In a pale blue salwar-kameez, her head and face covered with her dupatta, the speaker at the Jat Nyaya Dharna tells the audience about the “false promises” made by the Haryana government. “Jat ki chhaati itni chaudi hai, woh desh ki suraksha ke liye goli bhi kha sakta hai (A Jat is so brave he can take bullets to keep the country safe), he can make sacrifices for the rights of his community, he can make sacrifices for his fields, for his family…” the woman says, citing the example of Major Satish Dahiya from Narnaul, who died battling militants in Kashmir on February 14.
Watch what else is making news:
Haryana’s Jat community is once again in agitation mode, renewing last year’s stir that ended after days of violence. Unlike last year, the protests have remained peaceful this time round. Unlike last year, women are the unlikely foot soldiers of this year’s agitation.
Thousands of women are being mobilised across Haryana ahead of dharnas in all districts to mark Balidan Divas or the ‘day of sacrifice’ on Sunday in protest against the deaths of 21 Jats who were among 30 killed in last year’s protests. Jassia had no casualties in last year’s protests, though a youth from these parts was injured in police firing.
“Those women who come here are the true daughters of Bharat Mata. Bring your families, your parents,” the woman speaker on the stage declares, asking women to gather in “lakhs” on February 19.
In the cheering and applauding audience are hundreds of women, heads and faces veiled, sitting on dhurries placed on the uneven ground. They are seated in the front. The men bring up the rows behind the women.
As she gets off the stage after rounding off her speech with an inspirational rhyme on Jat icon Sir Chhotu Ram, women, old and young, reach out to shake her hands, pat her head, with the blessing: “May you live long”.
With the issue of reservations for Jats before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the demands this year are not so much about quotas as they are for “justice” for the community: withdrawal of cases of murder and attempt to murder against last year’s protesters, release of 58 protesters from jail and a job for every family that lost a member during the agitation. In their speeches, the protesters have also been targeting the Khattar-led BJP government in the state, a move aimed at mobilising the community ahead of the 2019 Assembly elections.
Women say they are participating in the protests to ensure the “safety” of their menfolk. “We are peaceful people. You can see how men and women are sitting here without any issues. We are not the ones to start any violence. But if there is any violence against us, we will be here to protect our children,” says Meena Makroli, the woman speaker, tells The Sunday Express. “Women are joining the protests to make sure that what happened last year to our boys does not happen again. We are here for their safety,” she says.
The 38-year-old has an MSc in Computer Science, a B.Ed degree and is trained to be a stenographer, but, she says, “no one gave me a job”. She says she heads a “women’s committee” in her village Makroli near Rohtak. “The committee has 10 members and we have been going to each and every house in the village asking the women to come out and support the cause,” says the mother of two, not letting the veil slip off her face.
The committee is approaching not just Jat women, but those from the “chhattis biradari” or 36 castes, “because we are fighting against the way the BJP government is trying to bring about social divisions between Jats and non-Jats in Haryana”, she says, accusing the Khattar government of “plotting” to create divisions among Hindus in the state “in the same way they have created divisions between Hindus and Muslims elsewhere”.
The women start arriving after the men, by around 11.30 am, and leave by about 4.30 pm. “We finish all our chores at home and come here. If something remains undone, so be it. We’ll do it when we return home in the evening” says Rajdevi, also from Makroli. “We did not know so much the last time, but this time, we will not let our children die,” she says.
Before Meena, 30-year-old Renu from Jassia gives a fiery speech from the stage. “Arakshan. (Reservation)” she screams into the mike with the ease of practiced protester. “Lekey rahengey (We won’t stop till we get it),” the crowd responds. “What has happened to the men at the back? Your voice has to reach Khattar,” she says. This time, the men and the women raise their voice louder.
Basanti, a 79-year-old woman from Jassia, walks up to Renu after her speech, kisses her head and says she will not leave the dharna site until the demands are met. A large contingent of women from Rohtak town’s Sector-3 has also joined the protest. Unlike their village counterparts, their faces and heads are not veiled.
After the women have spoken, Yashpal Malik, leader of the All India Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti, delivers a short speech, thanking “mothers and sisters” for their support. “We will win this struggle for sure. But the only way to do this is to do it peacefully,” he says.
“This time, women are giving full support to the andolan,” says 25-year-old Renu, who has an MBA degree and is preparing for the Staff Selection Commission examination for junior posts in the Central government. “We are here to ensure that what happened the last time does not happen. If the bullets start flying, we will be there to protect our brothers,” she says. Another woman from Rohtak, Usha Kumari Singh, says, “This time if anything happens, we will take the bullets”.
Later, Malik tells The Sunday Express that no one is forcing the women to join the protests. “They want to be in the front, to protect their men,” he says. Denying the suggestion that the women were being used by the men as “human shields”, Malik says, “Jats are not cowards to use women like that. Jat men are brave, that is why they join the forces and are dying for the country. The women are here of their own free will.”