The Jat agitation for quotas is back on the streets of Haryana, with additional demands for withdrawal of charges against those booked for the protests last year. The young leader of the Patidar agitation, Hardik Patel, following his long jail term and exile, appears all set for a bigger and more fiery political role, with his plans to campaign for the Shiv Sena in the upcoming Mumbai civic polls, and the Shiv Sena promoting him as its future chief ministerial candidate in Gujarat. The latter quarter of 2016 witnessed a spate of “Maratha Kranti Muk Morchas” across the state — massive silent marches by the Maratha community, reiterating the demand to be designated as one of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), along with additional demands, such as scrapping of the Prevention of Atrocities (against Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribes) Act. Thus, the articulation of the demand by powerful groups to be considered “backward”, based on the narrative of deprivation, marginalisation and hurt, continues to be a major issue that is unlikely to die down any time soon.
In a first of its kind exercise, we analyse large-scale data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), and compare Patels, Marathas and Jats to other major groups — Brahmins, Other Forward Castes (FCs), existing OBCs and SC-STs — in their respective states. How “backward” are the three jatis in relation to the other groups in their states? We find that these three jatis are closer to the socio-economically dominant caste groups (Brahmins and Other FCs) in their respective states on a variety of indicators — such as per capita consumption expenditure (PCCE), poverty status, educational attainment and occupational status — compared to the existing disadvantaged groups of the OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis (SC-STs).
For instance, the PCCE of the Jats is 33 and 43 per cent more than that of the OBCs and SC-STs and not different from that of the Brahmins and Forward Castes; the Marathas are as likely as the Brahmins, OBCs or SC-STs to hold a government job, despite the lack of quotas; and the Patels are five and 15 percentage points less likely to be poor as compared to the OBCs and SC-STs, and are no more likely compared to the Brahmins and the FCs. Comparing changes over time on indicators such as educational attainment, PCCE and the probability of being classified as poor, we find that Jats, Patels and Marathas have increased their relative advantage between 2004-05 (the first round of IHDS data) to 2011-12 (the second round). Thus, our analysis shows that not only do Jats, Patels and Marathas possess an advantage over the lower-ranked marginalised groups, in fact, they seem to have consolidated their relative position. This indicates that the narrative of “the ground is slipping beneath their feet” is largely based on perceptions, and has little empirical support in the data.
Examining factors that might underlie their anxieties, we propose a “structural change hypothesis”, many elements of which have been suggested by several commentaries — widespread structural changes in the agrarian sector, rise of large corporations, land fragmentation, water shortages, and their presumed inability to take advantage of new opportunities in the non-agricultural sector, hampered by their relative lack of fluency in English — though no empirical evidence has been brought on these claims so far. The data shows that compared to their relatively dominant position in agriculture, in the non-agricultural sector these jatis are predominantly employed in casual jobs that do not provide any security and insurance, and are paid a daily wage or a piece rate. However, our analysis also indicates that though the relative advantage of the Jats, Patels and Marathas in the agricultural sector is greater than in the non-agricultural sector, they still do better in absolute terms than the socially disadvantaged groups in the non-agricultural sector.
This raises an interesting question about the factors that underlie their success in creating and sustaining powerful movements, which have been sufficiently large and disruptive, so as to compel governments to take notice of their demands. The support for their demands has come from the highest legislative body in their respective states — the state governments of Haryana and Maharashtra — as Jats and Marathas were granted access to reserved positions, a decision that was later withdrawn by the courts. The data show that the three jatis are well connected to local political networks, both within and outside their communities, and that this might be an important factor underlying their massive mobilisation. Jats, Marathas and Patels are among the most powerful communities in their respective states. Even compared to Patels and Marathas, the Jats are “superior-most” in their region as Brahminical dominance is weak. Land ownership and cultivation have been their economic backbone. Our findings provide empirical support to the argument that Jats are not objectively lagging behind, not even in government jobs, but are dealing with tectonic shifts caused to their livelihoods due to the crisis of agriculture.
Overall, there is discontent among powerful farming communities due to the perception that real economic power lies in the hands of the big corporations, and the state, overtly or covertly, acts in their interest. These communities feel their power slipping away or eroding, in addition to feeling ill prepared to shift towards urban, formal sector livelihood opportunities. Individuals or communities which feel strongly that the odds of economic success are stocked against them, are more likely to feel deprived. Our analysis suggests that these perceptions are exactly that — feelings — not supported by evidence on the ground. The evidence, which is overwhelming, suggests that these communities are not the most marginalised in their respective states; additionally, these jatis have consolidated their advantage over the marginalised groups, and narrowed gaps vis-a-vis the dominant groups, in their respective states between 2004-05 and 2011-12.
Having said this, widespread anxieties definitely need to be understood, and genuine discontent, even within dominant groups, needs to be addressed. Apropos demands for inclusion into the OBC category, we should note that given increasing privatisation, the base — that is, total jobs eligible for reservations — is already shrinking. Data also shows that existing OBCs and SC-STs are increasingly lagging behind upper castes in a range of material indicators. In this context, extending quotas to relatively richer and powerful groups would amount to diluting the already small and shrinking entitlement for communities that are truly disadvantaged and discriminated against.