Two agitations have dominated the news recently. Though both shared space (the National Capital Region of Delhi) and time (mid-February 2016), they were quite unlike each another. The agitation sparked by the government’s heavy-handed interference in Jawaharlal Nehru University has seemed worlds apart from the parochial demands of the Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti.
Here are some of the differences between them.
1. Gender politics
Look at any photograph of the agitations against government interference in JNU, and you will see large numbers of both men and women. Contrary to the received wisdom that women don’t have public presence, these photographs demonstrate that women can and will come out in droves to agitate for the rights of the persecuted.
Photographic evidence of the Jat agitation, in contrast, shows only men, men, and more men: hurling abuses and stones, assaulting people, and blocking roads. Adhering to the worst stereotypes of masculinity, these men seem to be in the service of public violence.
The agitations against the arrests for sedition in JNU have remained completely non-violent. Slogans, songs, posters and strong presence have spoken volumes for the politics of these agitators.
The Jat agitation differs in that it started out as violent and remained so throughout. The Army was called out within hours of its beginning, and so far, news reports say, 16 people have been killed and 150 injured. Over eight railway stations have been torched, and several dhabas, banks and vehicles vandalised.
3. Structural analysis
The JNU agitation has, from the beginning, offered a structural analysis of the violence experienced across marginalised communities in the country. In response to the arrests for sedition, the JNU faculty has been giving lectures on the question of nationalism. Issues of critical thinking have been at the forefront as a way of countering state and majoritarian violence. What can we learn from what has happened, and how can we start thinking about it? These questions have been framing the JNU protests. So even as the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU president, catalysed the protest, the protest itself is about oppressions faced by minorities around the country – women, Muslims, Dalits, Maoists, Kashmiris, Christians, students, thinkers, those who dare to dissent.
The Jat agitation, on the other hand, is claustrophobically focused on the self and its immediate tribe. There are no questions being asked, only a demand for affirmation of what the self thinks it deserves.
This emphasis on a structural analysis versus narrow parochialism stands, finally, as the single biggest distinction between the JNU and Jat agitations. The JNU protests have incessantly reached out across borders. Just look at the speech of Kanhaiya Kumar delivered on February 11:
“On behalf of JNU, I want to challenge RSS ideologues. Call us and hold a debate. We want to debate the concept of violence. We want to raise questions about the frenzied ABVP’s slogans, their slogan that they will do tilak with blood and aarti with bullets. Whose blood do they want to spill? They aligned with the British and fired bullets on the freedom fighters of this country. They fired bullets when poor people demanded bread; they fired bullets when people dying of hunger talked about their rights; they have fired bullets on Muslims; they have fired bullets on women when they demand equal rights.
They say that five fingers are not equal. They advocate that women should emulate Sita and give agnipariksha. There is democracy in this country, and democracy gives equal rights to all – be it a student, a worker, the poor or the rich, Ambani or Adani. And when we talk about equal rights of women, they accuse us of destroying Indian culture.”
The JNU protest speaks to a kind of universalism in which the struggle of one is the struggle of all because it is the struggle of freedom for all. If one person is persecuted for sedition, then we are all potentially at risk. If one of us is not allowed to study, then we are all plunged into ignorance. If one of us is raped, then we have all been violated. Kanhaiya Kumar speaks of these struggles within a history of struggle. Such is the universalism of the JNU protests.
The Jat protest, on the other hand, has closed ranks: their demands are for Jats alone. They too want a piece of the reservations pie, and they want it now. There is no sense of a larger collective that needs to be pulled out of the pit of social inequality. There is very little reference to structures that militate against equality across castes and classes and gender. And there is no mention of a historical struggle against oppression.
This article was meant to separate the Jat agitators from the JNU protestors. But what might happen if we were to take Kanhaiya Kumar’s challenge seriously, and think structurally? In this light, one might see overlaps in the rhetoric used by both sets of protesters. A Scroll.in report quotes a village mukhiya saying that Jats had been termed crazy terrorists by the government, “so now, the young boys have responded with a ‘we will show you what terror means’”.
In addition to dealing with a similar form of pre-emptive stereotyping by the government, the Jats too straddle different social classes, with the land rich farmers struggling against industries. Many of the Jat farmers had sold their land to the government in the 1960s, but the industries built on that land hire migrant rather than local labourers because it is cheaper to do so. “The factories refuse to hire our children locally, and the government will take no action against industries for their illegalities,” said Balwan Singh, an elderly farmer. “Between the two, we can only try to take on the government.”
Besides agitating against these outcomes of capitalistic zeal, Jats also seem to address the environment: farmers have been trying for years to mitigate the effect of factory effluents on the water and soil. According to Ashok Rathi, a Jat farmer, big factories “burn oil waste to melt glass instead of cleaner fuel like gas,” and market compulsions seem to militate against any change in this regard. Such pollution has diminished farm yield and therefore the farmers’ ability to live off the land.
These statements point in the direction of a structural analysis of governmental heavy-handedness and capitalistic corruption. What would happen, then, if the Jats joined the JNU agitators? If a seemingly urban (though Kanhaiya Kumar is from rural India) and a seemingly rural (though many of the Jat youth have been educated in cities) agitation could came together to paint a larger canvas than the Jats currently are doing?
What would happen is that our agitations would get bigger, not smaller. And we would never forget that oppression involves us all.
Madhavi Menon is Professor of English at Ashoka University.