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In Indian Express dated 27th May' 08 by Pratap Bhanu Mehta When the Gurjjar agitation started, knowledgeable observers had widely .....

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In Indian Express dated 27th May' 08 by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

When the Gurjjar agitation started, knowledgeable observers had widely feared that its denouement would be something resembling war. More than 50 deaths, several districts under blockade, some virtually under a state of siege, mobile services suspended, transport interrupted, leaders unable to move freely, and a deep sense of foreboding, all suggest that the worst fears about this agitation have come true. Like so many tragedies, this one was long in the making. But no one, not the state government, not the opposition, not society at large, was willing to face up to the fact that Rajasthan was digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole. And positions are now so entrenched that a just and honourable resolution of the underlying issues seems all but impossible.

The state government’s attitude to this agitation, ever since it started, has been a mixture of condescension and brutality. When the agitation first started, it did not take it seriously. When violence broke out, it bought time for itself by creating a facade of a procedure whose outcome everyone knew would not resolve the issue. Simply put, the state government was not going to recommend ST status for Gurjjars. But it did not use this window of opportunity to politically engage the Gurjjars. Rather, it thought, with condescension typical of this government, that it could buy out Gurjjars by giving them a ministerial berth or two. It says something about the state of the country that when the Gurjjars peacefully courted arrest in the thousands last year, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Peace was associated with declining momentum for the movement, and we all went to sleep. The only lesson the Gurjjars learnt as a result was that violence is necessary to get attention.

The state, for the most part was stuck. Having reduced classifications for affirmative action to a power play, buttressed by a facade of a procedure, it could not move in any direction. If it gave Gurjjars what they wanted, it risked a backlash from powerful communities like the Meenas. On the other hand, it could not acknowledge that the net result of the state’s caving in to Jat assertion of power and granting them OBC status, was to send a signal to communities like the Gurjjars that the whole system was unfair. And even now the government (and the Congress) are stuck: damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Within the current paradigm of classifications, the Gurjjar concerns had some justification. But the political terrain has already shifted from reasoned argument to violence.

But it would be a mistake to think that this agitation is about legal classification. The social equilibrium of Rajasthan has been under considerable stress for a number of years. Three underlying trends are particularly worrying. First, many of those killed were in the age group of 16 to 25. Access to bad-quality education has created an odd social disequilibrium: youths too educated to be satisfied with their traditional status, too untrained to participate in the new economy. Government jobs matter to them precisely for this reason. That is why they feel so much is still at stake in changing their legal classification to ST. All across North India, this disquieting possibility exists. Sub-groups within the broad classifications like OBC and SC feel that benefits under those classifications are going only to a few sub-castes. This issue is going to come to the political forefront in the coming years. When these groups get minimally educated and feel cheated that their education has not equipped them for much, a social catastrophe will be in the making. It is no accident that this agitation comes at the end of the decimation of quality higher education in Rajasthan, abetted by all parties.

Second, a slow and incipient culture of violence has been spreading through Rajasthan’s villages. Arms have become more ubiquitous, paradoxically because the few who have benefited from the increasing land values need guns to protect their new riches. But in several districts like Sawai Madhopur the state has been suffering attrition at the local level. It was perhaps symbolic that one of the first people to console the victims was a prominent local “anti-social element” to use the government’s bizarre euphemism. There are several districts in Rajasthan where the potential of recurring violence is increasing by the day: an odd combination of social discontent which can easily be hijacked by elements that are looking for a pretext to be violent.

Finally, there is an utter breakdown of the political process. Communities like the Gurjjars do not have a leadership that can take a long-term view. They feel for their community, but have no long-term vision for expanding opportunity for them. One indication of this is their harping on one theme, that the state government send a letter to the Centre recommending ST status for Gurjjars. This is not likely to end the legal issue, nor is it likely to seriously impact the spectre of alienation that hovers over the youth of the community.

The chief minister’s instinctive response to political problems is to respond with excessive force, as if the expression of any social discontent is simply a form of impunity. It is the state’s responsibility to quell violence. But it cannot do this if it does not back its might up with an intelligent political process. But the tragedy of Rajasthan is that there are very few social mediators left. It is not an accident that the chief minister has found it very difficult to reach out. The Gurjjars, on the other hand, are wary of letting Bainsala negotiate alone in Jaipur. Their last experience of negotiating was, many in the community feel, an exercise in bad faith. It is absolutely amazing that police firings are so rapidly on the rise. Even after so much experience dealing with crowds, the state has not found ways to manage them without large number of casualties. The Congress is, as always, timid at best, trapped in vague gestures of protest. In short, there is no political force that is capable of changing the paradigm within which questions of social inclusion are posed.

It would be comfortable to dismiss all of this as Rajasthan’s exceptionalism. But the truth is that our politics is driving us into an explosive cul de sac. The recent, terrible violence is a reminder of what happens to societies when they can neither endure their current social condition, nor the means to overcome it. It will take extraordinary political imagination to overcome this condition.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research, Delhi
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