The Jats conform fully to the idea of a ‘dominant caste’, a term the eminent sociologist M N Srinivas used to refer to any community that is both numerically strong in a village or local area, as well as wields power through control over land.
The Jats make up roughly a quarter of Haryana’s population, a figure that would be even higher in the central districts covering Rohtak, Sonipat, Jhajjar, Jind, Panipat, Hisar and Bhiwani. That dominance is all the more pronounced when it comes to the second criterion laid down by Srinivas. The community probably owns three-fourths of agricultural land in Haryana, with the Jat being synonymous with the ‘zamindar’ just as much as the Bania with the trader.
But the Jat ‘zamindar’, both historically and now, was never the absentee landlord of Bihar or Bengal who lived off the rents from his tenant-cultivators. Instead, he has always been the self-cultivating ‘khud-kasht’, best defined in the words of the legendary farmer leader Sir Chhotu Ram: “In some provinces zamindars are different from peasants. [But] here the agriculturist who has proprietary rights in land is the one who actually ploughs it.”
The preponderance of independent peasant-proprietors from within a single community was also central to the forging of a distinct Jat identity. It got further reinforced with the largescale recruitment of Jats from present-day Haryana into the Army, especially during World War I. Chhotu Ram, who played a key role in enlisting soldiers from the Rohtak region, saw this primarily as a means for promoting the community’s overall economic well-being. The Jats also experienced upward mobility through the Green Revolution from the mid-sixties that helped boost crop yields — and, of course, the creation of a separate Haryana province, in which they became the dominant community politically as well.
But all this was in the last century.
The Jats still retain their self-conscious identity of peasant-sepoys. That sense of pride, however, rests uncomfortably with changed economic realities. To begin with, agriculture is hardly the paying vocation that it used to be, more so with the sub-division and fragmentation of landholdings. A double crop of basmati paddy and wheat, even with assured irrigation, can give an annual profit of not more than Rs 50,000 per acre. That, for a five-acre holding — the average for the main Jat belt; it could be more in Sirsa or Fatehabad districts where farmers also grow crops like cotton and guar-seed — would translate into a monthly income of just over Rs 20,000. These incomes would have shrunk further, with the crash in basmati, cotton and guar prices, or yield losses from drought, hailstorms and pest attacks in the last couple of years.
Secondly, land is no longer the source of power that it was when M N Srinivas, A M Shah and others undertook their pioneering village studies. The so-called kulak or landlord aren’t all that important in today’s India — where access to knowledge, entrepreneurial skills and acquaintance with the values and mores of those residing in big cities/towns count more than being mere rural local bosses.
That links up with the third point. The Jats, unlike many agrarian castes of the South or West, haven’t really made the transition from being a predominantly rural-based community tethered to the village or the local khap. And here, it is modern education that has been the main factor. The Kammas and Patidars took to it pretty early, enabling them to broaden their circle of acquaintances beyond the village community. It also bred a certain level of cosmopolitanism and adaptability that helped in exploiting the opportunities thrown up by globalisation and urbanisation.
The Haryanvi Jats, by contrast, have remained inward-looking, while not progressing much beyond peasant-sepoy, constable, small-town lawyer, school-teacher, property dealer, or sportsperson. There aren’t too many software professionals, management executives, doctors or engineers, leave alone start-up entrepreneurs from their ranks. For an agricultural community, their negligible presence even in trading or processing of farm produce is no less remarkable. The bulk of grain traders, commission agents, rice millers and dairy owners in Haryana are Banias, Khatris or Aroras. True, the community may have produced the odd police commissioner (Satyapal Singh), Army Chief (Gen Dalbir Singh), fashion designer (Rina Dhaka) or industrialist (Kushal Pal Singh of DLF, Sameer Gehlaut of Indiabulls and Rita Singh of Mesco Group). But these are clearly exceptions.
Quite a bit of the blame lies with the Jats, who, until recently, were by and large content to hold their connection with land above everything else and being bosses in their own backyard. It is only when the progress made by other communities, including Dalits, became evident that they suddenly woke up to the need to seek Other Backward Class (OBC) status.
There is some basis, perhaps, for this demand. The Jats may not have suffered historical discrimination or exploitation, but they are by no means educationally advanced either. Besides, being a largely rural community puts them at a disadvantage in an economy where there’s a large premium attached to the knowledge of English and technical education. This handicap is even more pronounced today, with five-acre or smaller holdings reducing farmers in general to the status of ‘bechara zamindar’ (poor landlord), the title of a series of articles that Chhotu Ram penned in his Jat Gazette during 1935-36. How many farmers with a monthly income of Rs 20,000 or less can send their children to study in private engineering or medical colleges?
The violence by a section of Jat protesters demanding OBC reservation is, no doubt, condemnable. But it does not take away the merit of their case. If the Jats in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi can avail of OBC quotas, why should their Haryanvi brethren be denied the same benefits? The ‘dominant caste’ theories may hold only limited relevance in a context where the centre of power has shifted inexorably from Bharat to India.