History is a field in which not every fact can be documented at one place. Most historical facts remain unproven unless cited by multiple sources. The fact that different versions of historical events can exist is one that Jats of western Uttar Pradesh recently attempted to turn to their advantage. At a meeting on July 27, a group of Jat khaps declared that they would henceforth marry amongst other castes. Covered in the Jat’s declaration are only those castes whose members they regard contiguous or “close” to themselves, namely the Gujjars, Rajputs and Yadavs.
This meeting preceded a series of khap gatherings on the subject of marriage. On April 4, as many as 21 Jat figureheads circulated a questionnaire with a query inviting a “yes or no” answer: “Should Jats marry Rajputs, Gujjars and Yadavs?” According to those present, the overwhelming response was “yes”.
While it is no surprise that Jats are seeking marriage beyond their fold—the community has infamously low sex ratios—there are lurking suspicions about their motives. First, that Jats are open to inter-caste marriage just enough to let non-Jat women in, but not let Jat women squeeze out. “Jats are bringing wives from Bengal, Assam; even Nepal and Bangladesh,” says Rajvir Mundet, who coordinated the meetings on behalf of the Sarv Khap, or collective khap. “At least 20 per cent males cannot find a Jat to marry—for shortage of women.”
Their declaration has yet another meaning that would not be lost on the communities they sought to coopt. This has to do with the Jat’s desire to be identified as Kshatriya. Jat self-definition places them on the second rung of the Hindu varna ladder associated with warriors and valour. The Rajputs in Jatland contest this claim. They won’t accept mutual marriage ties and recognise the Jat’s declaration as a search for higher status.
“People are free to marry anyone they choose. Even the Supreme Court has said so. But Jats cannot impose intermarriage. This is not acceptable,” says Thakur Puran Singh, a farm activist in the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli belt around whom the Rajput community rallies. What he means is, inter-caste “love” marriages are fine, but at the social level—for Rajputs as a whole—this new Jat vision is pure anathema. “Jat parents seeking a Rajput match for their children and vice versa is unthinkable.”
That said, the Jats are not truly liberalising caste rules. For, they are not including any other group, such as the Dalits. Ram Mehar, RLD leader and prominent Gujjar figure, says, “People will hesitate to go that far. Society will not accept it.” In his view, the four castes identified are proximate, for they have roots in agriculture. “All castes should come on par. Just like Jains and the baniyas joined hands, let us Gujjars, Jats, Rajputs and Yadavs rise first. For, all four of us as Kshatriyas.”
The Jats have marshalled “history” and obscure mythological bits to buttress their claim of being Kshatriyas. This is a strategy Bihar’s Kushwahas, an OBC community, adopted a few years ago when they claimed descent from Ashoka, the 3rd-century Mauryan emperor, who they claimed was a Kshatriya. The same community had earlier sought refuge in claiming descent from Kush, Rama’s son in the Valmiki epic. “Akbar married a Rajput and his military commander was a Rajput too,” Mundet adds. That is, if alliances with Muslims were acceptable to Rajputs why not with Hindu Jats?
Marrying Rajputs will also solve an existential problem the Jats perceive. “In Mayawati’s time, Dalits controlled UP’s police stations. Yadavs controlled us during the Samajwadi rule. Now it is the Thakur’s turn,” Mundet says in a veiled reference to Yogi Adityanath, a Rajput, whose chief ministership is said to have emboldened his community. “Only intermarriage can break this pattern.”
“But the CM himself is not marrying,” counters Thakur Puran. “I shouldn’t say this, but where the CM is from, Rajputs from here don’t marry those Rajputs.” Therein lies the rub—Rajputs, like Jats or any other community, are stratified with each sub-caste following its own marriage rules. If the khaps disapprove marriages within gotras, Rajput clans such as Pundirs and Kachwaha also marry within accepted sub-castes.
To alter varna status, communities seeking accommodation would have to adhere to proscriptions of the higher jati on food habits, marriage norms, even means of livelihood. It is thus more likely that those in the same or higher varna will not recognise a new member into the established hierarchy. “The Rajputs will not intermarry with Jats,” says Satish Prakash, a political activist. “They will certainly not give their daughters into a Jat family. If they had to, they would have done so in Rajasthan. Besides, Jats don’t have girls, so what will they give in marriage?” He isn’t surprised the dominant Jats want to leapfrog at least two rungs up the varna staircase considering recent events like the suicide in August of a 25-year-old Jat PhD scholar from a Baghpat college in western UP. In a 16-page suicide note, Manjula Devak accused his teacher, a Rajput, of caste discrimination and mental harassment. “This should tell you something about why Jats seek status,” he says. “Another reason is, rural Jat life exists for one purpose: torturing Dalits. That is why they want to be able to say, ‘I am Rajput’.”
Besides, if the status of UP’s Jats is accepted, it gives Jats of Rajasthan and Haryana also that option. “Rajasthan’s Jats do not aspire to intermarry with Rajputs,” says Rajiv Gupta, former professor of sociology at University of Rajasthan. “The state’s Rajputs were feudal lords and Jats were peasants. That traditional rivalry therefore exists,” he says. “In food habits and marriage rituals, there is a qualitative difference between the two and the hierarchy is well-established. Hence Sanskritisation does not take place in Rajasthan.”
