The ongoing agitation by the Gujjar community in Rajasthan is a reminder of the dangers of playing competitive caste politics. The immediate provocation for the agitation, which has erupted time and again on the reservation issue over the past five years, was the State government's decision to recruit people for 100,000 posts — jobs to which the Gujjars, who have been demanding a five per cent reservation, want the quota extended. Although both the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party declare their commitment to giving them a five per cent quota in government jobs and educational institutions, the problem lies in giving effect to this. At one level there is the legal impediment, something the Rajasthan High Court called attention to recently when it stayed the operation of a 2008 Act that provided reservations for various caste groups, including the Gujjars. The level of reservation under this please-all Act, which earmarked quotas for poor upper castes as well, increased to 68 per cent, considerably above the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court in the Mandal case. At another level there are serious practical problems about extending a special quota for Gujjars. It was the Rajasthan unit of the BJP that promised to include Gujjars, a pastoral community, in the Scheduled Tribes list in the run-up to the 2003 election, which it won. But the violent opposition this evoked from the numerically stronger Meena community saw the State government back down.
While the violence and disruption that has attended Gujjar agitations for reservation must be roundly condemned, it must be recognised that the resentment of the community is largely a result of cynical vote-seeking politics. The anger and political consolidation within the community assumed worrying dimensions only after the Vajpayee government decided to reclassify Jats as an ‘Other Backward Class'. Having promised the Gujjars ST status in 2003, BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was forced to expend considerable time and energy in trying to appease the community with all manner of sops. Eventually, she bought time by declaring a new quota regime that classified Gujjars as a “separate backward community,” a proposal that found expression in the legally unsustainable 2008 Act that now stands suspended by the Rajasthan High Court. In a bid to woo communities, political parties often forget that the reservation pie is limited and that any attempt to provide quotas for one community will have adverse implications for others. This is exactly what has happened in Rajasthan. And the cost has been an intermittent cycle of agitation, social unrest, and violence.