With Haryana on the boil amid violent protests by Jats seeking reservations in government jobs, the army was called in over the weekend to take control of the situation in several districts. Some of the worst-affected areas witnessed an unusual spectacle: marching columns bearing placards with the word “Army” written in bold red letters.

Several factors prompted this action, starting with the Haryana Police’s poor handling of events. Sections of the force were indifferent, even complicit, in dealing with the rampaging mobs. The lower rungs of the force in particular failed to act, leading to the vandalism and torching of buses, bridges, government buildings and public property in several areas.

As the police looked the other way, agitating Jats used earth movers and other heavy machinery to dig up roads and cripple the movement of vehicles, apart from sitting on railway tracks to block trains. Protesters also looted showrooms and shops, while lathi-wielding mobs allegedly beat up members of other communities and targeted their homes.

Making a statement

All this happened under the watch of the Haryana Police. The middle and junior levels of the force are dominated by the Jat community, largely facilitated by successive Jat chief ministers who have governed the state for most of its existence – including an uninterrupted run of nearly two decades before Manohar Lal Khattar took over in 2014.

The community constitutes only a third of the state’s population, but successive regimes have been generous in signing up Jats for police and government jobs. As violence flared over the past week, Jat representatives in the police force failed to rein in the situation

According to senior army officers, this was perhaps the first time ever that the army had to identify itself by holding placards. The idea was to give a clear signal that its personnel meant business and the force would not look the other way if miscreants attempted to breach the peace.

But officers also pointed to the trend of personnel belonging to security agencies, including some private security firms, donning uniforms similar to those of the army. The army officers said that battle fatigues should be reserved only for the army.

What's different?

But the violence over the past week also begs the bigger question about why the situation went out of control. The Jats have been demanding reservation in government jobs for a long time, despite the community being comparatively well-off. It is no coincidence that the protests take place every year around the same time – this is when the Jats are not occupied with agricultural work.

Successive Jat chief ministers had been able to contain the damage with a combination of tact and grassroots support. But this time has been different.

Former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a Jat, announced reservations for the community in 2014, the final year of his decade-long reign. However, lower courts quashed the orders and the matter is currently pending in the Supreme Court.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party won the state assembly elections in 2014, first-time legislator Manohar Lal Khattar was made the chief minister. Khattar belongs to the minority Punjabi community. Apart from being a non-Jat leader, he has faced the added disadvantage of a paucity of BJP cadres at the grassroots , thus making it difficult to keep the agitating Jats under control.

Nursing ambitions of their own, Jat leaders in the BJP have also proved to be uncooperative. They intervened in the current crisis only after the central government stepped in following the escalation of violence in the state.

Trouble in the making

Another factor is that the Jats’ demand to be included in the list of Other Backward Classes does not sit well with other communities currently in the category, who fear the dilution of their own stake in reservation quota. The Jats in Haryana have refused admission to other special categories including Economically Weaker Sections. To make their case, they have cited neighbouring states, where Jats have been accommodated in the OBC category.

Now, with chief minister Khattar committing to introducing a legislation that would include Jats as a special category within the OBC category, other members of the grouping are threatening to launch a counter agitation.

Raj Kumar Saini, a BJP MP from the state who belongs to the OBC category, has openly declared that inclusion of Jats in the category would be stoutly opposed, a development that may spell further trouble for the Khattar government.