For three days in February, a violent caste protest shook the Indian state of Haryana. Protestors from the Jat caste blocked the national highway, halted trains, set buses on fire, and torched the finance minister’s home. They then damaged the Munak canal, responsible for the bulk of the water supply to New Delhi. The Indian government called in the army and paramilitary troops, and India’s air force flew sorties in support. After 28 people were killed, two hundred were injured, and the economic losses reached millions of dollars, the government agreed to the protesters’ demands, ending the violence.
The Jats were demanding “reservations," or quotas for positions in government jobs and educational institutions. India provides nationwide affirmative action programs for three distinct groups: the “Scheduled Castes,” castes historically treated as untouchable; the Scheduled Tribes, India’s mostly forest-dwelling indigenous people; and the “Other Backward Castes.” The last category is far more nebulously defined than the first two, and there has been a long-standing debate in India about what constitutes “backwardness.” Much of the caste-based unrest in India over the past two decades stems from a desire to be included in this group.
The Jats are one such caste. But they are not “backward” by most metrics. They are a prosperous rural landowning caste, already well represented in government employment. And they are politically powerful, making up a full quarter of Haryana’s population. Out of the ten chief ministers who have ruled Haryana since 1996, five have been Jats.
Yet they have been demanding recognition as a backward caste since at least 2012. And they are not the only group to do so. The past decade has seen a wave of similar demands, including from the Patels in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Gujjars in Rajasthan, and the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.
In the case of the Jats, the federal government has been sympathetic. In 2014, the outgoing Congress government included them in a list of backward castes. The new government elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supported the move. But last year, India’s Supreme Court struck down the government’s decision, sparking the February protests.
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