July 04, 2020
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Brigade That Lit The Fire

As the Jat agitation claims more victims, the Khattar-centred ploy of caste politics has gone awry

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Brigade That Lit The Fire
In Bad Blood
Buses set afire by agitators in Sonepat, Haryana
Photo by PTI
Brigade That Lit The Fire

For a man who has become chief minister for the first time, soc­ial engineering is a bite too big to chew. Handpicked by the RSS and the prime minister to head the government in Haryana, Man­­ohar Lal Khattar was exp­ected to have a smooth tenure. With the minority community marginalised, and with the full backing of the Centre, the former RSS pracharak was expected to consolidate the hold of the Sangh and the party. But the script has gone horribly wrong.

Since October 2014, for each electora­lly dominant community, the Khattar sarkar seems to have come up with a unique formulation. So, to appease Arya Samajis, Bra­­hmins and other ‘forward’ castes, it has launched a series of gaushalas or cow shelters, even proposing two ‘cow sanctuaries’.

“Why isn’t there a census of cows and other cattle first? There is cow protection, but where the cow is nobody knows,” says historian K.C. Yadav,  who finds many of the government’s efforts ‘superficial’. “The desi cow is indeed valuable and possibly endangered, but does the government care to res­earch why the Jersey is more prevalent? They’re taking the state back to the 18th century,” he says. Nevertheless, lumpen elements now roam around the state, thra­shing ‘suspects’ transporting cattle.

Jat protesters also set fire to shops. (Phot by PTI)

Meanwhile, the state announced a new law—grandly named the Gausamvardhan Act, 2015—to ban cow slaughter and restrict export of cows for legal slaughter. No doubt, when the CM casually told a news reporter that the ban may be lifted for foreign visitors habituated to beef-eating, his government’s—and his own—commitment to ‘gau mata’ became suspect.

“All now depends on the PM, how he takes up the issue. Caste is central to Haryana politics. I knew it only when I joined politics here.”
Premlata Singh, BJP MLA

Haryana’s politics of caste appeasement—something BJP leaders freely acc­use rival parties of—created the grounds for the recent Jat agitation, the befuddled response to it initially, and then the inevitable. While the people of Rohtak, Jind, Hisar, Sirsa, Bhiwani and elsewhere witnessed, haple­ssly, the ugly rage of the mighty Jats brandishing arms and looting malls, the army was called in. “This government should be sacked,” says Ajay Singh, a former diplomat, minister and president of the All India Jat Mahasabha. “I can’t believe they called in the army when there are six paramilitary forces.”

Jats believe the Mandal Commission had shortcomings, which led to their exclusion, while similarly placed communities—Yadavs, Ahirs, Gujjars—got in. “Why are Jats discriminated against in reservation?” asks Jat leader Premlata Singh, BJP MLA from Jind, and wife of Union minister Chaudhary Birender Singh. “Areas like Bharatpur and Dholpur (both in neighbouring Rajasthan) where there were Jat kings, skewed initial surveys of Haryana’s Jats by the Mandal Commission,” feels Ajay Singh. And so, the ‘ruling elites’ frowned upon reservations. Still, in the 1990s, 109 MPs across the country supported a fresh look at reservation for Jats.

Jats block the rail tracks in Hisar, forcing the cancellation of  many trains. (Photograph by PTI)

After two-and-a-half-decades of official dilly-dallying, there is still no clarity on the status of Jats. Poor management of expectations aside, BJP leaders let loose a flurry of insulting caste-coloured remarks about Jats. The chief offe­nder was BJP MP Rajkumar Saini, of the Saini caste, an OBC group that seeks to protect its share in the state’s 27 per cent OBC quota. The Jats are trying to wedge themselves into this pie. But the government’s ham-handed approach sends signals that they are free to move back to the Congress or INLD.

“The agricultural class is trying to draw attention to their plight, but nobody is listening to them,” says political scientist Harish Puri. He, like others, doesn’t believe reservation is the ‘solution’ to the farm crisis. Yet, for Jats reeling under pressure from non-remunerative farms, it’s a valid demand. “In a state where teachers could not do class V level sums, the government is deeply misguided to seek ‘large’ investors instead of supporting farmers,” he says.

The Khattar government’s ‘achievements’ are limited, such as announcing new highways, while there is much emphasis on yoga as a proxy for healthcare—indeed, Baba Ramdev has been given cabinet rank. And when a church was attacked in Hisar by the VHP in March 2015, Khattar alleged that its Christian priest lured Hindu youths with the promise of brides.

The consequences, not just of last week’s unrest but of 18 months of polarising BJP rule, are still unfolding. Khattar himself was heckled by Rohtak’s (non-Jat) trading com­munity. These other communities allege that the security forces didn’t do enough to protect them from Jat mobs.

CM Manohar Lal Khattar. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

“The three parties (Congress, BJP, INLD} are working together to stoke unr­est. Hindu-Muslim issues don’t arise in Haryana. Here the political issue is Jat versus non-Jat. BJP leaders have been abusing Jats for a year.... The environment has been given a violent turn,” says Naveen Jaihind, an AAP leader in Rohtak.

The relentless caste-Hindu symbolism over the beef issue raises chances of confrontations with Haryana’s Dalits as well. Many say the old ‘bhaichara’—the abi­lity of dominant communities to paper over conflicts—will take months, even years, to thaw. “It’s not a good thing that there’s a Jat-non-Jat split, but it won’t last,” says Subhash Barala, president, BJP Haryana.

At stake here are the BJP’s own electoral prospects, though still three years away. The BJP knows a clear majority can be achieved without the Jats. Sign­ificantly, the BJP dominated the 2014 assembly polls everywhere except in western Haryana, the ‘Jat belt’. With Jats out of the way, the Khattar sarkar obviously picked on engineering OBC votes. In taking a leap from Hindutva to caste pol­arisation as a tactic, the government may have isolated more friends than it had bargained for.

By Pragya Singh in New Delhi

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