The Gujjar protest and reservation politics

1. Gujjar protest in Rajasthan

Since 23 May 2008, Rajasthan Police have killed at least 38 persons in the protest organised by the Gujjar demanding for “Scheduled Tribes” status for access to the benefits of affirmative action. As part of these protests the Gujjars have blocked the national highway (NH8) that connects Delhi to Jaipur and removed railway tracks in Bayana, the epicentre of the unrest. The State government of Rajasthan has retaliated by jamming communication networks, including mobile phones in the area and moved in more security forces. As the Gujjars threaten to stop supply of milk and other essential commodities from 29 May 2008, Rajasthan government invoked National Security Act in 15 districts.

The latest protest started on 23 May 2008,launched by the Gujjar Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti (Gujjar Reservation Struggle Council) a week ahead of the first anniversary of the police killing of  Gujjar demonstrators in Rajasthan and subsequent violence that claimed 26 lives.

On 23 May 2008, the Gujjar Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti called a “rail roko” (rail blockade). The demonstration quickly deteriorated into violence. At least 17 people died when the police opened fire on the demonstrators in the Bayana tehsil of Bharatpur district. [1] Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria accused the   Gujjar protestors of having lynched a policeman identified as Bhola Ram. The State government ordered a judicial probe into the deaths. [2]

 

The violence has spread. On 24 May 2008, another 18 people were reportedly killed and 38 others injured when the police opened fire on demonstrators in Sikandra in Dausa district. However, Director-General of Police of Rajasthan, A.S. Gill put the death toll at four. Mr Gill stated that hundreds of Gujjar protesters, armed with weapons, had attacked Sikandra police station, prompting the police to open fire. [3]

 

2. Background

 

a. Who are the Gujjars?

 

The Gujjars (also known as Gurjars) predominantly inhabit north and northwest Indian states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In the Hindu “varna system”, they are categorized as “Kshatriya”. [4]

 

There are around 53 million Gujjars in India. In Rajasthan, they comprise about 11% of the total population. [5]

 

In Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, Gujjars have been recognized as Scheduled Tribes. In Rajasthan, they are classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and are entitled to quotas in state-run education institutions and government jobs.

 

Their demand is being strongly opposed by Meenas, a tribal community of the state who fear that their shares in the affirmative action will erode.

 

b. Background on the demonstrations:

 

About 25 years ago, a similar demand by the Gujjars of Rajasthan was rejected by the state government of Rajasthan after finding that the Gujjars did not fulfill the conditions set by the Dhebar Commission in 1960 for being included in the ST list. [6]  

 

However, during the election campaign in 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised the Gujjar community that they would be included in the Scheduled Tribe category if the party came to power in the state. The BJP was elected but did not keep its promise. [7]  

 

In September 2006, the Gujjars led a violent protest in Hindaun, Rajasthan, demanding ST status. Following violence in Hindaun, a Cabinet Sub-committee was formed to examine the demand. The Sub-committee, however, failed to come up with any concrete solution. [8]

 

On 29 May 2007, the Gujjars started another demonstration demanding ST status. The violence rapidly spread from Rajasthan to Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Delhi. In a week-long agitation, at least 26 persons were killed (including 21 persons killed by the police) and many were injured in the violence. On 4 June 2007, Gujjar leaders agreed to withdraw their agitation after three days of negotiation with the Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia. The state government agreed to set up a three-member Committee to examine the community's demand for ST status. [9]

 

The Committee headed by Justice Jasraj Chopra, retired judge of the Rajasthan High Court, submitted its report to the State Government on 17 December 2007 [10]. It rejected the Gujjars’ demand for ST status as they did not meet the criteria of identification of the Scheduled Tribes. However, the Committee recommended a special package of benefits. [11]

 

On the basis of the recommendations of the Justice Chopra Committee, the state government on 18 December 2007 decided to set up a four-member high level Committee, to prepare the package of benefits. [12] On 17 May 2008, the Committee headed by Ramdas Agarwal announced a geographic-specific Rs. 282 crore package for Gujjars. The package would directly benefit a population of 9-10 lakh Gujjars living in the districts of Alwar, Sawai Madhopur, Karauli, Dholpur and Jhalawar. [13] The Gujjars rejected the offer and started a new round of demonstrations on 23 May 2008.

 

3. Police Failure

 

On 5 June 2007, the Supreme Court while taking suo motu cognizance of the large scale destruction of properties during Gujjar demonstrations, directed the police chiefs of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to account within 10 days what action they had taken or proposed to take against those who damaged property during the week-long Gujjar agitation. [14]

 

On 18 June 2007, the Supreme Court appointed two committees to examine the damage to public property in the Gujjar violence. The Apex Court said: '”We are not concerned with this one incident, all over the country massacre of human life and damage to property are being done. People have started feeling that there is no rule of law.'' Stating that it was a national issue the apex court issued notice to all states and Union Territories asking them to respond on how many cases have been filed against damage to property and how many have been convicted within three weeks. [15]

 

The Indian police regularly resort to disproportionate and often excessive use of force. They often use fire-arms and shoot above waist level in clear violations of the Criminal Procedure Code and such use of fire-arms often result in deaths of protestors. The killings in police firing are reported routinely.

