Karwadi, Rajasthan: Some 225km from the Indian Capital, close to the railway tracks between Karwadi and Peepalpura villages in Bharatpur district, agitating Gujjars kept constant vigil at a tent with a dozen wooden boxes as they continued their agitation seeking a downgrade in their social status and an inclusion in the government’s list of scheduled tribes (ST) as that will give them preferential access to jobs and education.
“We have kept the bodies of those killed in police firing in these boxes and filled them with sand,” said an agitator, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that army and paramilitary forces are closing in on what is considered ground zero of the Gujjar agitation. “We will keep them here until our demands are met and the injustices done to us addressed.”
Impasse continues: The Gujjars block an arterial railway line in Bharatpur, Rajasthan
Tuesday was the fifth day of the Gujjars’ struggle and Kirori Singh Bainsla, a retired colonel and head of the movement, vowed to continue the agitation even as the Rajasthan government followed up cases of murder, arson and violence slapped against him with a contempt plea for allegedly violating a high court order restraining community leaders from taking the law into their hands.
“If conditions permit, I will definitely go to the court and put forward my side (of the argument),” Bainsla said even as the court directed him to appear before it on 30 May.
At the moment, the odds do not seem to favour the Gujjars with most mainstream political parties reluctant to support their cause. The parties fear that doing so may alienate other communities, who numerically outnumber the Gujjars.
Meanwhile, the agitation continues to take its toll on life and the economy.
“As per our estimate, business losses run close to Rs250 crore,” said K.L. Jain, honorary secretary general of the Rajasthan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a local industry body. That could change and the losses to industry mount with Bainsala sticking to his guns this time around.
“History will not repeat itself,” he said, referring to a similar agitation last year that claimed at least 26 lives but was withdrawn following his talks with chief minister Vasundhara Raje. “I will look like a fool if I miss this opportunity. We will stand firm this time.”
Gujjars, who comprise more than 5% of Rajasthan’s population of over 56 million, have been demanding ST status on the basis of what they claim was a promise made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2003 assembly elections. While their classification among other backward classes (OBC) gives them access to 27% reservation, they have been demanding eligibility for 7.5% reservations for STs. That’s because ever since the dominant Jat community was included among the OBCs a decade ago, Gujjars have suffered, while the Meena community has prospered through reservations for STs.
As violence spread to other parts of the state, the police teargassed protesters on the Delhi-Jaipur highway and in Tonk district, and railway services remained affected. “This is peak season for us as schools reopen in Mumbai during this month,” said a senior official with the Railway Board. “So far, we have had to cancel seven trains going towards Mumbai, while five have been diverted.” Radhika Chopra, a sociologist at Delhi University, said the stir reflected more than just hunger for reservations. “This agitation has not just been propelled by the competitive relationship that the Gujjars share with the Meenas but it also reflects the larger concern over the threat to agrarian livelihoods from a globalising economy,” she said.
Geeta Chaturvedi, who teaches political science at the University of Rajasthan, said the state government had clearly acted irresponsibly. “Since Meenas are more in number, no political party wishes to side with the Gujjars at the cost of annoying the Meena community. That being the case, parties should refrain from making electoral promises that they can’t fulfil,” Chaturvedi added.
Manish Tiwari, a Congress spokesperson, blamed the state government for the state of affairs. However, he refrained from backing the Gujjar community’s demands.
Even Sachin Pilot, a Gujjar leader and a Lok Sabha member of the Congress from Dausa, who claimed the state government had issued orders preventing his entry into the state said: “There are six parameters in the Constitution that dictate who should be given ST status. In Jammu and Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, a vast majority of Gujjars meet these criteria. The decision needs to be taken on Constitution grounds.”
Along with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress on Tuesday demanded the removal of the Raje government.
The BJP, which has been forced to shift its national executive meeting from Jaipur to Delhi due to the agitation, urged the Congress to make its own stand on the Gujjars clear.
However, with assembly elections due in the state later this year, experts said the Centre is unlikely to act upon chief minister Raje’s letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sent on Monday, recommending 4% to 6% reservation for Gujjars in the category of denotified class of tribals or nomadic tribes.
Ashish Sharma and K.P. Narayana Kumar in New Delhi contributed to this story.