On the Jhajjar-Kosli road, about 20 km from Haryana’s Jhajjar town, a narrow road cuts left from Matanhail village. On February 20, at around 10.30 am, there was a traffic jam on this road that leads to Akheri Madanpur village. That day, Jat youths from across the area had gathered there. The plan was to go to Jhajjar town to stage a protest seeking quota in central government jobs for the community. Several tractor-trailers had lined up along the road to take these men to the town.
Fifty men from Akheri boarded two of these tractors. That evening, only 48 returned. Arjun Singh, 19, and Sandeep Kumar, 27, died in police firing after their agitation turned violent.
Down a lane inside Akheri village, past shops and ageing houses lined by open drains, is Arjun’s house. There are at least 50 pairs of slippers and shoes at the doorstep. Inside, people, young and old, sit in a roofless courtyard that has a cloth strung across to keep out the elements. These people are from as many as 36 villages near Akheri village and are here to pay their condolences to Arjun’s family and express solidarity with the “cause” he died for.
Amid a constant supply of tea and two hookahs that get passed around, the gathering vents its anger, accusing the government of “conspiracy” by “pitching one caste against another” and saying the Jats have a right to seek — and get — reservation in central government jobs. Fundamental to this chatter, however, is the subtext of the time warp that the Jats feel their community is stuck in.
“We are at a crossroads,” says Arjun’s tau (uncle) Sukhbir Singh. “Land holdings are reducing by the day. Farming is no longer profitable. And our children have no jobs. What’s wrong if we agitate for quota? People are calling us upadravi (trouble makers). But we are only fighting to uplift a community that’s been left behind. And quota is the only way.”
Sukhbir retired as a bank manager. Money from his pension and a small farm that he tills now keep him going “comfortably”. His is a rare story in a village where most people are either entirely dependent on agriculture or engaged in services in the state police and central security forces.
Akheri is a village of 1,600 families with Jats making up over 60 per cent of its population. Dalits, OBCs such as Nais, Kumhars, Khatis and Lohars, and the 5 per cent Brahmins form the rest. Much of the land in the village is concentrated in the hands of the Jats; most other castes either have very small land holdings or work in government or private jobs.
One of the reasons why the Jat demand for quota has been called ‘unjustified’ is because they are a numerically and socially dominant community. Jats in Haryana make up over a quarter of the state’s population, giving them considerable political heft. They also have good representation in state politics and state government jobs, but with these jobs saturated, the Jats are hoping to find Central government jobs.
They also continue to be the property holders in the village economy, owning at least 75 per cent of land. In central Haryana, which includes districts such as Rohtak and Jhajjar, the epicentre of the agitation, this figure is even higher. But land holdings in these parts are small, usually restricted to less than 5 acres per family.
In Akheri, this loss of land is part of every wistful conversation on their past. Though the Jats here still command respect because of their traditional supremacy in the social hierarchy, things have changed, they say. “We were zamindars some 50 years ago. The population has exploded since then and land has got divided. No Jat in the village has more than 2-3 acres of land. We are no better than peasants,” says Karn Singh, 62.
Farming itself isn’t lucrative anymore, they say. Increasing input cost, poor irrigation, the unpredictable weather and a slow growth in food prices have hemmed in the community.
“A DAP (fertiliser) sack comes for Rs 1,600. A sack of wheat today is sold for Rs 1,200. Earlier, the water in the canal used to run for 15 days in a season; now it’s reduced to seven days. The groundwater level has plummeted and borewells give out salty water that’s destroying our agriculture. The government gave me Rs 57 as compensation when my crops got damaged during the recent hailstorm. The bus fare from here to Rohtak is Rs 60,” says Ramprakash Singh, another farmer in the village.
“When we had large land holdings, it was okay to be dependent on agriculture. There was a saying: ‘Uttam kheti, madhyam vyapar, neech naukri kare chamar (farming is the finest profession, business the second rung and service is for untouchables). Now that has been reversed. The Dalits are doing well because of quota,” says Karn Singh, adding that only one person in his extended family has ever got a government job, that too of a patwari.
For far too long, the Jats have been tied to the soil, both owning and tilling their land. Nonica Datta, a professor of history at Miranda House college in Delhi who has authored the book Forming an Identity: A Social History of Jats, says, “Culturally, it is difficult to separate a Jat from his land. He is not a zamindar in the traditional sense. He is kind of a self-proprietor who tills his own land. So if you take away his land, you put the Jat in a sort of a cultural crisis.”
Meanwhile, communities around him, mostly less privileged than him and with little or no land, invested in education and found a way out of farming.
