Indian Gujjar group wants to be considered more 'backward'

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jun 5 21:05:18 UTC 2007

June 5, 2007
Indian Officials to Rule How Backward Group Is


NEW DELHI, June 4 They burned buses during the morning rush hour. They
threw stones at trains packed with passengers and at the police. By Monday
evening, after a week of violent protests that began in tourist-friendly
Rajasthan State and ended up here unsettling the nations capital, the
Gujjars got their way. The Rajasthan government announced that it would
appoint a panel to study the demands of the traditionally pastoralist
group that has been clamoring for the right to be considered more backward
than it is.

Even by Indian protest standards, their fight has been confounding and
violent. The violence began a week ago when clashes between protesters and
the police left 14 dead, including a police officer. The Gujjars responded
by destroying public and private property and cutting off highways and
train lines to tourist attractions like the Taj Mahal. By the end, 11 more
people had died. The Gujjars, officially classified as an Other Backward
Class for the purposes of affirmative action set-asides in public sector
jobs, want to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes, which are
considered more socially and economically deprived and thus are eligible
for more benefits.

But the Minas, the largest group in Rajasthan, opposed sharing the spoils
of tribal backwardness. They gathered in their strongholds with homemade
weapons, warning the government not to cede to Gujjar demands. In a news
conference on Monday evening, the embattled Rajasthan State chief
minister, Vasundhara Raje, said a government-appointed commission, led by
a retired state judge, would study the Gujjars petition and submit
recommendations. Gujjar leaders endorsed her action and apologized for the
violence. We got what we asked for, the Gujjar leader, Kirori Singh
Bainsla, told reporters in Jaipur, the state capital.

The battle is hardly finished. To amend a groups official designation
requires central government approval, preceded by an ethnographic inquiry
into whether the group is culturally or physically isolated, speaks a
distinct dialect and is sufficiently socially and economically backward to
merit the change. One way to solve the current standoff, scholars have
suggested, would be to draw more specific distinctions between those
considered backward and those considered less so, or to take a fresh look
at those who, as the sociologist on caste, D. L. Sheth, put it, have
ceased to be backward.

Whether the Rajasthan government, based on the recommendations of a panel,
might recommend that the central government classify the Gujjars as a
tribe remains unclear. Ultimately, Parliament would have to vote on the
matter, a prospect that is likely to be politically fraught. The Gujjars,
who include both Hindus and Muslims, are by no means all pastoralists
these days. Mr. Bainsla, the Gujjar leader, is a retired army colonel who
has spent years rallying his group to demand tribe status. But then, caste
and tribe are not fixed matters in India, either. They are subject to
political bargaining. In fact, the trouble with the Gujjars was fueled by
a pledge by Ms. Raje, the states chief minister, during the state election
several years ago, to grant tribe status to the Gujjars.

On Monday, Sachin Pilot, a member of Parliament from the Congress Party
and the countrys most prominent Gujjar politician, accused Ms. Raje, of
the Bharatiya Janata Party, of raising false expectations and failing to
contain the violence. You raise hopes, you make promises, you bear the
brunt of what happens next, Mr. Pilot said Monday.

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