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IF the reactions of our political class are any indication, it is most unlikely that we will draw meaningful lessons from the recent agitation of the Gurjjar community for Scheduled Tribe status in Rajasthan. The clash, first between the protesting Gurjjars and a ham-handed, if not brutal, state apparatus, and then between them and the Meenas counter-mobilizing to block the protest, claimed at least 26 lives. The agitation has, for the moment, been suspended, but it would be foolhardy to presume that the crisis is over.

In itself, the agitation should not have come as a surprise, even though the scale and intensity was clearly unanticipated. The Gurjjars, small time farmers and pastoralists, have for long been demanding reclassification as Scheduled Tribes. Petty farming hardly pays and with increasing pressure on wastelands and other common property resources, nor does animal husbandry. Further, the few in the community who are somewhat educated remain mostly unemployed, in part a reflection of the quality of education which remains singularly inattentive to generating in demand skills. But what really fuels antagonism at the local level is their perception that the Meena community, neighbours in the village and in essence no different from them, seem to be doing better.

In the Gurjjar analysis this is primarily because the Meenas are classified as STs, which fact gives them substantial benefits not only in government jobs and seats in educational institutions but also in preferential allocation of house sites and credit. Further, they benefit from political reservation. No doubt it helps that the Meenas outnumber the Gurjjars and that over the years have managed to corner a large number of jobs from those of school teachers to officers in central services, including to the highly coveted IAS and IPS.

Though the Gurjjars do enjoy an OBC status, this by itself does not guarantee any meaningful share in state distributed largesse. Worse, within the OBC ranks, they face competition from the more numerous, better resourced and politically far more powerful Jat community. So when the BJP, in the run-up to the last elections, held out the prospects of re-classification, expectations soared. And when the government was perceived as dragging its feet and prevaricating, if not backtracking, resentments built up.

There is little doubt that the Vasundhara Raje government muffed it, not the least in holding out a promise that it is in no position to fulfil. After all, Gurjjar representations for being recognized as a scheduled tribe had been considered and rejected in the past. Nor could she have been oblivious to the fact that any such move would provoke the hostility of the Meenas, who expectedly do not desire any additional competition in the ST pool. But, it is the actual handling of the agitation be it the use of police force and subsequently egging the Meena leadership to add pressure through counter-mobilization which has raised fears of a caste war in the countryside. She may have won this round but in the process has helped create a bitter and divided neighbourhood.

Few expect the Gurjjars to win this battle and not just because the community fits no anthropological definition of a tribe. Counter arguments that nor do the Meenas are irrelevant because knocking a community off the Schedule is, in our political system, unfeasible. Possibly, breaking up the OBC list and creating sub-quotas for the Most Backward Classes, as for instance in Bihar, may ease the pressure. But then, the Raje government will have to deal with the ire of the Jat community. And that in a socially mobilized Rajasthan can be political suicide.

In more ways than one, our peculiar construction of social justice, with its obsessive reliance on caste and community quotas as the preferred route to creating an inclusive society, is coming a full circle. Having failed to sufficiently invest in quality education which could help underprivileged groups and individuals to acquire employment friendly skills, shift from an exclusive reliance on scarce and degraded land resources and thereby enhance mobility, both individual and group, we have continued to rely on blunt instrumentalities that reward claims to perceived backwardness. No wonder, we have seen a reversal of earlier trends wherein communities sought superior social status. Not just Jats, but even Rajputs and Brahmins want today to be classified as backward all in the hope that this might ensure privileged access to governmental largesse.

In addition to creating an entitlement economy, as Nitin Pai points out (Mint, 13 June, 2007), our political process seems to enhance competitive intolerance and worse, reward political violence. Are we surprised that the Gurjjars of Rajasthan chose violent protest from blocking highways to burning public property as the preferred route to highlighting their grievances?

Harsh Sethi