Jats in Akheri have slowly begun to realise the merits of education, but for now, they are convinced that quota is the easier way to get there.
Surajbhan Jakhar is 74 and not very optimistic about the future of his grandchildren as he sees his two sons struggling to make ends meet on the 2 acres the family owns. His brother has done much better. He is a veterinary doctor and lives in Rohtak in a “big kothi”. His two sons have become sub-divisional officers. “My parents could send only one of us to school. He studied, I didn’t,” says Surajbhan.
Both the schools in the village, one for boys and the other for girls, came up in the late 90s. Thus, a majority of the Jat population in the village has not even passed Class X. When the Haryana government made it mandatory for those contesting sarpanch and panch elections to have cleared at least Class X, Akheri Madanpur didn’t find a single person from among the older generation who was willing to fight and fit the bill. The average age of the panchayat, which has 16 members, is now 25. The sarpanch, Harish Jakhar, is 22 himself. The eldest panchayat member is 40 while a seat in a ward reserved for women lies vacant since they could find no candidate.
There is, however, greater awareness now about education being a liberating force. Many young men in the village are graduates from MD University (MDU) in Rohtak while some others hold technical diplomas from colleges in Jhajjar, Rohtak and other districts.
Harish, the sarpanch, is an MDU graduate. His election pamphlet had him urging people to vote for him as he is a “shikshit” and “yogya ummeedwar (an educated and able candidate)”. “The word shikshit is a recent addition to electioneering in our village. It didn’t matter earlier,” he says.
Praveen Ahlawat, 35, whose wife Geeta is a member of the panchayat, says it was only after 2000 that the village began talking about education and jobs. That was 10 years into economic liberalisation. “Those with education had surged ahead,” he says.
The girls’ school at the end of the village bears testimony to Ahlawat’s remark. Down a lane lined with dung cakes, the school that’s spread over 3 acres and with classes till XII, has about 300 students who come from various villages around Akheri Madanpur. The teachers too come from neighbouring villages. Only two of the 11 teachers on the rolls are from Akheri and they are both non-Jats — from the reserved category. Though the former principal is a Jat, he is from the nearby Matanhail village.
That’s another grouse — that “they” (read: the Dalits and other communities) get the jobs while “we Jats pay the price” for “securing the nation” (a reference to the high number of Jat recruits in the Army) and “feeding the country”.
“We were stuck with agriculture for too long. Today if growth in food prices is 10 per cent, that in earnings from services is 120 per cent. Jobs are the only way out for us and that will happen only when we have quota,” says Om Veer, 30, who holds a diploma in electrical engineering from a polytechnic college in Jhajjar.
He had applied for the job of a junior engineer in the electricity department but couldn’t get the job. “There were just seven vacancies in the general category. There too you had to use some political influence,” says Om Veer, who now tills the 5-acre farm that he shares with his brother.
Why isn’t he trying for a private job? “I never tried. The salary is not good and there is no stability. You can be fired any time,” he says.
Subhash Jakhar, 28, who lives a few houses away from Om Veer’s, was in one of the trucks that left Akheri village on February 20 to protest in Jhajjar town. “Look, we have to accept that our education levels are poor. Without good English, you can’t get jobs in the private sector. Here in our village, very few people can afford to send their children to English-medium private schools,” he says.
Subhash says he understands the problem more than anyone else in the village. Having graduated from MDU, he has been preparing for the civil services exams for the past three years. He often travels to Delhi and rents a room in Mukherjee Nagar for a few months to collect notes and connect with fellow aspirants.
He then comes back to the village and prepares for the exams in a small room on the ground floor of his two-storeyed house that has a car parked in front. Subhash is among the better-placed Jats in the village, which, he says, is thanks to his brother being in the armed forces.
“We need jobs. But the only jobs we get easily are in the police or Army. Of the 30-odd people from this village who are in security forces, more than 20 are Jats. We are physically strong. But when it comes to matters of the mind, we are found struggling,” he says sheepishly. In his room are two photographs, of him in vests and showing off his muscles.
“I have studied in the village school. We can’t compete with city boys. We work hard, but there is no output. So without reservation, we get left behind both in government jobs and private jobs,” he says.
But don’t students from Hindi-medium schools in states such as Bihar go on to clear the civil services? “I know. I am friends with many such aspirants. They just work too hard,” says Subhash.
Historian Datta says there’s a historical context to why Jats stayed away from education and, more specifically, English. “Historically, they have been Arya Samajis. So they have stayed away from English education. When the British recruited the Jats in the Army, literacy was not a requirement. In the 19th and 20th Century, they did acquire education through community institutions, but such communitarian education had its limits.”
