Former Union Minister and diplomat Ajay Singh is the president of the All India Jat Mahasabha. He watched at close quarters how the Union government’s decision to introduce reservation in jobs for Other Backward Classes triggered a crisis of identity for Jats. In this interview with, he discusses the Hinduisation of Jats, why they are upset with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and what it could mean for the party’s prospects in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. Excerpts:

In Haryana, the BJP appears to be stacking different social groups against Jats and turning the political battle there as one between Jats and non-Jats. In Uttar Pradesh, Jats appear to have emerged as the BJP’s muscular arm. How do we explain this contradictory relationship between the BJP and Jats?
Basically, Jats are not communal. In western UP, for instance, Muslim Jats are known as Muley Jats. Their social customs are similar to [Hindu] Jats, both are farming communities. Both voted for the Congress earlier, but the emergence of [former Prime Minister] Charan Singh [who broke away from the Congress] brought both together to his camp. He emphasised the peasant identity and united what is called the middle peasantry. In the 1980 election, Charan Singh lost, but 30 of his party’s 40 MPs were Muslim. He fielded Muslim candidates from constituencies where the community was numerous – and Jats too voted for them.

In 2013, the BJP communalised Jats through the Muzaffarnagar riots. This continued till the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Now they have nearly created a civil war-like situation in Kairana [with BJP MPs talking of an exodus of Hindus]. The Muslims there are well-off peasants and possess retaliatory power, which they don’t in cities.

What about Haryana?
I blame Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar for what happened to Jats in Haryana. I don’t know whether Khattar was part of the conspiracy, but the BJP let loose its little-known MP from Kurukshetra, Raj Kumar Saini, who initiated an abusive and confrontationist campaign against the Jats when they launched their anti-reservation stir. He took to talking about Jats versus the rest.

Such slogans hadn’t been coined before. There may have been a rivalry between Punjabis and Jats. But this was partly because Punjabis were traders and Jats were farmers. There may have also been a divide between newcomers [refugees from Pakistan] and sons of the soil as well. But there never was Jats versus other communities – like Yadavs, Gujjars.

Again, the agitation for reservation has been going on ever since the Mandal report was implemented. But this time there was provocation. It began with an attack on students sitting outside Gate number 2 of Rohtak University. Saini had created an OBC [Other Backward Classes] Sena. There was police firing.

Isn’t it an irony that Jats in Haryana are against the BJP, but those in Uttar Pradesh will most likely vote for the BJP?
Jats are not going to vote for the BJP in UP in 2017. The Jats of UP and those of Haryana are the same. There is only the Yamuna that divides them. The Jats of Haryana will campaign against the BJP in UP. They are going to take photographs of Jat youths killed in police firing. It is going to be a major movement. This has been decided at the village-level. They are all waiting for the election date to be announced. Obviously, the BJP will try to communalise the election, but you can’t play the same card over and over again.

What has led to the Hinduisation of Jats? After all, it is one thing to communalise a community, quite another for the community to become communalised.
There emerged a gap in Jat politics after the demise of Charan Singh. That gap was filled by three people – Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal [Haryana], peasant leader [Mahendra Singh] Tikait in UP, and overall, by Prime Minister VP Singh, who in the late eighties captured the imagination of Jats. VP Singh took over Charan Singh’s base. The Janata Dal largely consisted of Charan Singh’s people.

You mean to say those who belonged to the Lok Dal, which was Charan Singh’s party?
Yes. The Janata Dal ministry had a maximum number of Jats ever – there were six, including me as deputy minister. But the problem emerged because of the Janata Dal government’s decision to implement the Mandal recommendation [that granted 27% reservation to Other Backward Classes in Central government jobs] in a disorganised manner.

Are you saying that the reservation issue triggered a crisis of identity for Jats?
Yes. For one, Jats hadn’t been keen on reservation. For them, to be included in the Backward Classes implied a downgrading of their status. This consciousness was no less because Charan Singh was very anti-caste. As chief minister of UP, he issued an order that any institution with a caste name will not receive government funds. So Jat Vedic College, Rajput College etc. – they all had to change their names. He was against being labeled as Jat, not least because he believed he had been circumscribed because of his caste.

However, Jats did get very agitated when they realised the Mandal report did not include them in the reservation pool.
Mandal had to be implemented because it was there in the Janata Dal’s manifesto. When the Janata Dal came to power in December 1989, [socialist leader] Madhu Limaye sent for me in January. He said he was keen on the implementation of Mandal, but was worried about a serious flaw in it. He said the Mandal report had left out Jats from the pool of social groups that were to get reservation. Limaye said Jats were left out because BP Mandal, mistakenly or otherwise, surveyed Jats in Bharatpur and Patiala [which were both Jat princely states]. The Jats at these two places said they were not backward, that they were Rajput, which prompted Mandal to exclude them from the reservation pool.

