Economic Grievance in Today's India: Jats and the New Caste Conflict

People stand behind damaged motorcycles and a van that were set alight by protesters during a demonstration by members of the Jat community in Haryana, India, February 2016.

STRINGER / REUTERS
People stand behind damaged motorcycles and a van that were set alight by protesters during a demonstration by members of the Jat community in Haryana, India, February 2016.

The winners in India’s new economy are most often urban, educated, and belong to the Hindu upper castes. The losers are various. Those who give up land for factories, highways, and townships are not just farmers but the castes with access to land.

For three days in February, a violent caste protest shook the Indian state of Haryana. Protestors from the Jat caste blocked the national highway, halted trains, set buses on fire, and torched the finance minister’s home. They then damaged the Munak canal, responsible for the bulk of the water supply to New Delhi. The Indian government called in the army and paramilitary troops, and India’s air force flew sorties in support. After 28 people were killed, two hundred were injured, and the economic losses reached millions of dollars, the government agreed to the protesters’ demands, ending the violence. 

The Jats were demanding “reservations," or quotas for positions in government jobs and educational institutions. India provides nationwideaffirmative action programs for three distinct groups: the “Scheduled Castes,” castes historically treated as untouchable; the Scheduled Tribes, India’s mostly forest-dwelling indigenous people; and the “Other Backward Castes.” The last category is far more nebulously defined than the first two, and there has been a long-standing debate in India about what constitutes “backwardness.” Much of the caste-based unrest in India over the past two decades stems from a desire to be included in this group.

The Jats are one such caste. But they are not “backward” by most metrics. They are a prosperous rural landowning caste, already well represented in government employment. And they are politically powerful, making up a full quarter of Haryana’s population. Out of the ten chief ministers who have ruled Haryana since 1996, five have been Jats.

Yet they have been demanding recognition as a backward caste since at least 2012. And they are not the only group to do so. The past decade has seen a wave of similar demands, including from the Patels in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Gujjars in Rajasthan, and the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.

In the case of the Jats, the federal government has been sympathetic. In 2014, the outgoing Congress government included them in a list of backward castes. The new government elected later that year, led by theBharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supported the move. But last year, India’s Supreme Court struck down the government’s decision, sparking the February protests.

The winners in India’s new economy are most often urban, educated, and belong to the Hindu upper castes. The losers are various.

Why do well-off groups, such as the Jats, want affirmative action so badly in the first place? Despite their initially privileged position, the Jats have been excluded from India’s new economy. Agriculture, which has been floundering for years, is no longer profitable. But there are few jobs in the non-agricultural private sector. And Jat youth often lack the education to be competitive for such jobs. “We are at a crossroads,” said the uncle of one young Jat man who died demanding reservations. “Land holdings are reducing by the day. Farming is no longer profitable. And our children have no jobs. What’s wrong if we agitate for quotas? People are calling us troublemakers. But we are only fighting to uplift a community that’s been left behind. And quota is the only way.” 

Residents fill their empty containers with water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi, India, February 2016.
ANINDITO MUKHERJEE/ REUTERS

Residents fill their empty containers with water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi, India, February 2016.  

Other groups have a similar tale. The Patels of Gujarat, for instance, are a prosperous and politically powerful rural caste who began in the late 1980s to transfer their rural landholdings into industrial investment. They moved into small-scale industries, such as diamond processing, ceramics, and tool-making. But once Gujarat’s program of economic liberalization began to favor big industries over smaller ones, economic opportunities for many Patels dried up, forcing them to look for government jobs—where affirmative action would give them a leg up.

The protest by the Jats and Patels highlights a unique aspect of India’s economic transformation: It is taking place in an ethnically diverse, highly participatory democracy.  The market transitions in the post-Communist world and in China happened in ethnically diverse societies too. But the post-Communist countries were only beginning to make a transition to democracy when they underwent their transitions, and China remains a one-party state. Economic transformation in a diverse society usually produces ethnically defined winners and losers. But in a participatory democracy, losers are going to protest as loudly as they can. Those with political clout are likely to protest loudest and are also most likely to be heard.

The winners in India’s new economy are most often urban, educated, and belong to the Hindu upper castes. The losers are various. Those who give up land for factories, highways, and townships are not just farmers but the castes with access to land. If forests and mountains are taken over for mining, the losers are the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (STs). If machine-made saris replace hand-made ones, the losers are often Muslim weavers. But losing groups like the Jats and Patels are more powerful and more influential among political parties than the others. 

This is why caste unrest has increasingly come from these dominant groups—and why the Jat protest was so effective in winning concessions from the government. It is also why economic transformation in India is likely to be accompanied by a resurgence of caste politics. This is not a politics of primordial identities, stubbornly resisting the winds of change. It is a reinvention of the new economy, modern in every respect. Once of the ways in which caste is being reinvented in liberalizing India is as a new, trans-regional identity. The Jat protests in Haryana are likely to influence similar struggles in other north Indian states in which Jats are found. The Patel protests in Gujarat resonated thousands of miles away, with the Kurmis in Bihar.

These reinvented identities go hand in hand with new forms of protest. Political protest has occupied a long-standing place in India’s democracy since the time of Mahatma Gandhi. Techniques have included blocking roads or trains (rasta roko), encircling the homes of those in power (gheraos), strikes (hartals), self-immolation, and suicide. But the Jat agitation in Haryana is the first time in recent memory that a caste-based protest used water infrastructure—in this case, the Munak canal, constructed just two years ago—to pressure the government. The protests of the past have often impeded access to other kinds of infrastructure such as roads and rail tracks. But blocking the access of India’s capital city to water produces an immediate public crisis in a way that these other blockades did not. It is also a more visible challenge to the authority of the state. This is why the Indian government called out the army immediately. No doubt, this strategy also helped the Jats extract concessions. As caste agitations increase, that lesson is not likely to be ignored.

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