In Nepal, the dying embers of the monarchy are igniting the flames of democracy. King Gyanendra has finally exited Narayanhity palace, the home of the Shah dynasty for more than a 100 years, and moved to a private property on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The Kingship is dead. Long live the Republic.
Back in India, the chaos and anarchy associated with a republic is alive and well—in parts. In Karnataka, the Election Commission has successfully presided over another chapter of we, the people. The Congress has wisely refrained from joining hands with Deve Gowda’s party, which was widely seen to be betraying an honourable deal with the BJP last year. Sitting in the opposition in Karnataka—it looks like this is becoming a habit with the Congress in other states as well—could be the first step towards winning back the confidence of the people in this state.
It is in Rajasthan that the disconnect between those in power and those who vote them in is showing up the most these days. One year ago, in June 2007, the Gujjar community, led by Kirori Singh Bainsla —a man who started off as a village schoolteacher, then joined the Army at the lowest rank of sepoy—called off its agitation demanding scheduled tribe (ST) status (they wanted the benefits that came with ST reservations).
For one year, Vasundhara Raje’s government in Rajasthan never spoke to the Gujjar community. There was no attempt at understanding their demands, and why they had been manifested in a demand for reservations. The irony, that the Gujjars wanted to remove themselves from the other backward classes (OBC) category and put themselves down a notch in the country’s highly stratified caste structure, to ST status, was quickly forgotten.
Considering India constantly focuses on the theme of dialogue and its variants with other nations —the composite dialogue with Pakistan, a strategic partnership with Russia and the US, among others—it boggles the mind as to why Indians don’t speak to each other back home.
The Gujjars are a prime example of those more sinned against than sinning. In the 1857 war against the British, both Muslim and Hindu Gujjars were at the forefront of the struggle on behalf of Bahadur Shah Zafar. But after they prevailed, the British roundly punished the Gujjars, notifying them as a criminal tribe. After Independence, Nehru’s cabinet righted the historical wrong and denotified the Gujjars (which is why they are called a denotified tribe).
But if the Gujjars have to be saved from becoming a political football between the Centre and the BJP government in Rajasthan, both sides must come up with an out-of-the-box solution, similar to the one that cracked the student reservation conundrum last year.
When scores of students were agitating on the streets of the Capital, against the OBC quota introduced by Arjun Singh’s ministry, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a bright idea. He realized reservations had become such a powerful tool precisely because they guaranteed certain social and economic benefits (a seat in a college, a job, etc). Why not stand the whole issue on its head and bring the laws of economics into play?
That’s when Singh decided to expand the economic pie, instead of allowing it to shrink further (which is what the additional OBC reservation would have done). So the total number of seats was expanded, keeping the general category as well enhancing the OBC quota.
Can something similar not be done for the Gujjars? For a community to wilfully want to regress to ST status must indicate the huge stresses within. If the Congress and the BJP can agree to expanding the social and economic benefits that accrue to OBC (as well as the most backward classes) and put them on par with the ST and SC communities, the Gujjar protests might fizzle out sooner than we think.
To reach a consensus, a prerequisite is that the two parties at least talk to each other—something that is, increasingly, becoming a rarity in the world’s largest democracy.
So, Raje has passed the buck by writing a letter to the Prime Minister, which he has, in turn, forwarded to the relevant ministries. The Gujjars are fast learning that the only way they can be heard in Delhi is by resorting to violence.
That is why they are blocking the Delhi-Jaipur highway and have removed fishplates from rail tracks (and perhaps the tracks too). Having wrecked Jaipur’s domestic tourist season, they’re now threatening to hold Delhi to ransom.
Truth is, India may be the world’s largest republic, but it could take a few lessons from neighbouring tiny Nepal. The Maoists won power in Kathmandu—which gave them the right to end the 239-year-old monarchy in Nepal—when they ended their 10-year-old guerrilla war and participated in elections in April. The irony is, it was the Indian government that first brokered the peace on behalf of the Maoists.
Examples abound of Delhi’s inability to talk with its own people—in Kashmir, for instance, or the North-East. On the day Gyanendra leaves the Narayanhity palace in Kathmandu, the Gujjars may be hitting the streets of Delhi.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org