I’ve been trying to make some sense of the recent violence which have left at least 36 people dead in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is indirectly related to my research in the neighboring state of Gujarat since the Gujjar protesters are one of India’s estimated sixty million Denotified Tribes (DNTs), although that fact is left out of most news stories.
I have not been able to figure out the reason for the silence on this topic. One possibility is that it is simply too complicated for newspapers to explain the category of DNTs – a category which is not well known by most Indians. Another is that the Gujjars are themselves resistant to being thought of as DNTs. The “Gurjar’s Community Online” website refers to the Gujjars as upper caste Kshatriyas, which they may have been in Rajasthan, although many Gujjars are Muslims and Sikhs as well. In fact, it seems they specifically rejected a move by the Rajasthan government to have them listed as DNTs.
The question of categorization lies at the heart of the current conflict. The Gujjars are agitating to have their official status changed from “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) to “Scheduled Tribe” (ST). These are two broad categories in India’s complex system of “reservations.” As the BBC explains:
The communities listed as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) are essentially the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy locally referred to as Dalits.
The Scheduled Tribes (STs) are the people living in the forests or on the hills, physically isolated from modern life, but are not necessarily socially backward.
The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) comprise the castes – in the middle of the Hindu caste hierarchy – who do not face so much exclusion or isolation in society but are educationally and economically backward.
The identification of communities in the three categories is based on a data prepared in 1935 by the British when they ruled India.
The current situation was provoked by the electoral politics of the right-wing BJP party, who won the support of the prosperous Jat community in the 1999 elections by promising to have them listed as OBCs. The Jats make up nearly 15% of Rajasthan’s population.
“Once Jats were identified as OBCs , the Gujjars who were already placed in the OBC category felt threatened. They felt the better-off Jats would corner the benefits of reservation,” said Professor Sheth.
Their move has also brought the Gujjars into conflict with the Meenas, another DNT community who are listed as a Scheduled Tribe in Rajasthan. Last year fighting broke out between the two communities as the Meenas fought to prevent any expansion of the ST category.
This situation is typical of a problem faced by the DNT activists we’ve been working with in India. In each state DNTs are listed under different categories: OBC, ST, SC, DNT, or nothing at all. And, as we see with the Meenas and the Gujjars, sometimes different DNT communities are listed differently within the same state. The result is that it is very difficult for DNT communities to come together over their commonalities in order to forge a nation-wide DNT movement.