Politics is a hard taskmaster. Politicians may manipulate public sentiment and reap electoral victories but time has a way of making them accountable. We have witnessed a slew of impressive electoral triumphs of the BJP but recent eruptions of discontent among the relatively prosperous Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra and Jats in Haryana are ominous, for, historically, upper-caste denominations have consistently supported the BJP. Dalits across the country who have been targeted by a mindset which traditionally has been intolerant of them, have also sporadically expressed their frustration and growing discontent. Added to this is the divisive agenda of both the RSS and the BJP. This is evidence of both the incapacity and inability of this government to make a real difference in the lives of people.
The inability to sustain themselves because of the agrarian crisis is the common thread that runs through the growing discontent amongst Patidars, Jats and Marathas. Pre-independence, they were industrious farmers, hired as tenants and post-independence when tenants were granted ownership rights, they owned large tracts of prime agricultural land. They consolidated their position with the green revolution, advent of new crop varieties and modern farming tools. Prosperity made large numbers migrate to cities and take up businesses. As a result, only 10 per cent of Patidars own more than 10 bighas. The rest are marginal farmers caught in the midst of the agrarian crisis.
The urban Patidars find it difficult to get admission to educational institutions allegedly because of reservations for OBCs. Lack of remunerative prices for their produce and recent groundnut crop failures are reasons for the growing angst among them. The rise of Hardik Patel is attributed to both factors. Demonetisation and the flawed implementation of GST hurt even the most prosperous Patidars. This along with a sluggish economy and lack of job opportunities is at the heart of expressions of discontent and demand for reservations. Similarly, Maratha discontent is deep-rooted. The massive protests and outpourings may or may not be spontaneous but do represent livelihood concerns. Around 80 per cent of Marathas are subsistent farmers.
Lack of access to quality education and job opportunities resulting in massive social protests are symptomatic of the alienation setting in. With prosperity touching only a few, they are unsure of their future and hence they too demand reservations in government jobs. Jats, on the other hand, are regarded as backward in both Rajasthan and UP. But in Haryana, despite being politically dominant, they too clamour for reservations. Comprising around 29 per cent of Haryana’s population, they own three-fourths of agricultural holdings in the State. Jats have never been absentee landlords who lived off tenant cultivators.
However, over the years, their earnings from agriculture have declined along with fragmentation of holdings. A five-acre average holding gives a monthly income of not more than Rs 20,000. These incomes have been further hit because of drought, hailstorms and pest attacks in recent years coupled with a crash in prices of cotton, basmati and guar. Inward looking, they have been slow in adapting to an urban cosmopolitan environment. Not being educationally advanced, they have lagged behind in employment opportunities. Hence, the demand for reservation in educational institutions and employment. Recent violent agitations and destruction of private property in Haryana are also the result of loss of political power, with a non-Jat as Chief Minister.
On the other hand, Dalits, who have been the beneficiaries of reservations, find themselves being targeted. Recent attacks on Dalits are the result of deep-rooted prejudices and caste fault lines. Dominant castes still practice untouchability and the upward mobility of Dalits is not taken too kindly. RohithVemula’s tragic end and the response of a prejudiced mindset is a classic reflection of this. This inbuilt prejudice is exacerbated in recent years by lumpen upper caste elements who find an excuse in attacking Dalits for their traditional vocation. The senseless lynching of Dalits in Una exemplifies this. Dalits also become targets of violence if they happen to marry into the upper castes.
The burning of Dalit children in Haryana and similar incidents of violence are not uncommon. The recent eruption of anti-Dalit sentiments in Maharashtra evidenced by the outpourings of Marathas who allege misuse of the law by Dalits has sent tremors of unease within the state. The empowerment of Dalits and their upward mobility over the years has led to a churning within the community, which is finding its expression in their recent mobilisation and assertion. They wish to break away from tradition to which they are chained. Yet a majority of them continue to be burdened by the same tradition. This has brought about societal unrest.
Every 18 minutes, a Dalit is attacked in India. However, the conviction rate is only 28 per cent. UP, Rajasthan, Bihar and MP have witnessed a hike in atrocities against Dalits. Rajasthan with 6 per cent of the country’s Dalit population accounts for 17 per cent of crimes against them. Anger and frustration within the community are palpable and the state has failed to protect them.
Minorities in India are equally insecure. Communal situations are engineered to polarise society for political dividends. Increasingly isolated, their traditional vocations are also under threat. Dealing with buffalo meat is hazardous and life-threatening. Many have been targeted and killed. Campaigns of love jihad and ‘gharwapsi’ have added fuel to the fire.
India cannot be managed by a divisive agenda. An aspirational India is crying for change. This government is clueless about solutions. Without them, electoral triumphs may turn sour.
The author is a member of the Rajya Sabha, and a senior Indian National Congress leader. Views expressed are personal.