The Rajastani capital of Jaipur remains tense today as thousands of members of one of India’s lowest caste fight a seemingly bizarre battle to have their status lowered still. But the traditionally nomadic Gujjar people are taking this battle very seriously with a deathtoll that has reached 39 in fighting with authorities in the last seven days. In the Byzantine world of the Indian caste system, the Gujjars are fighting to be downgraded. The mostly Muslim Gujjars are considered as Other Backward Classes (OBC) which entitles them to access to 27 per cent of government jobs and university places but they want Scheduled Tribe (ST) status which would open the door to even further grants and positive discrimination entitlements. The protests began after the state government refused calls for their re-classification.
The violence began when Gujjar protesters lynched a policeman and police responded by opening fire on the demonstrators, killing 38 of them. Since then, the Government and the Gujjar community have been using the bodies of the slain protesters as bargaining chips in the dispute. At least 37 bodies are awaiting cremation, with the Gujjars holding 18 bodies at Bayana and Sikandara, while the state holds another 19 bodies inside morgues in Jaipur and Bharatpur. The government say the Gujjars have not permitted autopsies on the Bayana and Sikandara bodies. They are now hesitant to release the morgues bodies because they might be used as bargaining chips in the agitation for ST status. One man said he has been waiting for five days to collect his cousin's body. “Nobody is telling me anything and the condition of others at our home is really pathetic,” he said. “This is absolute cruelty as they first shot our brothers dead and are now refusing to even give back their bodies.”
The violence has spread to New Delhi where 500 people squatted on a major road in a seventh day of agitation associated with Gujjar demands. The state government has been forced to deploy 35,000 police and invoke the National Security Act as railway services were cancelled and major roads blocked in and out of the capital. The government of Rajasthan has told the Gujjars to take the appeal to the federal Government in Delhi but the federal coalition Government, led by the Congress Party has been trying to wash its hands of the matter saying it should be handled by the authorities in Rajasthan.
However, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that Gujjars are treated differently from state to state. The only states where the two million Gujjars are recognised as having ST status are Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Gujjars form a significant part of the populations of Rajasthan and Delhi where they are still considered OBCs. State governments there say that although Gujjars were originally nomadic, they have since become more settled on the land and more involved in agriculture and therefore not as deserving of special consideration.
Scheduled Tribes are recognised by the Indian constitution. It refers to indigenous groups living in forests and hills whose status is enshrined by national legislation. These groups are explicitly recognised as requiring support to overcome entrenched discrimination. The constitution provides three means of supporting STs. They are protective arrangements (laws which ban discrimination and enforce equality), compensatory discrimination (affirmative action to allocate job and higher education quotas to STs) and development (resources and monetary benefits).
But even ST status does not help prevent the oppression of Gujjar women. In the border province of Jammu and Kashmir, a study found that 89 percent of all Gujjar women are illiterate. The researcher, Dr Javid Rahi said early marriage, illiteracy, extreme poverty and nomadic way of life were all casting dark shadows over the future of hundreds of thousands of nomadic Gujjar women in the region. The women (who make up 10 percent of the state’s population) were being exploited and became the victim of superstitions. Because of early marriage and social status, only 12 per cent of Gujjar girls were admitted to primary school and most of these leave early. Rahi said there was not a single Gujjar woman officer in the civil service, parliament, banks, universities or in journalism. Scheduled or not, life remains a grind for the tribes of Gujjar women.