadavs, who have benefited from quotas; the Patels in Gujarat, who are now vying for a place in the OBC category resent the OBCs in the state including the Thakors, Chaudharis and the Rabaris.
Singh illustrates the contradictions stemming from a rearrangement of power equations due to the quota system by pointing to clashes between the Jats and the Rajputs in Rajasthan, between the Rajputs and Brahmins and the newly empowered Ahirs and Kurmis (OBCs) in UP and Bihar, as well as between the newly emergent castes and those below them, for example, the Yadavs and the Dalits in UP and Bihar.
Gradually, even intra-caste rivalries will begin to have an impact, he says. So, for instance in Gujarat, while the rich Patel businessmen and their poorer counterparts may now appear united in their struggles, in the long run, according to Singh, “any gains made will accrue to the upper crust of the dominant caste”.
For now, however, the quest for lost power and status is fuelling the clamour for an economic basis for according quotas, and perhaps even creating grounds to rethink caste and the reservation model, against the backdrop of an agrarian crisis and a lack of suitable job opportunities.