Monday, June 02, 2008

Deepening the Social Divide

editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

The BJP’s discordant and opportunistic politics is only deepening the social divide in Rajasthan.

Hardly did the trauma of the tragic blasts in Jaipur abate when Rajasthan was up in flames following militant protests by the gurjars being put down with a heavy hand by resort to largely unwarranted and excessive police firing, leading to a death toll higher than during a similar agitation a year ago. There is a clear lack of will on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led state government, despite the party’s election promise in 2003, to recommend the provision of scheduled tribe (ST) status to the community. Police firing against agitators have killed 39 people (as we go to press) and injured many more, provoking an escalation of the agitation and its spread to the national capital region and other parts of north India. The agitators are now demanding nothing less than the immediate implementation of their demand for the state government to recommend the bestowal of ST status to the gurjars.

Last year, the Rajasthan government led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia had found a way to mitigate the crisis by constituting a committee to address the issue. The justice Chopra committee recommended an economic package worth Rs 280 crore to address the question of the backwardness of the gurjars, but their leaders (representing organisations such as the Gurjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, led by Kirori Singh Bainsla) have rejected the same and have reiterated their demand for the declaration of ST status for the community in Rajasthan. Currently Gurjars are categorised as other backward classes (OBCs) in the state. They justify their demand to be provided reservations as a ST owing to associations of sections of the community (“van gurjars”) with pastoral work and as semi-nomadic cattle herders. Another reason is the fact that gurjars in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are already categorised under the ST category. However, the inclusion of gurjars in Rajasthan as scheduled tribes is problematic as the ST category as mentioned in the Constitution's fifth schedule is defined by certain specific and identifiable characteristics such as lifestyle, culture, inaccessibility and backwardness, and not just economic underdevelopment.

Another motivation for their demand has been the fact that the BJP led National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had deemed the jat community in Rajasthan as OBCs. Inclusion of jats in the OBC category crowded out representation for the gurjars from the reservation pie. As mentioned, the BJP had also promised ST status for the gurjars before the Rajasthan assembly elections in 2003, but its subsequent lack of will to implement this electoral promise has fuelled militant protests by the community. The protests last year were muddied when the party diabolically provoked the meena community (who were provided ST status in 1954) to fight the gurjars. Given this background, the Rajasthan government’s conciliatory proposition to provide 4 to 6 percent reservations by classifying the gurjars as denotified tribes has predictably been rejected by the gurjar leadership.

The high death toll in police firing has only aggravated the problem, and has induced the gurjar leadership to adopt a maximalist position. Offers of talks by the chief minister have been rebuffed, but latest indications are that the gurjar leaders will come to the table. The offer of an economic package can be a starting point but the state government must take pro-active measures in addressing the problems of people traditionally relying on occupations such as pastoral work and dairy farming (many of whom belong to the gurjar community).

Obviously, use of the policy of reservations as a tool for alleviating economic backwardness as well as enhancing representation has proven to be difficult in states like Rajasthan. The garnering of support across various castes by political parties such as the BJP in Rajasthan and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, who have promised reservations for the poor from the upper castes too, has created conditions for competitive caste politics fanning inter-caste clashes and demands for further reservation for other caste groups. It is incumbent upon political parties to reverse this dangerous trend by revisiting the basis on which reservations were formalised as a policy. Reservations cannot be on the basis of the criterion of economic backwardness alone. The policy has to be targeted towards gradually rendering the caste hierarchy redundant. At the same time, states need to formulate and work upon welfare measures for socio-economic development through policies that are for the betterment of sections across castes so that the incentives for specific groups to make claims for exceptional treatment through reservation do not exist. But where is the progressive democratic movement to bring this about? The BJP’s discordant and opportunistic politics is only deepening the social divide in Rajasthan.

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