In Haryana, a day of violent protests was crowned by the state government’s promise to introduce legislation that would ensure a quota for Jats under the other backward classes category. Earlier, protests demanding reservations had paralysed the state, blocking roads and rail services, disrupting the supply of essential goods and driving angry crowds to set fire to the house of Abhimanyu Sindhu, a cabinet minister in the state.

In the police firing that followed, three persons were killed and at least nine injured. A curfew has now been imposed on Rohtak and Bhiwani in Haryana, and the army rushed in.

If the Bharatiya Janata Party government had any persuasive reasons for promising the quota other than the pressure of the present moment’s crisis, it did not articulate them.

Demand and promise

Historically, the question of quotas for Jats has been tied to a cycle of violence and political opportunism. In 1999, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised OBC status for Jats in Rajasthan, helping the BJP win a majority of the seats in Rajasthan in the Lok Sabha elections that followed. When the BJP government delivered on this promise, it galvanised Jats in other states. Before the general elections of 2004, various political parties had raised hopes that the demand would be fulfilled. When that did not happen, scattered agitations started across the states.

From 2008, Jat mobilisations grew more cohesive under Chaudhary Yashpal Malik’s Akhil Bhartiya Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti, which led protests and often got into clashes with the police. The years between 2008 and 2014 saw increasingly strident agitations, where trains were halted, bandhs were called and public property was burnt because the quota demand was not being met. It prompted the United Progressive Alliance government to announce, just in time for the 2014 general elections, that OBC quotas for Jats would be introduced in nine states. This in spite of the National Commission for Backward Classes weighing in against the quota. The following month, the Supreme Court quashed the Centre’s order.

Ahead of the Haryana polls in 2014, the freshly minted National Democratic Alliance government had backed the Jat quota before the Supreme Court. But the court followed the NCBC’s recommendation and stayed the reservation.

By now, a pattern has been established. Mobilisations by community leaders have been answered by politicians anxious not to lose a valuable vote bank. When these promises could not be sustained, they led to violent protests, which in turn pressured the administration to assure quotas for the community once again, and so the cycle continues. The current situation would appear to fit into the pattern.

Deprived or dominant?

The Jats in north Indian states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have traditionally been a dominant caste, which prospered through agriculture. As social scientist Surinder S Jodhka points out, they have also been the “superior-most” community in the rural caste hierarchies of these regions, where ritual status was largely determined by the ownership of land. In political institutions, they were well represented.

The Jat sense of marginalisation can perhaps be traced to the transformations wrought by a changing economy, where urban aspirations eroded the old social capital of owning land and commanding rural networks. A new generation of Jats suddenly found themselves educationally backward yet unwilling to work on the land for a livelihood. These insecurities have perhaps contributed to the demand for quotas. But the demand has also been heard because the Jats, an economically and numerically powerful community, have been able to organise themselves in effective ways and put pressure on the governments concerned.

Recent years have seen several agitations launched by groups that are economically and socially dominant as well as politically organised – witness the Gujjars in the Rajasthan and the Patidars in Gujarat. The Marathas, a dominant caste in Maharashtra, were granted a substantial slice of the reserved quota by the state government in 2014, to a hail of protests.

The anxieties that activate such demands need to be examined and addressed. But the promise of reservations should be driven by something more than the cycle of crisis and opportunity. It should satisfy the conditions laid down by a constitutional provision that was meant to correct historical deprivations and inequalities. Otherwise, it becomes a trivial political sop.