It is not often that political meetings in rural India come with history lessons. But as the Jat Sangharsh Samiti and its supporters gathered in Haryana's Jasiya village on Monday to demand quotas in governments jobs and education for members of their caste, speaker after speaker dipped into a glorious Jat past. “Jats fought against the Hunas, Timur, Ahmad Shah Abdali and Aurangzeb,” said speaker Bhim Singh Dalal to vigorous applause. “We have always fought – it’s in our blood. And if we fought then, we can also fight now."

It's a threat the Haryana government is taking seriously. The current round of agitations, conducted under the banner of the Jat Sangharsh Samiti, has seen the administration respond with an overwhelming show of force, flooding the state with police personnel and paramilitary troops.

The government had good reason to be wary. In February, Jat mobs rioted to demand reservations as well as to complain that the ruling party in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was shutting them out of power. The bedlam brought the state to its knees. More than 20 people were killed and property worth around Rs 20,000 crore destroyed.

Now, more than three months after the violence, neither have the Jats received their quotas nor has the BJP moved to placate the community politically. As a result, a section of the Jat leadership, under the umbrella of the All India Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti, decided to restart the agitation on June 5, conducting sit-ins across the state. While the administration’s preparedness has ensured that the current agitation has remained peaceful, with only small numbers of Jats showing up for the protests, the social, political and economic issues that led to the February riots remain unresolved, leading to fears that trouble could erupt again.

Jawans from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police stand guard outside the Sonepat District Collector's office where Jats are protesting for reservations.
Jawans from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police stand guard outside the Sonepat District Collector's office where Jats are protesting for reservations.

The crisis in agriculture

Among the participants of the sit-in at Jasiya in Rohtak district was Manoj Dhaka, 65. He owns 1.5 acres of farmland and is convinced that reservations are the way out for his family. “Already my land is divided between my two sons," Dhaka said. "What will happen when their sons become adults and claim their share? There is no money in farming now and even today my sons get by because they manage to sell the milk from their cows and buffaloes.”

While Jat demands for reservations go back almost three decades, the past few years have seen a particular urgency set in, driven by agrarian distress. Protests in 2012 had forced the Congress government headed by Bhupinder Hooda to push for Jat reservations – but this move was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court. It ruled that Jats were not disadvantaged enough to require affirmative action.

The dominant caste in Haryana, Jats draw their political power from land, working as cultivators in a region that has seen prosperity due to the Green Revolution. Of late, though, a rising population and pressure from real estate has meant that agricultural land has been divvied up into small parcels. Moreover, India’s agriculture has been unable to make significant progress after the Green Revolution. Out-dated cultivation techniques and a lack of farm mechanisation means that Indian agriculture is increasingly a bad business proposition. For instance, the country’s largest crop, rice, has one of the lowest yields in the world at 3,590 kg paddy per hectare, lagging behind neighbours China (6,686 kg/ha), Bangladesh (4,219 kg/ha) and Myanmar (4,081 kg/ha).

It is, therefore, no surprise that dominant agrarian groups across the country – such as the Patels in Gujarat and the Kapus in Andhra – are agitating violently for reservations. In Haryana, specifically, excessive reliance on paddy and wheat has caused soil fertility to be degraded and ground water levels to be depleted at an alarming rate.

Neither of Manoj Dhaka’s sons has studied beyond high school – symptomatic of the general failure of the Jats to use their agricultural prosperity to branch out into white-collar jobs when they had the chance. According to the 2011 KC Gupta Commission, Jats are significantly underrepresented in higher education institutes, forming only 10% of the student body. Jats had 18% of class 1 and class 2 government jobs – considerably less than their 30% population in Haryana.

Manoj Dhaka, 65, is anxious that his land holdings are getting fragmented.
Manoj Dhaka, 65, is anxious that his land holdings are getting fragmented.

BJP’s politics

Adding to these underlying economic issues is the rise of the BJP in the state, driven by non-Jat voters banding together as a reaction to Jat domination. Even as the BJP won a majority on its own in the Assembly in 2014, Jat-dominated constituencies preferred to stick to traditional Jat parties such as the Congress or the Indian National Lok Dal. In February as well as in the current agitation, the BJP’s attitude towards the Jats has been as important an issue as reservations itself.

Thirty per cent of Haryana is Jat and they dominate the state politically: since the creation of the state in 1966, seven of out 10 of the state’s chief ministers have been from the caste. The fact Haryana’s dominant caste is estranged from the ruling party is a recipe for fireworks.

The BJP, on its part, has made no overtures to the Jats since it won the Assembly election in 2014. Propelled to power by a rainbow coalition of non-Jat castes, the BJP proceeded to make Manohar Lal Khattar the chief minister. Khattar is a Punjabi whose family migrated to Haryana during Partition from what is now Pakistan. In Haryana’s highly casteist political environment, making a Punjabi the chief minister was seen as an especially strong snub to the Jats. It is significant that Khattar is the first non-Jat chief minister in nearly two decades.

