The Gujjar strike should not be a mere ritual

With the strike by the shepherd community of Gujjars in Rajasthan with the demand of five per cent reservation,   having disrupted rail and road transport,  it has affected normal life within the state and outside.   Many trains crossing Rajasthan over the last three days have been cancelled or delayed.  When the agitators set vehicles on fire and resorted to other forms of violence,  it led to even firing on Sunday.

In the backdrop of similar strikes for reservation in 2007 and 2008 having turned violent leading to the death of  16 and 28 people respectively,  the state government led by Ashok Gehlot is exercising caution not to let matters get out of hand.    The government said that a committee has been formed  headed by the tourism minister to study the demand of the strikers,   and promised that the government would discuss the matter with Gujjars and take a decision on reservation.  But this has not been accepted by the Gujjar leder Kirori Singh Bainsla.   Gehlot says that any legislation that will fail in  judicial scrutiny is not within the control of the state,  that it was submitting a memorandum to the Centre to make a law in parliament raising the total quota limit,  and for the same  there should be a collective effort.   But the Gujjars are determined that the issue has to be settled in Jaipur itself.

The Gujjars,  who form five per cent of the state's population,  have come out in strike rasing three demands that the reservation for Gujjars be raised to five per cent,  the backlog in government jobs be filled,  and the limit for creamy layer be refixed at Rs 8.5 lacs per year.    Since 2006, they have been raising the demand for 5 per cent quota under the Special Backward Class (SBC).   Gujjars who qualified for OBC Reservation in  1994 had asked to be included in Scheduled Tribe (ST),  but the Chopra Committee which studied this demand rejected it. 

Although the Vasundhare Raje's BJP government recognized the demand for 5 per cent quota and included them in the new SBC category,  this quota was rejected by the High Court in December 2010,  citing that the state's total reservation would then exceed the 50 per cent ceiling set by Supreme Court.   In order to circumvent that,  in September 2015   Rajasthan Assembly passed a new bill called Rajasthan Special Backward Classes bill, providing for reservation in admission to educational institutions and government recruitment,  but that again hit the same hurdle of 50 per cent cap for total reservation.  Thereafter,  in order to facilitate 5 per cent quota for Gujjars, a move was made to increase the quota of OBC - to which they belonged – by five per cent from 21 to 26 per cent,  but that again got struck down.   As of now, in addition to their share in the 21 per cent of OBC reservation,  the Gujjars enjoy 1 per cent special reservation under the Most Backward Classes (MBC) category. 

Given that legislation in parliament is not that easy,  what the state government can do is to increase the quota within OBC by four per cent from the existing level or include them in ST category.   But both these demands are strongly opposed by the related communities who will be affected by this.  The agitation against including Gujjars in ST category by Meena tribe turned into communal riots that spread far and several people had died in them.   That being so,   it is not easy for the state government to get out of the crisis with a package that can satisfy the different communities and come into force without losing legal validity.

The Congress camp is suspicious that it is exactly with this puzzle in mind that  the BJP and allies are trying to disturb and destabilise its new government and Bainsla and his team are being made a pawn in that game.   And that is the reason why Gehlot is putting forward the idea of an all-party memorandum to the Centre demanding new parliamentary legislation.   But Kirori  Singh Bainsla,  who had contested the last election on BJP ticket and lost,  was not prepared for that.   The  Gujjar leader,  who dismisses the allegation that the current strike is to prepare the ground for his son getting a berth in the next general election,  is adamant that even at the cost of the people suffering a bit,  he will not withdraw from the strike without winning the demands.

The Gujjar reservation crisis,  and the strikes to make it more complicated rather than resolving them,  are another illustration of the fact that political parties will do any thing to placate religious and caste groups with a profit and loss calculation  about the vote bank.    Committees and commissions are usually appointed at national and state levels,  to study the problems faced by backward classes and to recommend solutions.   And they come out with reports too.  But instead of studying them objectively and solving the issues,  political parties are interested in using them as a means of expanding their vote bank.  And this reservation agitation in Rajasthan is a classic example of that.   The resolution of Gujjar's issue has to be achieved through legislation.  And given the uneasy caste equations existing there,   that cannot be achieved in a day or two.  What is called for is a move towards consensus involving all parties.

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