There is a new Jat in town. And he is sick of being a son of the soil and doing the nation’s heavy lifting. Gaurav Jain and Nisha Susan meet a community in the midst of a very big churning
In the late 1990s, when kitsch was still cool and Channel V was the best friend everyone had been waiting for, Udham Singh arrived on his haunches. Props: a buffalo, a lathi and a dangerous, deadpan sense of humour. Udham was a Borat before his time, both playing out the stereotypes of a Haryanvi Jat and puncturing the hot air balloons of English speaking urbanites. Manish Makhija, the radio jockey and music composer who played and scripted Udham Singh, lives in Mumbai. The show might be long gone but his Jatphilia still thrives. Occasionaly he chats up young Jats in Mumbai nightclubs where, far from home, they’re thrilled at the chance to to slip back into the lingo and rough hewn accents that their parents paid so much to erase out of them.
The jats occupy their own niche in the mosaic of stereotypes in the Indian consciousness, and the stereotype can turn out to be startlingly alive: a marshal race, patriarchal, brawny, artless, proud, phlegmatic, blunt, impetuous, fight-ready. In shorthand, somewhat similar to Punjabis — but gruffer. “They say things straight,” says Makhija. “I’ve always thought that the Jat reputation for aggression comes from a frustration that other people are unwilling to listen to the truth.” And when the Jats threaten to disrupt the minding-our-own-business lives of urban Indians with demands of wanting to be classified as OBCs, the rest of the country is left puzzled. What is their problem? Where’s all that pride now? Just where do they get off?
Over a thousand kilometers away from Mumbai, across UP and Haryana great masses of Jats would agree with Makhija. The summer has just begun and their battle is being conducted in fits and starts. Under the banner of All India Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti (AIJASS), thousands of Jats spent 20 days in March squatting on 14 train tracks in UP and Haryana. Their demand vexed the country, and yet to them it seemed simple, natural, logical. Jats are already considered OBC (at the state level) in half a dozen states, including UP and Delhi. In Rajasthan they already have OBC status in both state and Central level (barring two districts). Make the same happen for Jats everywhere.
Or else? Or else watch Delhi grind to a halt, its roads blocked off without access to essential supplies, oil, even water.
This virile threat is not, despite newspaper columnists’ confusion, a sudden development. It’s been a long time coming, and now it’s reached siren levels.
Last month, after a year of hectic procrastination and delay tactics, Delhi finally panicked in slow motion. Trains cancelled! Are these Jats going to be like the violent Gujjars? They want reservation in state and central government jobs! But aren’t they embarrassed in demanding to become OBCs?
On March 26, the energy is still high in Kafurpur village, near Amroha in UP, though after a Supreme Court order to resume essential supplies, the movement has stopped blocking the tracks and moved its agitation to a tented college ground across the street. The police presence is relaxed and friendly. UP Chief Minister Mayawati has no bone to pick with the movement, despite the acrimonious relationship between Jats and Dalits. AIJASS president Yashpal Malik left at midnight to attend a hasty meeting called by Haryana CM BS Hooda. A week earlier, a meeting with Home Minister P Chidambaram had gotten nowhere. Over the last five years, Malik has led massive and determinedly peaceful demonstrations, each time calling it off when the government promised to look into it. Last year saw the AIJASS issue a series of escalating threats – including cutting off Delhi’s water supply at Muradnagar for a while in June, threats to disrupt the CWG and blocking dozens of roads to Delhi in September (which involved the one burst of violence so far in the agitation, when an SP allegedly shot a jat demonstrator in Hisar which led to a riot) – but the politicians proved better at brinkmanship, providing falsetto assurances every time that went nowhere. Last Novemeber at another demonstration in Jantar Mantar, the jats pronounced that they were done with their grovelling – they’d now meet the powers-that-be on their homeground, not in Delhi. They resolved their March 2011 agitation at that meeting, and when still nothing had happened by this Spring, blocked the trains tracks last month which finally got the nation’s attention.
For now, the agitation has been suspended for six months till September after assurances from both the Centre and CM Hooda that they will seriously consider the demands. In the interim, the jats plan to organise ‘chetna yatras‘ (warning rallies) to ensure that the fever of discontent stays high in the heartland.