 

4. Conclusion

 

Successive governmental commissions have held that Gujjars do not meet the criteria for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes. The five criteria laid down by the Centre for identification of tribals are (a) indications of primitive traits, (b) distinctive culture (c) geographical isolation, (d) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (e) backwardness. [16]

 

The 2007 Justice Chopra Committee report while rejecting ST status to the Gujjars of Rajasthan stated, “Employment of the five criteria laid down by the Centre for such a heterogeneous group can only lead to a dead-end. Moreover, it must be said that the criteria are qualitative and their quantification is difficult. Even the logicality of these criteria seems questionable. [17]

 

The Constituent Assembly itself failed to address the criteria. The Hindi version of the Constitution of India uses the term “Adim Jati”, primitive races, to describe the Scheduled Tribes despite demands of the tribal members of the Constituent Assembly to use the term “Adivsasi”. Article 342 does not define “Scheduled Tribes” but only lays down the procedure for scheduling and de-scheduling of the tribes. Moreover, scheduling of a “tribe” is done at the recommendation of the State government which takes decisions on political considerations. Therefore, there are many communities which are recognized as ST in one State but not in other States.

 

The Gujjar protest has ramifications beyond the States where they live. The Central government has sought opinion of the Law Ministry while Rajasthan government recommended 4 to 6 per cent reservation for Gujjars in the category of denotified tribals / nomadic tribe. There is no separate category of reservation for “denotified tribes” - some of whom have been classified as Scheduled Castes and some as Scheduled Tribes like the Gujjars. Moreover, reservation has already touched 49% with 27% reservation for OBCs, 15% for the Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for the Scheduled Tribes. The Adivasis who are recognized as Scheduled Tribe in Jharkahnd, Orissa, West Bengal etc too have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status in Assam.

 

If the Centre attempts to find a solution only for the Gujjars, it will open the Pandora box. On 24 November 2007, a protest called by the All Assam Adivasi Students Union (AAASA) in Guwahati, Assam turned into a violent conflict between the demonstrators and local residents. Five persons were killed. Only when the photograph of an Adivasi girl, being beaten and stripped in full public view while running for a cover was beamed by the news agencies that people felt the outrage. There are over 100 groups which have submitted applications to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for recognition as Scheduled Tribes.

 

In the last two decades, affirmative actions have been diluted for vote bank politics. Apart from the Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis), affirmative actions were also meant for the untouchables – the lowest Caste in the Hindu caste system. However, affirmative action has now been extended to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). It is an established fact that in rural India OBCs and other middle castes perpetrate more atrocities against the Dalits than the Brahmins. The reservation for the OBCs diverts the attention away from the acute discrimination and violence faced by the Dalits – the untouchables. Manual scavenging despite being banned is carried out by the untouchables, not by the OBCs. Affirmative actions are meant for these Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Unfortunately, affirmative actions have been diluted for vote banks and there is no stopping.



[1] . Gujjar agitation spreads, The Hindu, 25 May 2008 

[2] . 15 killed in fresh Gujjar protest, The Telegraph, 24 May 2008

[3] . Gujjar agitation spreads, The Hindu, 25 May 2008 

[4] . Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, http://www.ipcs.org/ISR-July2007.pdf

[5] . http://www.gurjarsonline.com/population.html

[6] . ST status does not come easy, Chetan Chauhan, Hindustan Times, 1 June 2007, http://www.hindustantimes.com/storypage/storypage.aspx?id=a5933ba4-a4a8-400a-b37d-3ffa96b079ae&&Headline=ST+status+does+not+come+easy

[7] . 15 killed in firing: Cops-Gurjar clash in Dausa, Army called in, Central Chronicle, 30 May 2007, available at http://www.centralchronicle.com/20070530/3005001.htm 

[8] . Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, http://www.ipcs.org/ISR-July2007.pdf

[9] . Talks succeed, Gujjar stir to be called off, Rediffnews, 4 June 2007, available at: http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/jun/04rajriot7.htm

[10] . Chopra panel submits report, The Hindu, 18 December 2007

[11] . Rajasthan govt rejects Gujjars' demand, NDTV, 18 December 2007, http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20070036264&ch=12/18/2007%201:
51:00%20PM

[12] . Report on Gujjars to be sent to Centre, The Hindu, 19 December 2007

[13] . Special package for Gujjars, The Hindu, 18 May 2008  

[14] . Gujjar violence a 'national shame', says apex court, The Hindustan Times, 5 June 2007 

[15] . Gujjar violence: SC appoints two panels, NDTV, 18 June 2007, available at: http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=newen20070015895

[16] . Ministry of Tribal Affairs, 2005-2006 Annual Report

[17] . Report on Gujjars to be sent to Centre, The Hindu, 19 December 2007

 

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