Even more caste politics was to follow after the BJP’s election victory. Raj Kumar Saini, a BJP parliamentarian from Haryana, went on to make a series of provocative statements about the Jats after Khattar took office – a move widely seen as being endorsed by the BJP. During the February agitation, Jat leaders demanded action against Ram Kumar Saini. In the riots that followed, Jat rioters targeted shops and homes belonging to the Saini caste.

A matter of honour

At the Rohtak sit-in, Ramdas Hudda, 43, was clear about why he was there. “Reservation is an issue but it’s not the main one," he said. "The main point is our ijjat, honour. Jats guard India’s borders, give their lives for the country – how can a member of parliament abuse them openly like this?”

In Sonepat, Jats had gathered to protest outside the District Collector’s office – the only urban venue in the current agitation (rural areas have been chosen to reduce the chance of conflict). Rajesh Dahiya, Sonepat president of the Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti was clear that Rak Kumar Saini is a major driver of conflict. “We want a case of sedition against Saini,” he said.

The Khattar government has used the draconian sedition law liberally to crack down on Jat protestors and even slapped a sedition case against the Jat Sangharsh Samiti chief, Yashpal Malik. “Saini challenged us, said we wouldn’t be able to block Delhi," said Dahiya. "But we did – we cut off the water and blockaded GT Road."

Another Jat Sangharsh Samiti leader in Sonepat Surendar Chhikara warned that the number of protestors might be small now but the situation could turn volatile any time. “The leaders who do not support this agitation will be rejected,” claimed Chhikara. “This is a kranti, revolution. The BJP government’s attitude has ensured that it’s do or die for the Jats now."

Jat consciousness

The sociological aspect of the current agitation – with Jats ranging themselves against other castes such as the Sainis– is one thing that sets this situation apart from, say, the Patel agitation in Gujarat. The Jats are a remarkably well-organised community, a fact that was responsible for the scale of violence in February. Large sections of the Haryana administration did not act against the rioters out of caste solidarity. At the Jasiya sit-in, speakers frequently refer to the “Jat quom”, the Jat community, with a force rarely found among Indian castes.

Even more uniquely, there are attempts to recall a shared Jat history. Many speakers, including Rohtak district’s Jat Sangharsh Samiti president Ashok Bilara, brought up Sir Chhotu Ram, the most prominent colonial-era Jat leader in the territory that was then united Punjab. “Jats have always lived in peace with other communities,” Bilara said, going on to display a remarkable attempt to connect the present agitation to pre-1947 Punjab politics and give it historical depth. "We formed the Unionist party in united Punjab with the Muslims. The premier of Punjab Khizr Hayat called Chhotu Ram 'chacha', uncle even in the Assembly." Behind the stage set up for the speaker hang posters of Chhotu Ram as well as Bhagat Singh, also a Jat.

This extraordinary Jat consciousness means that the community spans state boundaries in its politics. The leader of this agitation, Yashpal Malik, is actually from Uttar Pradesh. It is quite possible that this current round of Jat ferment could spill over into states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab with the demand that Jats be awarded Other Backward Classes status by the Union government.

A poster at Jasiya, Rohtak with photos of the Jats killed by the police in the February agitation along with Chhotu Ram and Bhagat Singh.
A poster at Jasiya, Rohtak with photos of the Jats killed by the police in the February agitation along with Chhotu Ram and Bhagat Singh.

Warning signs for agriculture

Even after the February riots, the BJP has made almost no moves to placate the Jats politically. The Khattar government did pass legislation in March providing for Jat reservation but this was stayed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court on May 26. This tepid move, however, failed to impress. “We want them to put Jat reservations into the ninth schedule so that the courts can’t strike them down,” said Jat Sangharsh Samiti leader Ashok Bilara. “Passing these bills is simply an eyewash and the Jats won’t be fooled by the BJP like this.”

The BJP’s strategy rests on the so-called 35 biradri alliance of non-Jat castes being polarised in opposition to the 36th biradri, the Jats. This has served the party well so far. In the May municipal elections held in Jhajjar, a traditional Jat belt, only one of the 19 seats was won by a Jat candidate. Of course, how long this 35 biradri alliance will last remains to be seen, given that other than being opposed to Jats, there is nothing to unite these disparate castes.

Apart from minute politicking, the Jat riots of 2016 hold a harsh mirror to agrarian distress in India, which is being felt most acutely by the severely disempowered Shudra and Dalit castes. If the crisis is even hurting Haryana’s prosperous Jats, one can only imagine how bad the situation is for India's farm sector.