Life in Indian capital New Delhi came to a virtual standstill on Thursday, when members of the ethnic Gujjar community held demonstrations. The Gujjars have been demanding more opportunities to qualify for government jobs as well as quotas in educational institutions. The protests, which started a few days ago, turned violent last week, claiming 37 lives.
Gujjars burn effigies during a stir in New Delhi
The Gujjars are an ethnic tribe, traditionally shepherds, who comprise more than 50 million of the population. For the most part, they live across India’s northern and western states. Their protest started from Rajasthan last week and has now spread to other regions. The Gujjars are calling for more reserved quotas in the government’s affirmative action plan. Professor Satish Deshpande, a renowned sociologist from New Delhi explains: “The demand is born out of a feeling that reservations and quotas are the only effective way in which the community as a whole can be benefited or can progress.”
The Indian government’s affirmative action policy sets aside job and seats at educational insitutions for people from disadvantaged groups, also classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The aim is to flatten centuries-old social hierarchies, which led to widespread discrimination in the past.
‘Scheduled caste status’
The Gujjars are largely categorised as a disadvantaged group, but they want to be reclassified downwards as a scheduled tribe, the status that some of their community members enjoy in the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. They claim they are economically left out and downwards reclassification would help them get more benefits.
The issue is currently gridlocked with the state and central governments taking different positions. The government in Rajasthan, which is run by the Bhartiya Janata Party, the main opposition group at the national level, has asked the Gujjars to take their initiative to the Central government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has however referred the case to the law ministry, asking it to examine the legality of the demand.
Need for a Change in Attitudes
Professor Deshpande explains, where, he thinks, the solution to the crisis lies: “From a long term point of view, clearly reservation cannot help. It works only if we think of it as a special solution needed in specific cases. In any case, the state is unable to provide anywhere near the number of jobs that are needed to take communities forward.”
He believes a change in attitudes is vital, especially among upper caste people: “In the short run, the biggest change is needed in the attitude of those, who oppose this without thinking where demands like these are coming from. The opposition to reservation from the upper caste stems, in my opinion, from a very short- sighted and narrow-minded point of view, which doesn’t acknowledge the many benefits that upper caste status continue to bestow in independent India. And those benefits remain invisible, whereas benefits explicitly linked to caste become very visible. And it is because of this that we have a lot of tensions today.”So far the Gujjar leaders have refused to call off their agitation. They also say any negotiation with the government is only possible if they are assured of getting the special status which they demand.