Fifty kilometres west of Delhi, in the district of Jhajjar in Haryana, a group of young men in bright coloured sneakers were running on a highway that cut through fields of millet and paddy. Driving past them in his white-coloured hatchback was Bharpoor Singh Jakhar, the district president of the Adarsh Jat Mahasabha, a community organisation of Jats. "Our boys aren’t running for fun or fitness," he said wryly. "They are running for jobs.”

The Jats are an agrarian middle caste that dominates the political and economic life of Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Despite this, they have come to believe that they are lagging behind others.

“Our boys train hard because they know the only jobs they can get are those in the armed forces and the only quota they can avail is the sports quota," said Jakhar, a middle-aged man with a long face that ends in a beard.

Like the Patidars of Gujarat, Jats want to be counted among the Other Backward Classes. From 2009, when the Adarsh Jat Mahasabha first made this demand, they have mounted several agitations asking for a share in OBC quotas in government jobs and educational institutions. In March 2014, three days before the announcement of the national elections, the United Progressive Alliance government approved the inclusion of Jats in the Central OBC list for nine states in North India, despite the National Commission for Backward Classes recommending against it. One year later, in March 2015, the Supreme Court struck down the decision, holding that the commission's advice was binding and the government had no valid reason to go against it.

Since then, the Jats have been restless. Now, bolstered by the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, they have begun to mobilise again. The All India Jat Aarakshan Sangarsh Samiti is threatening to hold street demonstrations in September. A fringe group that also calls itself the Adarsh Jat Mahasabha (even though Jakhad’s group holds the official name) has called for the formation of balidani daste or sacrifice squads made up of young people who will be given commando training by retired army personnel.

Protests planned

On Saturday, Jat leaders from several states and political parties are expected to meet in Delhi to discuss their strategy. But Jakhar and his colleagues across North India plan to burn effigies of these leaders – in Jhajjar, it will be the effigy of Deepender Hooda, the local MP and the son of the former chief minister. (Incidentally, most chief ministers of Haryana have been Jats).

"If Jat leaders really wanted to get us reservations, they would have done things differently,"  Jakhar said. "They rushed the proposal through the commission and did not wrest a favourable report, and deliberately took a decision in a manner that made it look suspect.”

But do the Jats really deserve reservations? For a moment, Jakhad hesitated. “All those who work in agriculture require reservations,” he said. Though his family cultivates four acres of land and he is nominally a farmer, Jakhar is essentially an entrepreneur. The only one of his siblings to have more than a school education, he owns a furniture store in the town, a shop in the local agricultural mandi, and also dabbles in the real-estate business. By moving beyond agriculture, he has escaped the primary source of insecurity in his community. His individual trajectory is a good starting point to understand Jat angst.

Bharpoor Singh Jakhar outside his furniture store in Jhajjar town.

The crisis of agriculture

The village of Talao lies three kilometres from Jhajjar town. Jakhad’s father owned 16 acres of land here, which he cultivated with a pair of bullocks that he shared with his neighbour. All four sons helped the father. Jakhar, however, also took out time to study.

Despite the limited resources, the family's income rose steadily through the seventies and eighties. Those were the decades when, like the Patidars in Gujarat, the Jats were at the forefront of an astonishing rise in agricultural productivity. “If Patels led India’s milk revolution, the Jats led the green revolution,” said Himanshu, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But the green revolution model of input-intensive farming ended up yoking the farmers to an increasingly uncertain market. Over the past two decades, the withdrawal of the state and the ascendance of the market has meant that the cost of inputs – seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, diesel for irrigation pumps – has kept climbing, even as government support in purchasing the harvests has declined.

Earlier this year, Haryana witnessed fertiliser riots – farmers queued up for days for subsidised fertiliser; when the stocks did not come, they went on a rampage in some places. “This is the only community that needs to stand in a queue, both when it buys, and when it sells,” said Jakhar.

Exacerbating the crisis is the fragmentation of land holdings. After the death of Jakhar’s father, the family land was divided among his four sons: each got four acres. “He did not even own a pair of bullocks, while each of us owns a tractor and a tubewell,” Jakhar said. Farming is more convenient, but the profits have gone down, since the costs have multiplied.

A group of Jat men sit down for their evening game of cards.

The power of corporations

It is the declining profitability of land that prompted some farmers elsewhere in the district to sell their land to the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance group. In 2005, a group company entered into a joint venture with the state government to set up a Special Economic Zone over 25,000 acres in Jhajjar and Gurgaon. The government contributed 1,383 acres to the project and the company had to buy the rest directly from farmers.

Farmers in Munimpur village said many sold the land under duress. “Those who sold land first were people who were under debt,” said Brahmdev, who sold 4.5 acres of land, “and others like us caved in because we thought if we don’t sell, at some point, the government might acquire the land.” The company paid Rs 22 lakh per acre and promised to give the owner an annuity of Rs 33,000 for 33 years.

But the SEZ eventually never came up – Reliance opted out of the project, returning the 1,383 acres to the state government, citing the withdrawal of financial incentives for SEZs by the Centre and problems in buying land.

By then, the company had bought 7,100 acres in Jhajjar and 1,200 acres in Gurgaon, according to press reports. Recently, it leased two plots of land to the Japanese electronic companies, Panasonic and Denso, which have set up manufacturing units not far from Munimpur. Farmers claim the company leased the land at Rs 2.25 crore per acre – ten times the rate at which it had bought the land from them. While this could not be independently confirmed, the perception among farmers is what matters. They are convinced that power lies in the hands of big corporations, and the government, overtly or covertly, acts in their interests.