Gupta is referring to a late 1950s theory called Sanskritisation, propounded by eminent sociologist M.N. Srinivas. This is a process of social change wherein castes placed lower in the hierarchy gain social and cultural mobility by emulating higher-status castes. This is done with the hope to transcend, in a few generations, to a higher-ranked status. Srinivas examined the Coorgis emulating Lingayats and Brahmins, which raised their ritual status. The Marathas did this in the 17th century, culminating in the coronation of Shivaji as a Kshatriya. In Srinivas’ conception, middle regions of the caste hierarchy are more prone to attempting Sanskritisation.
In western UP, as Rajputs and Jats are by and large agriculturalists, the hierarchy is not as well established as in Rajasthan. Yet, if the Jats imitate Rajput social customs and habits—in the jewellery they wear or by frequenting the same temples—it does not make sense if the varna mismatch persists. “Caste gets clustered by varna and so varna categories do matter,” says Satya P. Gautam, former professor and chairperson of the Centre for Philosophy, JNU. Contrast the Jat varna aspiration with their agitation for OBC status at the Centre, and they appear confused. But even the Marathas want to be grouped with OBCs for existential reasons despite the three-century-old claims.
Gautam believes there is an explanation for such contradictions: Often, groups are not pursuing Sanskritisation, but an altogether different manoeuvre, he feels. “They are playing a game in which they are rising, not just in one domain but others as well. They aspire, in sync with India’s traditional society, for higher caste status. At the same time, they see benefits from social mobility through OBC status,” he says. Gautam feels this signals a failure of politics—and social groups—to perpetuate “secular, democratic and modern” ideas. It’s not just Kshatriyas. Even Brahmins are emulated by those considered lower on the varna ladder. “Is it not noticeable that Sharma, a Brahmin caste name, is growing in popularity,” he says.
A painting of the coronation of warrior king Shivaji
Marathas’ claim to Kshatriya status was based on activity, not birth—what sociologists call “attained” as opposed to “ascriptive” identity. In Bihar, the Teli community has claimed Bania (Vaishya) status and started using the Gupta surname. “I have interacted with several and the Guptas of Uttar Pradesh have incorporated them within the larger Vaishya fold. However, they do not intermarry,” says Gupta. “Should the claim be accepted, they can appear as one dominant political-economic power. This is not a unification of two castes but a situational coordination.”
Gaurang Jani, who teaches sociology at Gujarat University, has been observing Sanskritisation run parallel with privileged-caste efforts to get OBC status. “You are dwija, but seek non-dwija status socially,” he says. “The rules of dwija apply strictly only when it comes to marriage.” This, he says, is why scores of Gujarat’s caste associations of “Kshatriyas” have morphed into mere marriage bureaus. “Everyone has taken ‘Sinh’ surname, but after 20-25 years of such caste uplift, at the time of marriage everybody returns to their own caste.”
A contrasting instance is of Bihar’s Bhumihars, who have intermarried Brahmins for over a century. But the Bhumihars were already regarded higher caste, whereas the Passis of the same region were sold another theory—that they descended from ‘Parshuram ka paseena’, or sweat of the warrior-sage Parashuram who features in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This, though a political strategy, has salience since communities lower on the caste-Varna scale seek self-worth.
Chandan Chauhan, a Samajwadi Party leader from Khatauli, encounters this struggle for self-worth, which has really taken hold wherever he goes. “I think people feel let down by politics and so everybody is seeking maan-maryada—prestige. They want prestige more than they want development,” he says.
This notion of prestige pulled Rajasthan’s Rajputs to the streets this June, agitating for a CBI inquiry into the killing of Anandpal Singh, a gangster, by Rajasthan Police. The Rajput’s anger partly drew from their sense of neglect and insecurity. They feel that since Anandpal was caught up in rivalries with Jat strongmen, his death signals the state’s “step-motherly” attitude towards Rajputs. “No Supreme Court guideline was followed in Anandpal’s encounter. The CM said she did not know about it, the IG Police said he had no knowledge either. Whether it was faked needs to be checked,” says Shri Rajput Sabha leader Giriraj Singh Lotwara, who leads one Rajput group that agitated. “In Rajasthan, there is no Rajput versus Muslim—if the state government continues its step-motherly treatment, we will combine with Muslims and go very far politically,” says Lotwara, issuing what has become the ultimate threat in Indian politics.
According to Gupta, the issue isn’t Anandpal at all but Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister. “Initially, Raje would say she represents all Rajasthan communities, for she cannot claim that she is Rajput,” he explains. Raje is a Maratha married into one of Rajasthan’s formerly royal Jat clans. “So, she always says she represents the chhattees kaum—everybody. That is why traditional Rajasthan has not accepted her,” he says.
The Rajputs have a laundry list of grouses, from former defence minister Jaswant Singh, a Rajput, being neglected by the BJP to the lack of progress in a CBI probe into an older encounter death, to the ‘Raj Mahal row’ wherein the state had sealed the Jaipur royal family’s former residence. Another source of anger is the government “going slow” on their demand for Economically Backward Class status. BJP leader Kirti Kumar died of swine flu in hospital but hardly got a condolence message, Lotwara says. “Sanwarlal Jat died and got full state honors. Is this not proof of government bias towards one particular community?”