Limaye said the flaw had to be rectified or otherwise the government would collapse. As I was parliamentary secretary, I told VP Singh about what Limaye had pointed out. Singh accepted Limaye’s proposal to establish a three-member subcommittee to go into the shortcomings, if any, of the Mandal report. Devi Lal was made its chairman.

But even as this process was underway, the party [Janata Dal] began to crack up. This was because of the Meham incident [After Devi Lal became Deputy Prime Minister, he was succeeded as Haryana chief minister by his son Om Prakash Chautala. In a byelection, Chautala stood from Meham, Rohtak, but poll violence led to the countermanding of the election and VP Singh ultimately had to remove Chautala as chief minister. It earned Singh the enmity of Devi Lal.]

Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav were all pro-Devi Lal. But Sharad Yadav and, to an extent, Ram Vilas Paswan convinced VP Singh that the only way to surmount Devi Lal’s challenge was to implement the Mandal report. Neither Mulayam nor Lalu will then join Lal.

It made sense to VP Singh, who implemented the Mandal report. Except for Ajit Singh and me, all Jat leaders became anti-Mandal. Devi Lal led the charge. There were two aspects of the identity crisis – Jats weren’t to get reservation benefits; they believed there was a plan afoot to marginalise Devi Lal – and, therefore, Jats. Till then, they had believed they were part of the power structure. This is from where their crisis of identity began.

So it was because of Mandal that Jats began to think of themselves as backwards or part of Other Backward Classes. From the time Ramji Lal Hooda joined the Arya Samaj in late 19th century, Jats took to claiming Kshatriya status and even underwent Shuddhi [purification] ceremony? [Hooda was a medical practitioner who used to organise Jat Sabhas.]
Yes, but it was also because they were recruited in large numbers in the Army. The three districts that sent the maximum number of Jats into the Indian Army post-Independence were Jhunjhunu, Rohtak and Alwar. But for Alwar, a Yadav belt, the two were Jat-dominated. Prior to 1857, the British Army recruited largely from East UP and Bihar. However, in 1857, the area in and around Delhi erupted in total revolt. It was then that the British realised the importance of Jats and began recruiting them in the Army. It started in the 1860s.

By World War I, a huge number of Jats fought in Europe and elsewhere. It was from here that the modernisation of Jats started. They had seen the world and they wanted education for their children. It was their children who constituted the first generation of doctors, engineers, scientists and teachers.

So we see two contradictory forces working on Jats around this time. There was the influence of Arya Samaj, which sought to Hinduise them. There was also the impulse of modernity triggered by World War I.
But the Arya Samaj also emphasised on education. It motivated Jats to take to education, not only for men but also women. Prior to World War I, there were very few educated Jats.

What about Chhotu Ram?
He belonged to the pre-World War I generation. He was from Rohtak, did law, went to St Stephen’s College, and edited the college magazine. The generation of Chhotu Ram took to education because of the Arya Samaj’s influence.

But he broke away from the politics of Arya Samaj, didn’t he? Chhotu Ram emphasised the peasant identity instead of the Hindu religious identity.
The Arya Samaj spread very rapidly, but at the turn of the last century, it became, particularly in Punjab, a very militant Hindu organisation. That put off a lot of people. People like Chhotu Ram emphasised rural interests, as Charan Singh was to do later in UP.

In undivided Punjab, Chhotu Ram and Mian-Fazl-Husain formed the Nationalist Union Party. It emerged as a formidable force in Punjab. Did Partition and the migration of Muslims, particularly the big landowners, to Pakistan have an impact on Jats?
Of course, it did. Chhotu Ram was the backbone of the Unionist party. When he died in 1942, it became easier for the Muslim League and the British colonial power to divide Punjab. In undivided Punjab, the large majority of people who had converted to Islam were Jats. They went to Pakistan and the Jat community was reduced in numbers. The feeling of community solidarity was weakened also because of Hindu-Muslim riots in certain areas of West UP. For instance, the so-called royalty of Mathura undertook religious cleansing of Meo Muslims in western UP. Their land the Jats took over.

The Jat solidarity was also weakened in other ways. For instance, in Rajasthan there are 100 seats, which are either Jat-dominated or Jat-majority constituencies. But there has never been a Jat chief minister.

Why has this happened?
As a kid I would go to Rajasthan and I remember Rajputs sitting on the charpoy and Jats sitting on the floor. It took Jats decades to develop confidence.

Do you think their confidence grew when Haryana was carved out of Punjab?
Again, in Haryana, the initial chief ministers were all non-Jat. It was with the rise of Devi Lal that Jats developed confidence. The Green Revolution gave Jats economic prosperity and they sought to assert their clout both politically and socially.

But post-liberalisation, new social forces are emerging and perhaps there are new categories of political mobilisation that are available.
Definitely. With rapid urbanisation, a new breed of peasant community has come up. The value of their land has gone up. They have sold their land or it has been acquired. They have a lot of cash, and they don’t know what to do with it. Then television and social media have changed the aspirations of the younger generation. So you have lunatics driving BMWs, but they don’t know how to change gears!

