Wooing Jats with OBC status, Congress falls back on worn tactics in UP.
The recent decision by the UPA government to provide reservation in jobs and educational institutions for Jats in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring states, under the Central list of OBCs, fulfils a longstanding demand. The decision holds particular significance for the ongoing, highly competitive, electoral campaign in UP. The Jats, a dominant community concentrated in western UP, have shaped politics in this region since the late colonial period.
The demand for reservation has been aggressively pursued since the late 1990s by the All-India Jat Mahasabha, an organisation active in Muzaffarnagar district since 1907. More immediately, by granting reservations, the Congress party hopes to gain the support of the Jats in the approaching national elections. This step, in keeping with many such earlier decisions, indicates that providing reservations is an opportunistic tool in the hands of parties in power.
The decision raises the question of what constitutes “backwardness” and how social groups are identified and granted this status. First used in 1870 by the colonial administration in Madras to identify social groups requiring welfare measures, the concept has had a contentious, increasingly politicised, history and suffered from ambiguities.
While the question of reservations for SCs and STs was resolved in the colonial period, how to identify backward classes/ castes is a post-Independence question mired in politics. Its frequent resurgence, including in the case of the Jats, suggests that it has not acquired clear meaning or definition by the implementation of the Mandal report.
It is questionable whether the Jats constitute a backward community in western UP. They are a surplus-producing, close-knit peasant community that prospered from commercial agriculture in the colonial period and the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, as well as from diversifying into poultry and milch cattle. Jats occupy a strong position in the agrarian economy and politics of 17 districts, stretching from Baghpat to Agra, containing about 17 parliamentary and 36 assembly constituencies — notably, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Shamli.
They benefited from the agrarian movement under Charan Singh, parties/ organisations such as the Bahujan Kisan Dal and Bharatiya Lok Dal, the Bharatiya Kisan Union formed by Mahendra Singh Tikait and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) formed by Ajit Singh. Substantial numbers have found employment in the army. Neither do Jats suffer from the social discrimination associated with some OBCs.
The deep crisis in the agrarian economy of western UP since the 1980s, together with fragmentation of land, the decline of the once-booming sugar industry, the shifting of politics from agrarian to identity issues and the rise of backward caste and Dalit parties, have adversely affected Jats, creating despondency. However, they remain better placed, socially and politically, than many OBC groups in UP.
The answer to the unhappiness expressed by the community, particularly by the younger generation no longer interested in agriculture, lies in the faster development of UP’s economy as well as better educational and employment opportunities, not in reservations. Unfortunately, “backwardness” is viewed as the attribute of an entire community, to be dealt with by giving “recognition” to the whole as backward. It is not seen as an individual characteristic of the less well-off in all communities.
Experience has shown that policies which target broad and heterogeneous social groups cannot provide social justice, as the most disadvantaged sections tend to be excluded in favour of the more privileged, who corner the benefits.
Both the hurried manner in which the decision was taken and the timing betray political opportunism on the part of the Congress leadership. Despite being in office for two terms, it was only last year that UPA 2 assigned the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) the task of investigating the Jat demand for backward class status. The NCBC decided to hold public hearings in nine states and a survey, to be conducted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, to generate a report.
However, with the national elections approaching and violent demonstrations across north India, the Centre requested the commission, early in 2014, to provide a report based on existing records, as a field-based report would take too long for it to grant reservation. In its report, submitted in February 2014, the NCBC is said to have advised the Central government against reservation for Jats. It argued that they do not fulfil the legal criteria as they are “not socially and educationally backward communities”.
Despite this, the Union cabinet decided on March 3, 2014, to include Jats in the list of OBCs. This is the first time the Centre has disregarded the advice of the NCBC, a constitutionally mandated authority, on the inclusion of communities in the Central list of OBCs, for purely political gains.
It is doubtful whether the Congress will get Jat support in the 2014 elections by granting them reservation. Since the death of Charan Singh and the decline of agrarian politics in western UP, Jats have constantly shifted their allegiance to protect their interests. During the Ram Mandir mobilisation of the early-1990s, which was also a period of challenge from below by the lower castes, they supported the rising BJP. Since the mid-1990s, they have preferred the RLD.
The OBCs and the parties representing them, angry about sharing reservation, are hostile. The Congress leadership has rushed to grant Jats recognition because the community has been moving towards the BJP in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar violence and has shown a distinct anti-Congress stance.
More fundamentally, the Congress has failed to understand that politics is changing in the Hindi heartland. An older politics based on caste and communal identity, often portrayed as fixed and impermeable, is losing ground to issues of development and better governance. Identity politics has not disappeared, but it is now combined with an agenda of growth for all sections.
Today, demands for faster but socially inclusive growth, greater participation and improved governance occupy centrestage. Collectively, these seminal changes have created space for a new kind of democratic politics in the region, the contours of which are gradually unfolding.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, and rector, JNU