After the violent February agitation that saw the death of 30, the Jat quota stir that began in Haryana Sunday drew a muted response on the first day, with no more than a few hundred men seen at protest sites.
At an agricultural plot abutting the Panipat-Gohana highway near Jessia village in Rohtak, the designated spot for the protests, people began gathering under a tent from 10 am. However, till afternoon, there were no more than a thousand men. In Jhajjar, barely 50 men turned up at the Sector 9 protest venue. No one turned up at Jondi village, from where Jat leaders had announced the protest would begin. Police said in Panipat no more than 25 people sat in protest.
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The gathering in Rohtak was conspicuous for the absence of young men. The majority of the crowd comprised safa-wearing, hookah-smoking elderly in traditional whites. As companies of the Rapid Action Force and Haryana Police surrounded the venue, Jat leaders addressing the crowds repeatedly made calls to maintain peace and not make provocative speeches.
Not that there was much enthusiasm among the crowd. The energy-sapping heat ensured that the nearby well often attracted as many people as the leaders on the dais. A few young men sat under a tree on the other side of the highway, away from the protest site.
When asked why they were not joining the protest, one of them said, “Look at the police force. They are out to get us. We don’t want to be arrested. We will come into action after the elderly fail to deliver.”
An elderly man at the protest explained the absence of young men as a deliberate plan. “These boys have little patience and get riled up easily. We don’t want anything like the February stir to happen again.”
Rohtak SP Shashank Anand, who earlier warned the organisers about the consequences of any violence, camped at the protest site since morning. “We told them this time we will show zero tolerance for a February-like stir. There would be serious consequences for the protesters if they took law in their hands,” he told The Indian Express.
The anxiety among the community over the arrest of several youngsters following the violent February stir was obvious on Sunday, with speaker after speaker at the protest sites demanding withdrawal of cases against them.
Krishan Lal Hooda, general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, demanded that those killed in police firing during the February stir be given the tag of “shaheed” and that compensation appropriate for a martyr be given to their families.
However, the sentiment for quota remains high. The leaders and the crowd said the government was using the excuse of court orders to deny them their “legitimate” demand. “Look at Punjab. The government has got all the orders from high court and Supreme Court on the SYL (Sutlej Yamuna Link) canal, but Punjab is not letting it go ahead. We need to show similar unity in forcing the government to give us quota despite court orders,” said Ramkishan Mokhra, one of the speakers.
In Rohtak city, no one turned up for the protests at the designated spots. Being Sunday, markets were closed and there was little movement on the roads except vehicles of security forces. Officials said they are not letting their guard down.
“It’s an evolving situation. They have announced an indefinite stir. There is not much enthusiasm on display at the moment but as long as the core issue remains festering, we have to remain on guard. But we are clear that law and order must be maintained at all cost,” Rohtak SP Shashank Anand said.
At Jassia village in the district, Dipender Hooda said they were ready for a long battle. “If the government provokes us, the February stir will be back. We don’t fear death. No matter how much force they deploy, our strength will always be greater,” the youth said.