Fallen in line, taken for a ride
The agreement announced in Jaipur on June 18 between the Rajasthan government and a group representing the Gujjar community in the state seems to have been welcomed by the nation. Once the euphoria of train services resuming wears off, subsequent reflection will indicate that it should have been more a cry of despair than a sigh of relief. Our collective memory is short. Similar sighs of relief were heard about a year ago when another agitation by the same community was called off. What is the agreement arrived at on June 18?
The agreement seems to have three distinct components. One, a special category of backward classes consisting of three communities, Gujjars, Rabaris and Banjaras, which will be given 5 per cent reservation in the state, without “any adverse effect on the present reservation system in the state”, according to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. This simply means that this 5 per cent will be over and above the existing reservations in the state that already amount to 49 per cent.
Two, the state government promised not to object to the mention of Gujjars in a list of 23 castes/tribes that the Centre sent to the Rajasthan government in December 1999, a compilation of castes and tribes recommended or forwarded by the state from time to time until 1999, for consideration of reservation under SC/ST categories. And three, the state government agreed to pay Rs 5 lakh compensation to the families of the people killed in the agitation, to provide a government job to one family member each of those killed, and to withdraw cases filed against agitators provided the courts allow them to be withdrawn.
The same day as the ‘reservation’ for the Gujjars was announced, Raje announced another special quota of 14 per cent for the poor among the upper castes in the state, which included Brahmins, Rajputs, Vaishyas and Kayasthas. This was apparently based on a report submitted the same day by the Economically Backward Classes Commission. The speed with which the report was accepted by the government was, according to some sections of the media, indicative of an attempt to control any resentment and backlash by the upper castes to the new quota for the Gujjars.
What does all this mean? Despite all the hype surrounding the event, it actually amounts to almost nothing. The Gujjar community has once again fallen prey to the machinations of the political class. The impossibility of implementation of the 68 per cent reservation in the face of repeated judgments of the Supreme Court has been pointed out by several commentators. It would not be surprising that the agreement is questioned in the Supreme Court as soon as it is notified by the Rajasthan government and is first stayed and then, in due time, declared null and void for violating the apex court’s orders. The Gujjars who have already lost 26 lives last year and 42 now, will then be faced with the prospect of having to question the decision of the highest court of the land and will be squarely blamed for being lawless, in effect, justifying the label of a criminal tribe that the British put on them as a retribution for having been in the forefront of the 1857 uprising.
The fact that 14 per cent reservation was announced for the poor among the so-called upper castes the same day, makes it clear that it is not only an issue pertaining to the Gujjars. A decision of the Tamil Nadu government to increase reservations to 69 per cent is already under scrutiny in the Supreme Court even though the relevant act has been put in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution in an attempt to put it beyond the pale of judicial scrutiny. A decision of the Orissa government (to increase reservations up to 65.75 per cent) was turned down by the Supreme Court, and the Jharkhand High Court turned down a decision by the Jharkhand government to increase reservation of seats for election to gram panchayats in scheduled areas to accommodate members of the SC, ST and the other Backward Castes, to 80 per cent.
In 1957-58, the report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes said that “If the ultimate goal of classless and casteless society is to be attained, the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and even of Other Backward Classes will have to be reduced from year to year and replaced in due course by a list based on the criteria of Income-cum-Merit.”
Justice Dalveer Bhandari of the Supreme Court writing on April 10, 2008, in the judgment of Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs Union of India & Others, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Rajiv Gandhi said: “On careful analysis of the Constituent Assembly and the Parliamentary Debates, one thing is crystal clear: our leaders have always and unanimously proclaimed with one voice that our constitutional goal is to establish a casteless and classless society.”
But the political class continues to behave like an ostrich and expand the system of reservations based on caste while innocent lives continue to be lost for transitory gains.
Jagdeep S Chhokar is a retired professor of IIM, Ahmedabad, and a founding member of Association for Democratic Reforms