Himanshu believes this perceived shift in power is a major source of angst among politically influential communities like the Jats of Haryana, particularly those who live around the national capital, and the Patidars of Gujarat, as well as the Marathas of Maharashtra. "The Oriyas and the Biharis aren't agitating," he said. "It's the landed communities in areas with some of the highest densities of industrialisation and urbanisations who are complaining. That's because they see the ground slipping beneath their feet. They feel they are losing power to corporate India."

The Reliance SEZ has been shelved but the land remains fenced.

Educated and urban

For the Jats, the changes in the political economy have been made more painful by their traditional disdain for education. As Himanshu pointed out, "In the new economy, success is no longer determined by land and assets but by education and skills."

Jakhar was the only one among four brothers, and the sole student in his matriculation class who went beyond high school. Balwant Singh, one of his school friends, recalled that around the time of the final school exams, his father was busy renting out a newly bought thresher. “I would help him every morning before washing up and rushing to school to sit for the exams," he said. "He insisted that work comes first. 'What will you do by studying? Do you want to become a sissy?'"

Anthropologists have written about the contempt that the Jats had for city life. They believed people living in the towns were "gasping, greedy and lacking in dignity", apart from being physically weak, wrote JNU professor Surinder Jodhka, quoting from the research of J Pettigrew published in 1992.

In contrast, Dalits, who felt oppressed by the caste hierarchy of the village, were drawn to the cities. Jodhka, who had studied two villages in Haryana's Karnal district in the late eighties, went back 20 years later and found most Dalits had moved out of agricultural jobs. They picked up daily wage work in the towns, and some even managed to get government jobs aided by the policy of reservations.

In Munimpur village, the Jats spoke resentfully of a Dalit family where all the three brothers had government jobs: in the Border Security Force, the Railways and the Haryana education department.

Realising the importance of education, the Jats are now sending their children to private schools, which call themselves "international" schools. On a stretch of 25 kilometres in Jhajjar, there were three such schools: Akash International, Ganga International and Sehwag International. The last one has been set up by the cricketer Virendra Sehwag on land that was given to him by Silani Kesho village under the impression that he would also open a cricket academy and train their children for free. The academy did not materialise, and the school is prohibitively expensive.

The father of a student in the seventh standard claimed the yearly expenses of sending his child to Sehwag's school came to Rs 2.25 lakh. "This is a heavy investment," he said. "What if the child is not successful? We will go bankrupt." Visibly agitated, he went on to point out the other side-effect of such schools: his child refuses to drink cola from plastic bottles and instead demands expensive cans.

The Sehwag International School in Jhajjar district.

The contagion of consumerism isn't limited to children. The numbers of SUVs in Munimpur village shot up after farmers sold their land to Reliance. "If one brother took his wife to her parents' home in a car, the other bought a bigger one for his wife," said Jakhad.

Ontological anxiety

At the office of the village sarpanch in Talao, a group of morose-looking young Jat men described their recent visit to the Panasonic factory. They went looking for permanent jobs but discovered that the jobs on offer were contractual ones with a monthly wage of Rs 6,000. "They hire outsiders as permanent staff," said Naseeb Ahlawat, a 23-year-old. "They don't want local Jat boys because they think we will create trouble."

A slightly older-looking man listed the expenses incurred on cultivating one acre of land, which came to about Rs 13,000. The output, between 15-20 quintals of wheat, fetched him not more than Rs 22,000, he said. “I earn less than Rs 10,000 over six months.”

“No wonder this brother hasn't been able to marry,” Jakhar interjected. “If young men in the community cannot find brides, isn’t that a form of social backwardness?”
The Jats wouldn't like to dwell on the real reason for the bride shortage: Haryana has the lowest sex ratio in India, and within the state, Jhajjar has the lowest.

But the endemic violence against women has begun to change somewhat, given the changed economic calculus. "The Jats are investing in the education of their daughters in the hope of getting urban sons-in-law who will lift the whole family's fortunes," explained Jodhka. "But what they don't anticipate is that young women would develop a mind of their own." In Talao village, people spoke in hushed tones of two young Jat women who were sent to city colleges to study and ended up having "affairs" and eventually marrying men from outside the community. Such incidents, which are seen by Jat men as an affront to their masculinity, have further eroded their confidence.

Caught in the throes of transition, as much economic as cultural, the Jats are experiencing what Jodhka calls "ontological anxiety", a kind of existential crisis. The community cared little for religion two decades ago but it is now lining up for satsangs. "There's every single sect in the villages, from the Radhasoamis to the Brahmakumaris," he said.

Another manifestation of this anxiety could be the increasing instances of violent attacks by Jats on Dalits and Muslims, as journalist Ajaz Ashraf points out in this piece.

On his part, Jakhar wants to steer his family away from land. His son is a civil engineer, his daughter is a teacher. He's even tried to get his elder brother to help him out with the business. "I asked him to supervise the showroom," he said, referring to his furniture shop, which stocks metal trunks and almirahs. "But he doesn't know how to deal with customers. If they show interest in a product, he simply tells them its price, without bothering to persuade them, or showing them its features. 'This is for Rs 2,000, bhai,'  he says. 'Take it, or move on to the next shop.'"

Used to dictating terms, the Jats are finding it hard to deal with a world that seems to no longer take them.

This is the second part of a series on renewed demands for caste quotas across the country. Read the first part here.