Like the Patidars of Gujarat, the agitating Jats of Haryana represent a new phenomenon — socially dominant and economically prosperous communities in highly developed states demanding reservations. They are the children of the 1990s marriage of a liberalising economy with a Mandalising polity, and were born in the 21st century, after both these processes had fully matured. We cannot understand this phenomenon unless it is placed in its larger social and historical context, because the meaning of an event or action is often found far beyond its immediate vicinity. Three specific issues are specially important: Internal divisions within caste communities; the conflation of distinct models of reservation; and repressed rage against the corrosive bleakness of the neoliberal economy.
The apparent paradox of obviously “forward” castes like Jats demanding to be recognised as “backward” is easily resolved when one recognises that most such communities include a sizeable plurality (if not an actual majority) that is economically backward. This is especially true of landed castes (like Jats, Patidars or Kapus) where intergenerational sub-division of holdings tends to produce downward mobility. But this economically backward segment still shares the social confidence and sense of entitlement of the prosperous and powerful segments of the community. Moreover, it is these “backward forwards” who are most anxious about preserving the social distance that separates them from the castes they consider to be inferior. Social-status hierarchies become a source of anxiety when economic hierarchies are disturbed and lower castes become upwardly mobile, often through access to reservations.
This combination of factors — social forwardness with economic backwardness; extreme status anxiety; resentment about reservation-driven mobility of lower castes; and an awareness of their own electoral clout — drives poorer Jats or Patidars into movements demanding reservation. They demand reservation because they are confident that they can not only bend the state to their will, but also ensure that no one dares to mock them as “quota-walas”. Their demand for reservation is more an expression of caste entitlement than a claim to class disadvantage.
This brings us to the second distinctive feature, the confusion between different models of reservation. Castes like the Jats or Patidars appear to be ridiculing reservation in the very act of seeking it. This is because in the popular imagination reservation is a welfare benefit that the state provides to people who are deprived and abject. Since Jats are easily the most dominant community in Haryana, their demand for reservation reduces it to an absurdity and provokes the usual upper-caste objection against caste-based reservation: Since almost all castes are differentiated today, and since the forward section of each caste is likely to monopolise benefits, we should drop caste and switch to economic criteria. An unintended benefit of the Jat agitation is that it forces us to re-examine this argument.
Immense confusion has been caused by the fact that a single policy, namely reservation in its concrete form of caste-marked quotas, is used to achieve different goals. The original model of reservation was the social justice model, and it dates from the Poona Pact of 1932 between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Its objective was to ensure that India qualified to be a modern nation despite having been a caste society. Caste laws specifically excluded Dalits and Adivasis from membership of society, so this had to be remedied in our Constitution by legally enforced inclusion, that is, reservation. This model of reservation addressed social exclusion rather than economic deprivation, even though the former almost always produced the latter. The caste criterion is obviously critical here, and continues to be relevant as long as caste-based exclusion and oppression of Dalits and Adivasis continues.
A second (implicit) model of reservation was introduced by the Mandal reforms, which addressed castes that suffered milder forms of social exclusion than Dalits or Adivasis, but were, on the whole, clearly disadvantaged in economic and educational terms. Because it used reserved quotas to tackle a different problem of social disadvantage, the Mandal model had the unfortunate effect of enshrining quotas as the best and only response to all forms of disadvantage. The opportunity to broaden criteria beyond caste was lost.
With Marathas, Patidars, Kapus and Jats, we see a completely different model of reservation. This is the ruling-caste model, and it is essentially an expression of the sense of ownership over the state that certain castes have. The Indian social and political structure does not allow a ruling class to rule as a class — it has to mediate its rule through a coalition of ruling castes that control electoral access to legitimate power. Today, the backward or left-behind sections of ruling castes like Patidars or Jats find themselves faced with an unbearable gap between their sense of caste entitlement and their actual material circumstances. Since the past decade, this frustration is being channelled into demands for reservation.
The crucial question is why reservation and not something else? A possible answer is that ruling caste demands for reservation are actually an expression of repressed impotent rage against an economic system that has stoked expectations but done little to enable fulfilment. Perhaps these state-centric agitations point to a deeper global crisis in political language that disables us by treating the economy as though it is a force of nature rather than a human creation. If it invites attention to this crucial question, the Jat agitation may yet offer a silver lining to an otherwise dismally dark cloud.