The people gathered at Kafurpur are not in the least disheartened. They have been fobbed off so far, they are not going to be fobbed off forever. They’re convinced they have the power – and the will – to turn Delhi into a starving island.
In a strange way, it is the electric world of the island of Delhi that is the prize. In village after village, Jat families are announcing that they are done. We are done with farming. What can you earn with working on 10bighas of land? We are done with farmers’ credit cards and bank loans. We are done with being patriotic sons of the soil, with doing the nation’s heavy lifting, with serving as soldiers and lowly police constables. Do you know how many Jats died in Kargil? We want our children to go to technical colleges and live as they do in the cities. We want technology. The cry is uniform from the men, from the women, from young people and older people – we’ve been left behind in this slantedly globalised world and we now know our brawn will get us nothing. We want our pens to have power.
Entering Jat colonies in Kandhera village outside the dusty UP town of Baraut, there isn’t the miasma of dissatisfaction that blanketed the agitations in Amroha. Instead, there is the silence of houses surrounded by fields, rooms where the sun is always carefully kept out, the comfort of shadows. The eyes surveying visitors are confident and rather incurious. Conversations are direct and salty. This is the virile, somewhat insular face of the Jat stereotype. The average Jat will trace his history back a few centuries, to one or another battle fought bravely. Or tell you how Jats descended from Shiva’s dreadlocks – his matted ‘jattas’. A recent medical study of what is known as the ‘Jat mutation’ shows distinct genetic links between Jats and the Roma gypsies. But Jats are not a carefully gazetted caste with a cultivated caste myth. Even the current AIJASS movement is based on an ethnic identity beyond the caste system, inclusive of Jat Sikhs and Jat Muslims.
Which makes the claiming of OBC status a very pragmatic decision, without stigma, without embarrassment. Peetam Singh, a retired bank manager in JP Nagar district in UP is one of hundreds in the movement who will tell you, “We were never oppressed before. But we are now, aren’t we? What can you earn on 15 bighas? How can you send your children to good schools.” What enrages the Jats is that every other community they consider their equal got the OBC status. “The Gujjars, the Kashyaps, Yadavs, Kurmis….” Singh goes on listing what decades ago sociologist MN Srinivas handily and vaguely called dominant castes – land, political power, pride in their geneology and claims to having steered history.
Every village has a host of unmarried men. Unmarriageable since they’re farmers. Farming is uncool, say the young boys and girls
Big towns and cities are only a few hours away but they might as well be light years. Older Jats complain that their youngsters want and buy, like everyone else, cellphones, jeans, cars. But they have no way of paying the bills. Abhisehk Tomar, 31, the not-so-young-looking youth leader of the AIJASS in UP runs a spare parts shop in Baraut. “Of course, people turn to crime,” he says. “Robbery, murder, it’s all getting very common among young Jats.” He also expresses pious despair that young people are turning to alcohol. Others are less sanctimonious, such as his 24-year-old friend Sanjeev Chowdhary, who actually works in the liquor store across Abhishek’s shop.
22-year-old Vikas Tomar shuttles between Rohini, a Delhi suburb and his village two hours away. Quiet, podgy and easygoing, he has a raw stitched wound on his arm, which he keeps picking at. He was injured in Amroha while squatting on the railway tracks and is reticent to explain how. When prodded about crime and young people, he smiles and shrugs. Sure. Yes, some of his friends have turned to crime. Hours later, feeling more comfortable and apropos of nothing, he shyly brags about ‘helping’ someone in Delhi evict a tenant. How he and a gang of jat boys arrived quietly. Gagged the tenant. Took his mobile. Put him in a sack. Beat him up a bit. Changed the locks. Shifted the house items to a tempo and drove them all away to the tenant’s village. Neighbours heard nothing. Vikas smiles.
Every village has households of unmarried men. Unmarriagable since they’re farmers. Jat pradhan Sukhram Pal says contemptously that he would rather marry his daughter to a sweeper than a farmer. His pals around the charpoy guffaw. Many UP jats distance themselves from the infamous misogyny of Haryana’s khaps. “We have love marriages,” explains Naresh Singh, a UP jat pradhan. “We will stay united. We need to tell those [Harayana jats] to be a little more normal.”