Poor education and the resultant lack of jobs has had another social fallout — of men struggling to get married. Jakhar says the community has paid the price for focusing on boys for far too long. “We needed more farm hands so the focus was on boys. Now as farm earnings have plummeted, the same boys have become a liability for the community.
“With the sex ratio being so bad (at 774, Jhajjar has the worst child sex ratio in the country, according to the 2011 Census), there aren’t enough girls. Anyway, who would want to get his daughter married to a jobless man tilling less than an acre? Naukri nahi to chhokri nahi (no brides without jobs),” says Jagmesh Kumar, 31.
Jagmesh has cleared his Class X and is a member of the panchayat. His two brothers, who are more than 10 years older to him, are both married. “Those days, people didn’t bother about jobs while getting their daughters married. Now it’s not possible. I have reconciled to my fate. In any case, I can’t sustain a family with my current earnings. I wish I had studied further.”
There are other social orders that are being challenged. While earlier, political posts in the village and block administration went to Jats almost by default, now the community has to contend with tough competition from the backward classes. “In the last block elections, the Jat candidate secured a narrow victory, by just 23 votes, against his Khati (OBC) opponent. In several villages in these parts, people from other castes are becoming sarpanches,” says Satbir Singh.
The 63-year-old farmer, among the 20 in the village to own a tractor and a harvester, tills farms belonging to those from other castes. “My land holding has fallen. My children did not study beyond Class V despite my best attempts. The OBCs have jobs, so they don’t till land anymore. I take their land on rent and work on them to increase my earnings,” he says.
Villagers say the OBCs and Dalits are increasingly asserting themselves. “I have overheard remarks from Dalits in the village that Jats are killing themselves for the fistful of rice that the government gives them as subsidies,” says Ahlawat, whose wife is a panchayat member.
Although in Akheri, the Dalits and other communities still remain landless, have no better homes than the Jats or better access to education, they have improved their lot.
Naresh Kumar, a Khati (OBC) who has an MCom degree from MDU and plans to become a professor, says he is grateful to his father for insisting on their education. “My father was a draftsman with DLF in Gurgaon. He made sure my brother and I worked hard. My brother Sunil is a junior engineer in the irrigation department in Jhajjar. It’s his income that’s running our family after my father’s sudden death,” says Naresh.
A kilometre and a half away from Akheri Madanpur, across a canal that cuts the road, is the village of Birar. Dominated by the OBC Yadavs, Birar stands in contrast to Akheri. Fresh paint can be seen on the walls of most houses, the lanes appear far cleaner than those in Akheri and cars zip past with greater frequency.
Sitting at the entrance of the village smoking hookah with community members, Dariyav Singh, a retired teacher and owner of 6 acres, is angry about the Jat protests.
“What are the Jats fighting for? They have all the land. More than 70 per cent jobs in the state are with them. Now they want more and for that, they are killing people,” he says angrily.
The village has 250 acres for 570 families. One family, of Vijay and Bhom Singh, alone holds 70 acres since their grandfather had only one child.
“Most villagers here are either landless or own less than 1 acre,” says Ashok Kumar, 42. A pharma degree holder, Kumar works as a salesman with BioMax.
“The Jats populate the police, the administration, the village panchayat, the block posts and even the political class. Now they want a share in the 27 per cent quota that OBCs have. I have no land, no government job. I am not crying.”
Birar’s record on education and jobs is better than Akheri’s. Dariyav Singh, the retired teacher, says 90 per cent of residents in the village are matriculates while more than 50 per cent are graduates. He also says that 65 per cent of people work in the service sector, both government and private jobs.
Manoj Kumar, 41, works as an agent for a multinational insurance company. “The village has produced many high-ranking officials, including a brigadier and a major, teachers and professors, apart from a sub-divisional officer. Those who do not get government jobs work in the private sector. Quite a few villagers work in the Jhadli Power Plant nearby,” says Manoj.
The village sarpanch, Rajbala, a Dalit woman in her 40s who won on a reserved seat, has studied up to Class XII. So did her predecessor Ramesh Kumar. “The level of education in our village has been good for long. Even those with land opt for jobs, government or private,” says Ramesh, adding that the recent Jat stir has divided communities sharply.
Birar has no government school. The two government schools in the area fall in Jat villages that flank Birar. Somewhere between Birar and Akheri stands Cambridge International School, an English-medium private school that charges Rs 950 per month as tuition fees. This is where Karn Singh, a farmer who owns less than an acre and who works on other farms, sends his son to study. As do some 30-odd parents from the village. From Akheri, the school gets only 15 students.