Putting pressure on Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah forces Saffron-ruled state governments to sit up and take notice. Very often they are not only caught unawares but have no option but to yield to demands. So, when Shah in preparation for assembly elections in the state due in 2019 – scheduled a 5000-strong bike rally in Haryana’s Jind district on February 15, few in the BJP-led Manohar Lal Khattar government anticipated opposition from the State’s powerful Jat community. But it threatened to disrupt the rally and block roads with tractor trolleys. The ploy worked.
The politically astute Jat community, which has been agitating for OBC (Other Backward Classes) status and consequent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions, had once again played its card. Remember, the community, led by the All India Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti (AIJASS), had embarrassed the State government no end by unleashing violent protests demanding reservation in 2016 which resulted in arson, loot and rapes. It now saw in the Amit Shah rally a perfect opportunity to arm twist the ruling BJP government.
The move had the desired effect. The Haryana government was forced to withdraw all criminal cases against the Jats registered in the 2016 violence. But this capitulation by the state government, many observers feel, may also see the revival of the demand for Jat reservation – something which the saffron party will have to resolve if it wants to re-capture Haryana in 2019.
Shah chose Jind in the Jat heartland for his rally because the BJP is acutely aware that the community needs to be wooed. The 2014 victory of the party in the Assembly elections – the first ever by the BJP – was won mainly on the strength of non-Jat communities. Consequently, Khattar, a non-Jat Punjabi was installed as the chief minister and the community has not forgiven the BJP for this.
Jats who comprise more than 25 % of the population, are a rich and politically influential caste group which has managed to have seven out of the ten Haryana chief ministers from their own caste. They dominate by their presence in one third of the 90 assembly constituencies and the leaders of the two main opposition parties, namely the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal, are both Jats.
No surprises then that the Khattar government pulled out all stops to placate the AIJASS and ensure that the Shah event would go off without a hitch. It took all the proverbial ‘king’s horses and all the king’s men’ and a six-hour long marathon meeting in Delhi to hammer out a peace deal between the AIJASS and the top guns of the Haryana government to ensure that the reservationists do not disrupt Shah’s rally. In addition, the government has deployed 150 companies of paramilitary forces to ensure the smooth conduct of proceedings.
So, what’s on the table? AIJASS president Yashpal Malik had this to share with reporters after the marathon meeting: “The government has assured us that it will withdraw all cases registered during the 2016 Jat reservation agitation. The government has also assured us that the OBC Bill will be passed in this Lok Sabha. The state government has promised that it will submit the data pertaining to reservation in the High Court before March 31.”
The withdrawal of the 2016 agitation cases is a climb down by the Haryana government when it is put in context of the violence that was unleashed. At least 20 people died and over 200 were injured as Jats went on a violent frenzy in February 2016 to demand reservation in government jobs. Buildings and vehicles were torched, railway lines and highways blocked and losses to the state have been estimated at Rs 20,000 crores. A court monitored probe is currently on into the alleged gang rapes of women travellers on the Delhi Chandigarh national highway by Jat arsonists during the 10- day agitation which held the entire state to ransom.
In September last year the Punjab and Haryana High Court referred the reservation demand of the Jat community to the National Commission for Backward Classes which is required to examine similar demands from various communities for quota benefits and submit its response to the demand by the end of this month. The Union cabinet also decided to sub categorize quotas within the OBCs, which means that within the 27 % reservation given to backward classes, different OBC communities will get separate allocations. How exactly this will be done and in what proportion is still being worked out. The government has also hiked the annual income limit to avail OBC quota benefits from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 8 lakh.
Just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had cleared reservation for Jats. The decision was struck down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the community is neither deprived or backward. The Haryana government countered by creating a new sub category called ‘Backward Classes’ within the OBC reservation for them at the State level, which has also been challenged in the High Court. The court has however referred the matter to the OBC Commission which essentially means it is back with the Central government.
Governing Haryana without the support of the Jat community is not easy. The BJP realised this when the State witnessed widespread violence in the 2016 Jat agitation. After managing to pressurise the Khattar government last week, the AIJASS now wants not only withdrawal of cases but also compensation to families of Jats killed in police firing during the stir. It had also demanded action against BJP MP, Raj Kumar Saini who has been publicly opposing the Jat demand for OBC status.
For now, hectic backroom manoeuvring has ensured that Shah’s bike rally will pass off smoothly. But balancing volatile caste equations in the agrarian state is going to be a lot more difficult and will require tactful handling.