Several dozen Gujjar men sat huddled together by the railway tracks near Malarna station in Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur, braving the cold Tuesday night with a small fire, a few blankets and copious amounts of hot tea. They were winding down their fifth straight day of protest, blocking this rail line connecting Delhi and Mumbai to press their demand for 5% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions under the Special Backward Classes category.

Just past 9 pm, as some of the protestors prepared to sleep in makeshift tents erected on the tracks, a few gathered around the fire and began singing in the Rajasthani folk style: “Colonel Bainslo ko faislo patri pe howogo re.” Bainsala will settle it on the tracks, they sang.

They were referring to their leader Kirori Singh Bainsala’s decision not to hold talks with Ashok Gehlot’s Congress government. The 85-year-old former soldier had left the protest about an hour earlier but his son was around.

“I don’t see a reason for holding talks with the government given that it is they who have to pass a resolution in the Assembly,” argued Vijay Bainsala, who is said to be strategising on his father’s behalf. “The government has to look at the modalities, not us. They either accept our demands or come here and apologise for betraying the Gujjars.”

The allegation of betrayal was directed particularly at Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot. The protestors said while campaigning in Karauli for last year’s election, Pilot promised 5% reservation for the Gujjars if the Congress won. His party’s manifesto too promised reservation for the Gujjars as well as the Gadia Luhar, Banjara and Raika communities.

Nearly a month after the Congress took office in mid-December, Bainsala gave it 20 days to start the process for granting a quota to the Gujjars. His deadline ended on February 8 and he immediately launched the agitation.

Old agitation

This, though, is not the first time Bainsala and his supporters have blocked railway tracks. In 2006, they removed the train tracks at Hindaun in Karauli demanding that the community be included among the Scheduled Tribes. A similar agitation the next year turned violent, leading to the killing of 26 protestors in police firing.

Reacting to the public outcry over the killings, the Rajasthan government set up a committee under Justice Jasraj Chopra to examine the Gujjars’ demand for inclusion among the Scheduled Tribes. The panel rejected the demand, however, reasoning the community was already covered under the quota for the Other Backward Classes which is 21% in Rajasthan. Instead, it suggested a special package for the community.

Once his demand for Scheduled Tribes status was rejected, Bainsala started pushing for 5% reservation under the Special Backward Classes category.

Gujjar protestors near Malarna station in Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

In 2008, the Gujjars launched a “rail roko” agitation, which turned violent and left dead 36 people, including a policeman. In 2010, following talks with Bainsala, Gehlot’s last government provided 1% reservation for the Gujjars. It could not provide a larger quota, the government said, for that would breach the 50% ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court. Still, the Gujjars once again blacked rail tracks in 2015. This time, however, the protests passed off peacefully.

A few months later, Vasundhara Raje’s Bharatiya Janata Party government introduced the Rajasthan Special Backward Classes Reservation Act, 2015, paving the way for 5% quota for the Gujjars. But the legislation was struck down by the Rajasthan High Court on the grounds that it exceeded the 50% ceiling.

In 2017, the Raje government made another attempt to mollify the Gujjars, bringing a Bill to hike the Other Backward Classes quota from 21% to 26%. This too was rejected by the High Court.

Deflecting blame?

Haven’t the High Court’s rulings made it difficult for Rajasthan to grant the Gujjars 5% reservation? Vijay Bainsala pointed out that the Centre recently breached the 50% ceiling by giving 10% reservation to economically weaker sections among the upper castes.

“The 10% quota was implemented within a week. Why can’t this be done?” asked Shailendra Singh, general secretary of the Gujjar Aarakshan Sangarh Samiti, which is organisaing the ongoing agitation. “The government made this promise to our community and they should honour it. The Centre thinks anyone earning up to Rs 8 lakh deserves reservation. By that logic, the Gujjars deserve to get our share. If 10% quota was passed without any opposition, then this should also see no opposition.”

Gehlot, on the other hand, has insisted that the state government cannot grant reservation to the Gujjars, only the Centre can. “Our government is ready to help them,” he was quoted as saying by ANI. “They need to voice their demands to the Centre, it is up to the Centre what decision they take.”

Congress leaders said the Gehlot government could now pass a resolution in the Assembly urging the Centre to facilitate reservation for the Gujjars.

Gujjars stage a protest in Sawai Madhopur. Photo credit: PTI

Gehlot has repeatedly invited the protestors for talks to resolve the crisis. But Bainsala has rejected his offer.

“The Congress should remember that of their 99 seats they won nine in the Sawai Madhopur region alone because of the support of the Gujjars, and without those seats they wouldn’t have come to power,” said Jagat Singh Gujjar, who has been camping at Malarna for the last four days. “If we can make them win, we can make them lose as well. The Lok Sabha election is just months away and the Congress should tread cautiously.”

Political fallout

Many of the protestors spoke to at Malarna pointed fingers at Pilot. “Since he spoke about reservation in Karauli, he has not uttered a word on the agitation,”said one protestor who would not give his name.

While Gehlot has put the ball in the Centre’s court, Pilot has not made his position clear. For this reason, Pilot’s image among the Gujjars has taken a beating, argued Om Saini, a political commentator based in Jaipur, adding that the Gujjar vote can decide the fate of up to 40 Assembly seats. “If you listen to the statements made by these Gujjar leaders, particularly Vijay, they are only targeting Sachin and that could be damaging for him and the party.”

If the Gehlot government does pass a resolution in the Assembly, Saini said, it will put the BJP in a tight corner. The Congress would then deflect any blame onto Narendra Modi. “It would be interesting to see how the BJP government deals with this,” Saini added. “If they agree, it could open a Pandora’s box with other castes making similar demands. If it does not, Gujjars would continue to protest.”

The BJP, however, claimed “the issue has nothing to do with our party” since it was a promise made by the Congress in its election manifesto. “If they have promised it, they should answer how they will implement it,” said Bhajanlal Sharma, the party’s state general secretary.

Asked how the saffron party would respond if Gehlot passes the resolution, Sharma said, “The Congress made that promise and they should know how to go about implementing it. Did they say in their manifesto the onus would be on the central government to pass it?”

Meanwhile, the protests are spreading across Rajasthan, forcing the diversion or cancellation of several trains. On Wednesday, the protestors also blocked a few highways.

At Malarna, the protestors said they are in for the long haul. “That place at Malarna is perfect for them,” said a policeman who asked not be identified. “They are on a higher ground with unlimited access to rocks on the railway tracks. They are surrounded by agricultural fields and villages dominated by the Gujjar which will make it harder for the police to disperse them.”

Indeed, women from nearby Gujjar villages are ensuring the protestors have enough food and tea. With bonfires and tea to keep them warm and folk songs to keep spirits high, there seems to be no reason for these men to leave. However, it remains to be seen what their leaders would do if the government passed a resolution. “We have not thought of it as yet,” said Vijay Bainsala. “Let them bring it and then we will decide the way forward.”

Also read: What justifies an arbitrary 50% cap on reservations – when upper caste numbers are much smaller?

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