Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The recent Gujjar agitation for ST status: Woe to politicians

This entire issue of the Gujjar protest to get Scheduled Tribe status now looks to blow away for a few months, till the time that the committee setup to look into the issue. But one thing is clear, that no one from the political arena anticipated that things will take such a turn. As the position currently stands, it is a lose-lose situation for politicians, and they realize that the reservation flame can burn all of them. Otherwise, if a fire was burning in a BJP ruled state, where elections are due in a short while, and there is some amount of internal dissension, would the Congress be mostly silent ?
I was listening to the news and reading the papers everyday, and the most important news was the one missing. The Congress President, spokesperson, and sundry other people from the Congress and the other non-BJP parties, none of them made the usual noises about the BJP not fulfilling an electoral promise, about the government not keeping violence in control, about dismissing the Government for an apparent collapse. Instead, when Sachin Pilot raised his voice once, that was the last time he raised his voice; and you had the Prime Minister down trying to keep things in control. At the same time, violence was tolerated so that a community does not get aggrieved against the political party.
And that brings us to our prime topic. The issue of reservation and politics in India has spun out of control. Reservations were seen as a way to get people who are down-trodden and crushed by other parts of society a leg-up. I can't disagree with that. However, over time, it has got so political that the original purpose is getting lost. Would somebody be willing to believe that a rural community, usually very proud of itself, would say that it wants to be classified as a Scheduled Tribe, the lowest in the ladder. Anybody looking at the situation from an honest angle would not classify the Gurjjar community as a ST community.
But reservations are now the best way to get government jobs; in the administration, in the police, and other groups that make a difference to society, especially so in a rural area. It is not anymore about social uplifting, the single point agenda being to get a better share of government jobs. And there is ample precedent in this case. The prime users of the ST label in Rajasthan is the Meena community, and they corner most of the offices reserved for ST's. The Gujjar community got added to the OBC list after an agitation some time back, but are now losing out to the Jats who they see as better in terms of economic and developmental models, and hence more likely to corner a share of the reservations. So, add the Gujjars to the ST list as they are demanding? Not so fast, if the Gujjars get added, the Meena community will start to feel that their domination of the ST seats is under threar, and that is not something that is going to be tolerated. Hence, the Meena community gathered as a large group, numbering more than 50,000 (as per the papers), gathered a huge quantity of weapons, and set out to have a peaceful non-violent discussion with the Gujjar villages. Only the army and police prevented these 2 extremely peace loving groups from meeting and creating a river of blood.
What is a poor, well intentioned politician likely to do ? Set up a committee and push the decision out. Taking a decision (either yes or no) would have large repercussions in terms of voter base, and with both the Meena and Gujjar community on the warpath, it would only have been a lose-lose decision.
This is something that is to be expected. Reservations, without any good targeting of the people needing this kind of help, will be seen as an entitlement, and something to be defended. What will happen now ? Politicians, especially of the Congress variety are starting to see that the reservation bandwagon that they are championing is not giving them any benefits. Political benefits are cornered by the specific caste focused parties, urban voters start punishing them, and the courts ask hard questions for which they have no answers. In addition, their supporting parties raise hell with them about not getting the reservations implemented.
One would like to say at this point that politicians deserve this, but this is bigger. It affects our country. These sort of agitations deepen caste divisions, create economic misery, ruin portions of the economy such as tourism, and affect the aam admi (daily wage earners). We need to bring people not getting the benefits of growth into a life of improvement, but not through short term measures. Targeted benefits to people in terms of more education, more facilities, and even reservation (but focused, else the creamy layer will skim it all away). Does one really believe that politicians will listen ?

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 4:48 AM