The Jats of Haryana are demonstrating again for OBC status, almost one year after the violent agitation of January 2016 that resulted in the death of 20 people. This time their shows of strength are more peaceful, but the scale of their mobilisation reflects intense sentiments and motivations, like in the case of the Patels, Marathas and Kapus who have been similarly on a war path for the last couple of years.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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So, why are the Jats of Haryana agitating? After all, they have benefitted from land reform and the Green Revolution, like those of West UP and Punjab for decades. Indeed, the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), done by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in collaboration with the University of Maryland, shows that in 2011-12, the annual per capita mean income of the Jats of Haryana (the only Jats we’ll consider in this article), Rs 59,182, was second only to the non-Brahmin forward castes, Rs 71,086 (the Brahmins, who are traditionally not very high in the social hierarchy of Haryana got only Rs 56,913). This income is much higher than the state’s average, Rs 39,606 and, of course, of the OBCs (Rs 31,099) and the Scheduled Castes (Rs 20,158). But these figures need to be disaggregated by quintiles. In fact, 23.4 per cent of the Jats corner 62.5 per cent of the caste’s income. This means the income of this elite group amounts to a substantial Rs 1,59,430. The following quintile is also above the state’s averages since these 17.6 per cent of the state’s Jats, who receive 15.8 per cent of the caste’s income, get a mean income of Rs 52,629. At the bottom of the pyramid, 21.5 per cent of the Jats of Haryana do not earn more than 4 per cent of the caste’s income with a mean income of Rs 11,191 — half the average income of the SCs!

If we consider income as criteria, these data certainly demonstrate that castes are now differentiated along class lines. This is particularly true of the dominant castes, like the Jats, the Marathas or the Patels because of the increasingly neat urban/rural divide. Traditionally, these caste groups worked as farmers. Some of them still do well in this capacity, but agriculture is not, comparatively, as remunerative as city-based occupations since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. In Haryana, the growth rate of agriculture (3.3 per cent) has been three times less than that of industry (9.5 per cent) and almost four times less than that of the services (11.8 per cent) over the last decade (2000-2010).

As a result, jobs have become scarce in the countryside. According to the National Sample Survey, the growth rate of jobs in agriculture has been negative (-3 per cent) between 2004-05 and 2011-12, whereas it has been slightly positive in other sectors. The only economic activity that has recruited a lot of labour is construction (6 per cent), but the Jats’ sense of caste pride and dignity does not allow them to take to such jobs. This is only one of the handicaps of the Jats in the labour market.

There are others. Like most of the dominant castes, many Jats have not been able to take advantage of new opportunities in non-agricultural sectors because of their lack of education and entry barriers to business erected by the traditional business communities. With an average of 5.90 years of education, Jats lag behind the forward castes. Certainly, this figure is higher than those of the OBCs and Dalits. But OBCs have almost as many graduates (5.4 per cent) as the Jats (5.8 per cent) and, more importantly, OBCs and Dalits benefit from quotas. As a result, the Jats have the lowest percentage of salaried people in Haryana (11 per cent) — and the highest percentage of people whose major source of income is cultivation (67 per cent). Only 2.5 per cent of the Jats have a government job — against 12.5 per cent for the SCs. Whether it is mobility in education or in employment, the data shows that the Brahmins and the non-Brahmin forward castes have benefited the most from economic liberalisation, suggesting that Jats had not been able to compete with them in admission for universities and top notch jobs in view of their educational backwardness.

In addition, the difficulty for the Jats in diversifying economic activities is being attributed to strong entry barriers built by the traditional business communities. The Jats don’t have the required skills and access to business networks. Even the upwardly mobile Jats could not enter businesses that are associated with agro-business such as trading grains and vegetables. Besides, real estate booms which benefited considerable sections within the Jats also led many to perceive that while they gained short term wealth by selling their land, they still have lost out to others who benefited from economic liberalisation in the long run. Last but not least, Jats, as dominant castes, have lower social perceptions of the status of certain jobs such as construction and petty business, that prevents them from further diversifying their economic activities.

The Jats’ demand for quotas is therefore the outcome of several factors: One, Jats are affected by the decline of agriculture vis-à-vis other sectors (all the more so as the average size of land holdings is shrinking from 3.1 ha in 1983 to 0.8 ha 30 years later); two, partly because of their rural background and their lack of education, they cannot compete with the groups that have benefitted the most from economic liberalisation (in particular those who have become businessmen whose per capita mean income was 5.6 times more than the cultivators at Rs 2,12,567); three, while many Jats are still doing well, this caste group is divided along class lines with average farmers lagging behind those who still have large landholdings or who have migrated to the city after selling their land at a very good price.

Besides these socio-economic factors, subjective variables must be taken into account, including the Jat notion of social order. Jat peasant leaders, including Charan Singh and those of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, had inherited a sense of caste pride and social hierarchy. As a result, they hardly defended the Dalits against economic or social injustice. For them, the landless were not included in the category “kisan”. But today, Dalits benefitting from reservations have reached power centres like the bureaucracy and have better education because of quotas. Meanwhile, the Jats themselves are losing the status of “kisan” as they lose control on land. The Jats whose social status was linked to landholding and economic position are now feeling a sense of loss as both are declining and their anxieties are further fuelled by the relative mobility of the OBCs and Dalits.

Thus, the declining average size of land holdings, unprofitable agriculture, lack of jobs and low scope for economic diversification have pushed the Jat youth and farmers to the street. The Jat elites could use their sentiments and build solidarities across party lines and mobilise them. However, the crisis of the dominant castes is more moral than social — as evident from the relative affluence of the Jats of Haryana. It is a reflection of one of the main challenges for India today: The lack of good jobs.

This article originally appeared in the Indian Express.