Yet Again: Raje Government in Rajasthan Answers Protests With Bullets

Police bullets are the Raje Government's first response to any mass mobilisation and protest in Rajasthan. The police firing on Gujjar protestors which claimed a toll of 16 people is the latest in the long record of police terror that the Raje Government has unleashed in Rajasthan in its three-year tenure - major instances include police firing against dam oustees in Bisalpur, against school children at Kuhadwas (Jhunjhunu), against farmers at Gharsana (Sriganganagar) and custodial killing at Jhalawar. The Nandigram massacre, the police firing on Muslim people protesting the blasts in a mosque in Hyderabad and now the firing on Gujjar protestors are a reminder of the authoritarian and anti-people character of ruling formations of every hue. There is now an uneasy calm following the Raje Government’s decision to set up a commission to look into the Gujjars’ demand.

But what caused the week-long eruption of Gujjar protests in eastern Rajasthan? OBCs in Rajasthan have 21% reservation, while Scheduled Tribes in the state have 12%. Why did the Gujjars seek to exchange a share in a larger pie (21%) for one in a far smaller pie of 12%?

Gujjars in the state have a handful of MLA seats and one MP seat (Dausa). It appears that talk within the BJP of turning Dausa into a seat reserved for STs was one of the factors that caused a panic among the Gujjars. The BJP's poll-time promise of securing ST status for the Gujjars was another factor in the protests.

But the entire episode points to deeper contradictions of the Governments' treatment of the reservation policy and the tensions of educational backwardness, landlessness and unemployment.

The social landscape of Rajasthan holds the key to the tensions. Rajasthan has a very large tribal population - 12.6% of the state's population. Southern Rajasthan - Banswara, Dungarpur, Udaipur, - are populated by very large tribal populations, mostly extremely backward tribes like the Bhils, the Bhil Meenas, and several other groups. These tribes, though entitled to ST status, have hardly been able to avail of any of the benefits of reservations, despite their obvious need. The Meenas of eastern Rajasthan, in contrast, have dominated most of the ST benefits in Rajasthan - and nationally, too, the Meenas are one of the foremost groups to have benefited from reservations. They are relatively better-off, not only in terms of education and employment, but also in terms of land holdings and other assets. In eastern Rajasthan, Meenas are socially more dominant than the Gujjars. Both in comparison with the Jats who avail of most of the OBC benefits and the Meenas who likewise get the best of the ST benefits, Gujjars have a sense of subordination. But the attention received by the Gujjar agitation in the media and among political groups is testimony to their powerful presence and relative privilege, and is in stark contrast with the neglected silence and invisibility to which most of Rajasthan's most deprived tribes have been relegated. Why is it that these tribes are unable to benefit from the reservations for which they are the most urgent candidates? The answer lies in the fact that no genuine policy of social empowerment can begin and end with reservations. Reservations alone are meaningless for the backward tribes, when they continue to be deprived of land, of the right to forests and rivers, of the right to food and employment; when they continue to be the foremost and most vulnerable victims of displacement and state terror. In the absence of employment-generation, land reform and the right to education for all, deprived groups are reduced to competing amongst themselves for the benefits of quotas, while the neediest invariably come out worst in the race. Further, it is a fact that beyond Rajasthan too there are several tribal groups which are extremely backward - and yet to be granted ST status. The Kols, Biaars and Rajbhars of eastern UP are glaring instances of unjustified omissions from the ST list.

Rural Rajasthan is one of the prominent arenas of militant peasant movements against the policies of liberalisation in agriculture. The violence in the wake of the Gujjar protests saw a potential popular unity being rent asunder by bloody caste clashes. Punjab and now Rajasthan - emerging people's movements on basic issues are increasingly being weakened by sectarian clashes. Behind these clashes are the cynical attempts of ruling parties to manipulate the resentment and fear of unemployment as a weapon of one community against another. Rather than identifying other communities as rivals and enemies, it is the Governments which generate unemployment, neglect education and indulge in state terror that must be the target for people's movements.