By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHIâ€“The degree to which domestic peace and security can be held to ransom in India has been exposed by the week-long caste-war in Rajasthan, which left at least 25 deaths and losses of around Rs 120 billion to the stateâ€™s economy.
Though tension over Gujjarsâ€™ demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status had been brewing for some time, it took serious turn, when the Gujjars decided last month to take to streets. Despite Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having being in power for three years, members of Gujjar community are agitated that their demand has not been yet recommended to the center. The ST status would ensure them benefits in reservation benefits in jobs, etc. They had been assured by BJP before 2003 Rajasthan assembly elections that they would be included in ST category if the party won. On 29th May, around 30,000 men and women belonging to Gujjar community blocked the Agra-Jaipur National highway at Peelplikheda village, about 165 kms from state capital Jaipur, in Dausa district. The Gujjars had protested the preceding evening also but had been dispersed by police using teargas. They returned the next morning in much larger numbers, armed with sword, guns and stick. At first, according to officials, police tried to negotiate with protestors. When they did not shift, the police tried to physically move them, which sparked the clashes.
What could have been just a demonstration at first assumed the nature of clash between Gujjars and police, by the end of the week, became a conflict between Gujjars and Meenas. A few hundred Gujjars had blocked a road in Lalsot for three day, which about 25,000 Meenas, heading for the communityâ€™s meeting, wanted to use. Four persons were killed and about 20 injured in the clash between Gujjars and Meenas.
As a part of their demonstration, the protestors blocked traffic- roads, highways and obstructed rail tracks, bringing life to a standstill in most parts of Rajasthan. Burning buses, tyres and effigies, protestors displayed their strength by holding demonstrations in parts of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. The Gujjarsâ€™ call for day-long strike in Delhi severely paralyzed life in the capital city on June 4.
Gujjars, a nomadic community, are settled in parts of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. While they have the ST status in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, in Rajasthan they were granted Other Backward Castes (OBC) in 1993. Gujjars form six percent and Meenas 10 percent of Rajasthanâ€™s 56 million people. Meenas, who themselves are STs, are opposed to Gujjars being granted ST status. The Meenas have threatened to withdraw their support to Rajasthan government, headed by Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, if any move is made to grant ST status to Gujjars. On this, state finance minister Virendra Meena said: â€œAll 31 Meena MLAs (members of state legislative assembly) will resign if the state makes any move to give any letter recommending inclusion of Gujjars in the ST category,â€ (June 2).
On its part, the central government rushed over 2,500 paramilitary personnel to Rajasthan (May 29) to help police in restoring peace and order in the state. As violence continued, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued an appeal for peace in Rajasthan (June 2). â€œI appeal to all the people of Rajasthan and also those in neighboring states to maintain peace and calm. I appeal to all sections of society to desist from actions which may lead to further violence and distress and which will disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens,â€ Singh said in a statement.
Senior BJP leaders, including L.K. Advani, party president Rajnath Singh and Jaswant Singh met the Prime Minister and discussed the issue (June 2). During the meeting, Singh laid stress that restoration of peace in Rajasthan was an immediate concern. â€œHe (the prime minister) said restoration of peace has to be a top priority. It should be restored in any case,â€ Rajnath said. On Gujjarsâ€™ demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, Rajnath said it would be considered â€œsympathetically.â€ Following their meeting at former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayeeâ€™s residence, the BJP leaders directed Raje to personally participate in talks with Gujjar leaders to resolve the issue. The earlier rounds of talks, in which Raje did not participate, ended inconclusively.
The crucial fifth round of talks, in which Raje held discussions with top leader of Gujjar community, Colonel Bainsala for the first time led to an apparent breakthrough (June 4). Raje announced that a three-member committee would be constituted to look into Gujjarsâ€™ demand for ST status. Calling off their agitation, Bainsala said: â€œOur agitation over the last six days for ST status has ended today. We have got what we wanted. I apologize for the problems because of our agitation.â€
This truce is being viewed as a temporary one. With assembly elections due next year in Rajasthan, it is feared that politicians are likely to play on the issue leading to unrest in the state. Besides, taking suo motu cognisance of large-scale violence and destruction of public and private property, the Supreme Court described it as a â€œnational shameâ€ (June 5). Saying, â€œIt is a national shame that hoards of people are indulging in destruction of properties but no action is taken against them,â€ the apex court has given senior police officials of four affected states (Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi) ten days time to explain â€œas to what actions have been taken or are proposed to be taken against the offenders.â€
The Gujjarsâ€™ agitation may not have spread and taken an ugly turn if state authorities had responded to their demand at the very outset. Besides, the agitation and the manner in which it has been dealt with does not answer the problems that are to be raised till deprived sections feel that they should also be granted reservation benefits. To gain the same, they are ready for a downward shift in their caste status, from OBC to ST. There is no denying that ST status has proved advantageous for Meenas, a reality that has prompted Gujjars to demand the same. Yet, with Meenas against this and being a larger electoral bank than the Gujjars, the latterâ€™s demand is not likely to be easily met, letting tension prevail over the issue.