It has added to the confusion of Jats, reflected, till two years ago, in the firmans issued by khap panchayats. For instance, they would say boys misbehave because they have started to eat chowmein. Or that girls shouldn’t be given mobiles or wear jeans. Or a father saying he would kill his daughter instead of letting her marry outside caste. The younger generation doesn’t give two hoots for such concerns.

But there is also the pressure of agrarian distress arising from the fragmentation of land.
Agriculture is no longer profitable. Jats have to go into other professions.

Can reservation be the panacea? After all, how many people will get jobs through affirmative action?
Social or political movement is based on perception rather than reality. Jats, for instance, believe others are getting jobs, not their children.

So, in a sense, jealousy and rivalry have incited Jats as they see social groups lower than themselves progressing?
I’d say it leads them to feel a sense of deprivation.

But isn’t there a leadership issue here as well?
This feeling of deprivation has indeed coincided with the decimation of Jat leaders. Today, they don’t see any Jat leader around.

Not even Ajit Singh?
Least of all Ajit Singh. I am a student of history, but I have never seen a son squander his father’s [Charan Singh’s] legacy so rapidly and so totally. Devi Lal is not around, [former Congress chief minister Bhupinder Singh] Hooda has run his course, and Chautala…

He is mostly in jail.
Yes, as is his son. Today, 65% of voters today are below 35. What can Chautala speak to them? (Laughs)

As Jat Mahasabha president, how do you respond to the stereotype of Jats being inclined to violence? Do you think this has also become a self-image of Jats?
There is this perception of Jats being a little dumb. Of late, though, the image of Jat being a violent fellow is because of the civil war in Haryana.

Why, what about the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013?
That was between Jats and Muley Jats. But the national image of Jats being violent is because of the reservation stir in Haryana. Before that the image was of a dumb peasant.

But he was seen as a brawny peasant? I have been in Delhi…
For people in Delhi, everyone in Haryana is a Jat, especially if he is well built, regardless of whether the person is a Gujjar or Bania or Yadav. Former cricketer Kapil Dev, for instance, was for long considered a Jat. There was and is a media bias here. In rural India, Jats aren’t the only brawny ones. It is more about who has the numbers.

Is there an upper caste bias?
Jats have been stereotyped as dumb and violent because of an urban, upper caste bias.

What about Dalits? There have been so many instances of Jats perpetrating violence against Dalits.
In pre-Independence India, Jats did not oppress Dalits to the extent the latter were in South India. This was because both communities were inter-dependent.

Why has the Jat-Dalit relationship become so volatile now?
It began with reservation after Independence.

Isn’t this because of land relations?
Earlier, there was the zamindari system – and all were equally exploited. The tension between Dalits and Jats began in the 1960s – and that was deliberately created to check Charan Singh’s rise. It was to portray him as anti-Dalit. The upper caste didn’t want him to come to power. Then there was also the rivalry between Scheduled Caste leader Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh.

No, what about the violence directed against Dalits? We have had innumerable incidents in the recent past.
It started in the 1980s and 1990s. The Raja of Bharatpur named Chamars as Jatavs and said Jats and Jatavs are bhai-bhai [brothers]. Chautala, too, said that Jats and Jatavs are brothers.

So what turned Jats against Dalits?
One factor is the emergence of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.

Aren’t Jats at fault?
Of course, they are. But there is also a sense of deprivation that reservation has bred in them. There is a lovely book, Time Pass [Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India], whose author Craig Jeffrey shows how Jats became unemployed and unemployable. Job opportunities were not there, they weren’t habituated to studying, and politics became the only avenue for social-political mobility. When that happens, pathologies creep in.

I will give you an example from my own parliamentary constituency of Agra, where I won in 1989. There was a Jat politician who had killed three people in broad daylight. He was out on bail, and after I became minister, he was after me to get him an Assembly ticket. I wasn’t willing. So what he did was to create a Jat-Jatav rift in his village of Panwari. The Jats stopped a Jatav bridegroom’s marriage procession because he was riding a horse. It had never happened before.

Both Jats and Jatavs took to rioting. I rushed to Panwari village, and also quit the following day. I then summoned a panchayati of Chahar Jats, the gotra [clan] to which I belong, and had them promise not to prevent Jatavs from riding the horse. Then Mandal was implemented. In the next elections, Jats went around saying that I had shed tears for Jatavs, but hadn’t come to visit them when they were incarcerated. I lost their votes. The Jatavs said I was a nice person but accused my community of violence. I lost their votes. And the person who had stopped the marriage procession went on to become an MLA. So there you are, Jats are very, very strong-headed.

You too are stereotyping them.
I say this because you can’t have a Jat panchayat without a danga [rioting].

Exactly, so Jats do indeed have a self-image of…
Of course, the Jat’s self-image is that he is independent and no less than anybody and a very proud person. But if he feels insulted and demeaned, then God help you.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.