Yogendra Yadav, senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, recently wrote a newspaper column in disgust at what he called the ‘familiar script’ of the Jat crisis. India is going to experience this crisis over and over again with different communities. Yadav’s solution is an evidence-based approach through an Equal Opportunities Commission (proposed by an expert committee and promised in the 2009 Congress manifesto) that will actually examine socio-economic data for competing claims for reservation. Yadav also railed briefly about the national media treating these caste groups ‘as if they are alien tribes from Africa.’ Yadav’s solution is an excellent one, one that may rescue governments from the quicksand they are in.
On the other hand, the Jat ‘script’ is proof to some scholars that the caste system is not a framework that explains reality – that the Jat or any other caste is always a moving target. Or to put it simply, why is the caste framework unable to allow us to identify who a Jat is. Vivek Dhareshwar, Bengaluru-based scholar has long mocked the caste system as a way of understanding Indian reality – calling it the theoretical framework of the colonial explorers who were meeting ‘alien tribes’. He says, “It is a framework trying to hold disparate ideas and failing. What does the term ‘caste’ picks up? Jat, Jain a muslim, trade, craft. All the idea of caste can be is a counter of the state and groups of people will try to see if they can fit themselves into the counter. It isn’t a theoretical framework.” Certainly, there is something absurd about the Jats claiming OBC status because the Gujjars in Rajasthan got it and the Gujjars in turn wanting to become declared Scheduled Tribe out of fear that the Jats will eat into the OBC pie.
The jats are not fighting for their identity or culture, they are not fighting historical grievances, they are not fighting social ostracisation. In typical fashion, they’re upfront in stating that this is all about economics, about seeing themselves left behind, about the fear of a perpetual lag. Farming is uncool, say both the young boys and girls. It’s also unviable, chorus their elders. The community wants modernity, and for this it is resorting to a traditional solution – caste reservation. It wants technology, and for this it dreams of that archaic thing – a government job.
The jats are clear: in a world of not too many options, this is one way of getting a head start. “Even our gods in temples are now made in China – and China is a godless country!” says one elderly gentleman who won’t identify himself. “But it’s invested in technology, in teaching young people – we also want that.”
Back at the college grounds, dozens of young girls sit in the sun and discuss how they don’t want to stay home after school. They want work, they’d love to work in an MNC but how do you get into good companies without having gone to a good college? And who has the money to pay for a good college anyway? The older women ask angrily, do you know how far they have to commute to go to a bad college? Mithlesh, a housewife in her 30s, almost screams, “Don’t we have dreams?” Those sitting around her are first startled, then guffaw at her cinematic explosion. The ambition and despair might be expressed in borrowed pop culture lingo, but the desire to rise in the global food chain is very real.
In Kandhera, Sachin Tomar is 22 but seems younger. The first year B Com student sits in the living room of a sprawling house. Sachin is an lanky, mild giant who wants to be a teacher but is probably going to end up as a delhi police constable, like his elder brother. That elder brother, praised as the scholar in the family, gave the Crime Branch exam but missed the cut-off by 2 percent. His father grimly points out that he’d have made it if there was reservation for Jats.
Contrast this with Rinku Chowdhary, 23, son of a sugar mill owner near Amroha. Dressed in a blazing pink muscle tshirt and always on his cellphone, Rinku is in a long sulk about not getting into a job he wanted in Dehra Dun even after finishing his MBA. He has a sense of frustrated entitlement but the discontent is palpable even in him.
Historian Irfan Habib once quoted Huein Tsang’s 7th century account of encountering what Habib speculates were the Jats, where Tsang says these people “have no masters” and mentions their “unfeeling temper” and “hasty disposition”. AIJASS president Yashpal Malik says something startling that shows how the jats are vying to break out of that ageless mould, and his words might also bridge the gap between Sachin and Rinku. “We have the raw products, we wear jeans and tshirt and have cellphones and cement houses now. But real prosperity will come withtehzeeb. We have to teach ourselves that, it will come with better thinking.”
Today, Rinku and Sachin and Vikas and Abhishek and other Jat youth are always on message, dully trilling what they’ve been taught through the movement. But between their elders’ lines the young jats of India are hoping to strike their own designs, as they slowly come into focus. Between his glamourous pouts Rinku has visions of a greater Jat future. We will have schools. We will have engineering colleges. Medical colleges. “I want to make Jat a brand,” he smiles. “like Nike and Reebok.”