Jat stir: Unemployment is the real problem

The government's apparent willingness to capitulate to violent protesters from the Jat community in Haryana is unfortunate. It has been reported that, after Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh met some leaders of the protest, the Centre agreed to set up a committee to examine the demand, and that the Haryana state government - also led by the Bharatiya Janata Party - would introduce a Bill to grant Jats the status of Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the state. This followed an agitation in which legislators' houses were burnt down, trains and trucks were attacked, highways in and out of Delhi cut off, and a canal that supplied water to Delhi taken over. The state administration's response has been dilatory and confused. Eventually the Army was called out, and the canal is reported to have been secured, with Delhi's water supply expected to be restored soon. The agitation refused to peter out on Monday, with several roads into Delhi blocked, including National Highway 1. Over the 11 days of the agitation, at least 11 people have died and 150 have been injured.

Giving in to such demands when expressed with violence sets an unfortunate precedent. The Jat community in Haryana is locally dominant, with strong presence in politics and control of many local institutions like panchayats, and should not normally be seen as a candidate for quotas. Naturally, its local dominance permits it to challenge the forces of the state more effectively than genuinely marginalised communities. Such open confrontation with the forces of law and order should not be rewarded with an apparent victory. This is doubly important because the Jats are not alone in agitating for OBC status and the benefits in government employment that it provides. Of late, other such locally dominant land-owning castes and communities across the country have agitated for this status. Gujarat was brought to its knees last year by a protest led on behalf of the Patidar community, generally called Patels. Like the Jats, Patidars are extremely influential in local and state politics. Similarly, earlier this year the state of Andhra Pradesh was rocked by violence by the Kapu community, another locally powerful land-owning caste, demanding inclusion in the backward classes list in the state.

It is clear that a common rationale must lie behind such seemingly similar demands - one that is born of similar economic transformations in such socially disparate regions. Land-owning castes have struggled with the fragmentation of land holdings. Although, by some estimates, only 10 per cent of Jats in Haryana are landless, fragmentation means that each land-owning family has less of an asset than it did a generation ago. Meanwhile, other communities have prospered in the modern economy, upending the rural hierarchy and challenging the Jats' or the Patidars' local supremacy. And the jobs that the private sector was supposed to create in order to replace farming have not materialised in full measure - and where they have, locally dominant castes may feel that they have not been able to corner them to the extent that they deserved. This underlines the need to expand employment opportunities in rural and semi-urban areas - which means the pro-industry reform agenda must not be abandoned. But till those jobs materialise, giving in to violent demands is a dangerous route to take.

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