Over the last four decades, the Jats have undergone several metamorphoses, each of which altered their perception of their role in the country’s society and politics.

They were initially the storm troopers of former Prime Minister Charan Singh, who sought to challenge the Congress hegemony. After his death, they constituted the army of agitators whom peasant leader Mahendra Singh Tikait commandeered into raising agrarian demands.

Then followed the phase in which they took to clamouring against reservation for other backward classes in central government jobs, gradually veering around in significant numbers to supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ram Temple agitation. This provided an opening to the BJP to work on the Jats to give greater primacy to their Hindu identity over their status of middle caste peasantry.

This partially explains the Jats’ susceptibility to the Sangh Parivar’s divisive politics and their conflict with Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh. Its most bloody manifestation has been the 2013 rioting in Muzaffarnagar. The impact of Hindutva on the Jats has been evident elsewhere too – in Ballabhgarh, in Haryana’s Faridabad district, for instance.

The unity of MAJGAR

The conflict between Muslims and Jats is of recent vintage. In fact, under Charan Singh they were the pivot of his formidable social alliance of MAJGAR, which was an acronym marking the coming together of Muslim, Ahir (Yadav), Jat, Gujjar and Rajputs. Largely comprising the middle caste peasantry, it sought to enhance its economic gains arising from the Green Revolution through acquisition of political power. The upper caste Rajputs joined them in reaction to the Brahmins’ domination of the Congress.

The Muslims of MAJGAR were largely Muley Jats, or those Jats who had converted to Islam, and shared with their Hindu counterparts similar economic interests. Charan Singh’s genius lay in papering over the separateness of their religious identities to unite them on agrarian issues. Other groups among Muslims were pulled into the MAJGAR alliance because of the factor of propinquity, or nearness in time and space – the social mix of villages was such that a political idea emphasising unity could seamlessly stitch them together despite their differences.

In the 1980s, illness hobbled Singh from participating vigorously in politics. His son Ajit Singh was then living abroad. He returned to India at the death of his father in 1987, but in the interregnum Mahendra Singh Tikait and his Bharatiya Kisan Union had captured the Jat imagination. Tikait shunned electoral politics and concentrated on raising agrarian demands.

His fame was linked to organising spectacular dharnas. For instance, in 1988, he led 5 lakh farmers to camp at Delhi’s Boat Club for a week. The Muley Jats were enthusiastic participants, but not those Muslim social groups which had little to gain from the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s charter of agrarian demands.

The Jat-Muslim unity was then exemplary. Its most telling symbol was the 40-day agitation that Tikait led at Bhopa in 1989 for the safe return of Nayeema, a Muslim girl who had been abducted. Bhopa, believe it or not, is located 22km from Muzaffarnagar, which has now become the cockpit of communal conflagration and a veritable Hindutva laboratory.

Threads come apart

The introduction of OBC reservations in Central government jobs in 1990 began to unravel the unity of Jats and Muslims. The Jats weren’t opposed to affirmative action, but they thought it was unfair they shouldn’t have been included in the central OBC list, given their Shudra status. Tikait tapped the anger of Jats to launch a vociferous campaign against reservation, splintering MAJGAR – the Ahirs and Gujjars moved out of the alliance as they were the beneficiaries of reservation; the Rajputs joined the anti-reservationists, whom the BJP was clandestinely supporting.

The Jats, too, were opposed to reservation. But they, unlike other social groups opposing it, were not upper caste. This contradiction the BJP papered over through its offer of an all-encompassing Hindu identity, the making of which was the objective behind LK Advani’s 1990 rath yatra in support of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

As the Jats trooped behind the BJP, the political thread tying them to the Muslims loosened. Terrified of the Ram Temple movement and the Sangh’s communal rhetoric, the Muslims swung behind the party best suited to defeat the BJP. Thus, after years, both in rural and urban west UP, the Jats and Muslims, in significantly large numbers, were in rival camps.

The BJP then began its political project of welding Jats to the party through Hindutva. The deep inroads it had made into the community were manifest in the defeat of Ajit Singh in the 1998 Lok Sabha election from Baghpat.

