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Historical neglect

It is important to understand the contours of the Gujjars' backwardness and recognise that pastoralism is under threat, writes Shail Mayaram.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2007 05:26 IST

Despite the proclamation of Mina (as the census spells them) victory and Gujjar defeat, the last act in the agitation is yet to be staged. The Supreme Court identifies the Gujjars as being responsible for the “national shame” and the police blames the media for the violence. However, a report released by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and People’s Union for Democratic Rights indicts the state and police on various counts.

The Gujjar mobilisation needs to be read as a critique of the model of economic growth, which has led to the growth of the middle-class and lowering the percentage of people below the poverty line. But, it has also led to farmers’ suicides, adivasi marginalisation and backwardness of Dalits and smaller backward castes.

Since there has been much misreporting on the Gujjar issue, it is important to understand the contours of their backwardness and recognise that pastoralism is under threat. Pastoralists are bypassed not only by the neo-liberal political economy, but also ignored by the post-colonial State. Look at what happened to herdsmen after the Partition of India and Pakistan. Pastoralists who once traversed a vast terrain in search of pastures, played a significant role in the trans-border trade between India and Afghanistan and in the Himalayan region connecting Ladakh, Tibet and China. Restricted in spatial mobility by boundaries, they suffered from disintegration of their families, villages and kin groups.

The shift from bullock-driven farming to tractor-based agriculture was the next shock for the Gujjars who have been cattle herders in western India. It was the mainstay of their religious culture, which was based on the worship of the cow. This phenomenon did not come from Brahmanism, but from pastoral and peasant communities such as Ahirs, Yadavs and Gujjars. In their celebrated epic, Devnarayan, Gujjar heroes are depicted as the protectors of cows. But the cow is no more a valued animal for traditional and sustainable rain-fed agriculture.

Pastoral life forms had already been eroded by pre-colonial states. Indeed, the state itself, as a huge body of scholarship shows, is the product of sedentarisation and emerged during the transition from clan to caste. Both the Sultanate and the Mughals, not to mention that preceding States, were involved in deforestation and sedentarising pastoralists. The policies of the colonial state led to de-tribalisation and the transmutation of tribals and pastoralists into raiders. During the lean seasons and with the colonial regime controlling the forests, there was no forest produce that tribals and pastoralists could fall back on for sustenance. This led to an increase in banditry and raiding became rampant in the decades leading up to 1857.

In post-colonial India, there has been a further expansion of cultivable land, erosion of fallow land and peasant encroachment on pastures, the mainstay of pastoralists. Peasants have demonstrated animosity towards pastoralists. Seasonal transhumance of Raika, Raibari and Gujjar shepherds from western Rajasthan has led to confrontations with farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and elsewhere.

<b1>Instead of recognising the crisis, states have been denotifying pastoral tribes, which means shifting them from Scheduled Caste to Other Backward Caste status. This is the larger backdrop against which the Gujjar protests need to be read. Their low levels of representation in state and Central politics have increased the perception that they have fallen behind in the development race. The death of their tallest national leader, Rajesh Pilot, further increased this feeling. The delimitation of the Dausa Assembly constituency where the Gujjars were rendered a minority and the declaration of the Jats as OBCs was the last straw.

Where do we go from here? First, the appointment of the Rajasthan Commission gives the Gujjar leadership a breather to reassess its strategy and priorities. It has demonstrated its strength on the streets: Sunni Muslim Gujjars from J&K and elsewhere have come out in their support. This show of support has also proved the pan-Indian identity of Gujjars. They now need to do a critical assessment of the failures and shortcomings of this round, firm up a vision of their future and make efforts at consolidating and building a larger support for their cause.

First, Gujjars must demand that the Rajasthan government’s district-level data on their backwardness be made public. Second, they must set up an independent, non-partisan taskforce to evaluate and document the extent of their relative upward mobility/marginalisation under the development and neo-liberal regimes respectively. Third, the decision — whether or not Gujjars qualify for an ST or MBC status — should be left to an independent, non-political authority. Fourth, the Gujjar leadership must make an effort to build inter-caste/tribe alliances so that other castes/tribes are not alienated. Fifth, it must look into its internal sources of violence — the nomenclature ‘Dev Sena’ for its youth brigade, the brandishing of swords by its youth and the Asind episode in Bhilwara, where the Hindu majoritarian face of the Gujjars was on view. Sixth, it must denounce the killing of two policemen during the recent violence. Finally, it must get the State to work on a programme for pastoralists and try to reap the benefits of the neo-liberal growth model in terms of employment, educational opportunities and political representation. Then, declaration as an ST or extremely backward caste can be a minor component.

Political parties and caste associations need to work out a consensus on the ground rules of constitutional and democratic protest that must constitute the benchmark of individual and communitarian agitations. Identity politics must not degenerate into exclusivist politics or permit the destruction of public property. If the State must give adequate compensation for land acquisition, caste panchayats need to think about compensating the public for the burning of buses and trains. Moreover, while claims for reservation need to be made non-violently, no counterclaims to exclude other castes should be entertained. The Mina leadership must instead introspect on how the gains of reservation can be shared with other adivasi groups.

The Minas and the Gujjars have much in common: the Minas were criminalised to an even greater extent than the Gujjars by the British and subject to enclosures, the colonial institution whose extreme version were the Nazi death camps. Mina votes have contributed to Gujjar electoral victories. But Mina factions besieging Gujjars and reportedly preventing supplies of food and water from reaching protesting Gujjars have tragically reduced this history of interaction. There are several games being played out behind the scenes and both Gujjars and Minas must be cautious of these. All those talking about caste and civil wars will doubtless use this protest to read flaws into the programme of affirmative action and seek to undermine the gains of reservation. But what the State needs to address is the structural failure related to de-tribalisation and de-pastoralisation.

(Shail Mayaram is a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

First Published: Jun 26, 2007 00:26 IST