Communal mobilisation

The tenuous unity between the Jats and Muslims broke as Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal aligned with the BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The RLD won five seats, but the Muslims largely kept away from the party. The 2009 alliance also legitimised the BJP among even those Jats who considered it a party of Brahmins and Banias and representing urban interests. Bereft of Muslim support, the RLD leader became too weak to counter the BJP.

No wonder Muzaffarnagar happened in 2013, enabling the BJP to script a communal narrative in western Uttar Pradesh, where notions of community pride and honour were exploited to have the Jats vote as Hindus in 2014. That narrative will continue to get reworked as long as the Modi government is unable to meet the aspirations of the Jats.

The BJP’s propensity to resort to communal mobilisation to expand the party is evident in Haryana, where Muslims comprise less than 5% of the population. The BJP is said to have mopped up a third of the Jat votes in both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections. But they are now miffed with the BJP because it chose to make a non-Jat as chief minister and because they fear the land acquisition ordinance.

Jats were recently pitted against Muslims in the recent communal eruption at Atali village in Ballabhgarh. Was it yet another classic case of the BJP resorting to communal mobilisation to expand the party, of dissolving caste contradictions in the fervour generated over the trampling of Hindu sentiments?

It might just be. A fact-finding team of the Janhastakshep, a rights group, quotes Muslim victims to say that the “Hindu right” held meetings at Atali before the eruption of violence on May 25, and that police forces were withdrawn for three hours during which the attack on a mosque under construction began.

The other conflict

By contrast, the conflict involving the Jats and Dalits is of completely different order. Right across the wide swathe of Jat territory cutting across states, stories about the oppression of Dalits surface with alarming frequency. For instance, their bridegrooms are forcibly disallowed from riding the horse in marriage processions. The recent incident in which Jats mowed down three Dalits under tractors in Dangwas village of Nagaur district, Rajasthan, is the most grisly example of the Jat-Dalit conflict.

Like sections of Yadavs and Kurmis in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Jats benefited from land redistribution following the abolition of the zamindari system, took advantage of the Green Revolution and prospered. But the change in their fortunes was not mediated through traditional social structures.

Earlier, upper caste landholders and lower caste agricultural labour were bound to each other through the jajmani system, an arrangement which laid out the rights and obligations of both the groups. For instance, it spelt out the amount of, say, rice a Dalit labourer would get for tilling the land and on other special occasions. This system was iniquitous but socially stable.

There was no social mechanism to mediate the rise of middle peasant castes. To keep the cost of production low, they compel lower caste labour to work on farms at rates lower than the statutory minimum wages, periodically revised upward. Simultaneously, the deepening of democracy encourages subaltern groups to challenge the hegemony of middle caste peasantry, which then resorts to retaliation to protect its interests. This is as true of the Jats as it is of other dominant groups in India.

About to get worse

Dismayingly, the conflict between the Dalits and middle caste peasantry, to which the Jats too belong, will deepen. This is because of the acute agrarian distress. Landholdings have continued to shrink, thereby rendering agriculture a losing proposition.

A NABARD paper illustrates that landholdings in the marginal category (less than 1 hectare) constituted 67% of all operational holdings in the country in 2010-2011. Declining yields and rising cost of production has enhanced rural indebtedness. The National Sample Survey Office released data last year showing that more than 60% of the total rural households covered in its survey in 11 states were in deep debt.

Agriculture census data show that at all three sites of social conflict – Muzaffarnagar, Ballabhgarh and Nagaur – the number of marginal landholdings, excluding those held by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, have increased. In Muzaffarnagar, the increase was from 1.64 lakh in 2000-2001 to 2.03 lakh in 2010-2011; in Nagaur, from 24,594 to 31,477; and in Ballabhgarh tehsil of Faridabad, from 6,542 to 19,565.

These figures only capture partially the depth of social discontent in rural India. It is this discontent which finds expression in social oppression and communal violence. Rural India will remain the site of conflict until the Indian political class rethinks policies to rejuvenate the rural economy such as attempting the voluntary collectivisation of farms.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.