The mega-city's unquenchable thirst for land is the backstory of the recent communal clash in Gopalgarh.
As the dust settles on the Gopalgarh firing in Bharatpur, in which nine Meos were killed, State and community versions have begun to unravel. Recent conversations with Gujars highlight the shocking role of the administration. This had already been pointed out by the Citizen's Report coordinated by the PUCL to which I was signatory. It would seem that the order to fire was given under pressure from right-wing leaders and an aggressive section of Gujars. Two, it was signed purportedly on the basis of false information that the Meos, who had collected in the local mosque, were about to commit martyrdom, were armed and had already killed five persons. Whatever the flaws of the draft Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, its strength is that it clearly puts the onus of inter-communal peace on the administration. In sum, Gopalgarh only proves what we already know about ethnic conflict: that in most cases it can be prevented given administrative and political will.
Further, the dispute between the Meos and Gujars of Gopalgarh was not “communal” to begin with, contrary to media and administrative versions. Instead, it approximated a feud, an essential aspect of the subcontinent's intercommunal and intracommunal life. The conflict was over their respective claims to a piece of land that both sides saw as their respective common property resource, the Meos as a graveyard, the Gujars as a pond (jauhar). The land was levelled in order to dig graves after the administration declared that in the Revenue Settlement it had been acknowledged as Meo “commons.”
Tension heightened and the Imam was assaulted by a few Gujars on September 13 having been proactive in the legal dispute. Crowds collected on both sides the following morning from surrounding villages, again typical of the numerous feuds that Meo/Gujar/Jat/Ahir clans have fought. The term “riot” is equally questionable as eventually both the police and an aggressive segment of the Gujars seem to have turned on the Meos in Gopalgarh's mosque, leaving nine dead and 22 injured after some 219 rounds of firing. That only 3 died of bullets and the rest of knife and other injuries is indicative of the nefarious collusion of the State and a segment of the local community and the tragic deployment of the ‘riot control' armoured vehicle that could have been used to disperse crowds on both sides instead of being used eventually as a death van. Indeed, the judicial commission must also look into why Gopalgarh was not instead brought under Section 144 or curfew by noon of September 14.'
Disrupting the communal fabric
The greater tragedy is the rupturing of the region's inter-communal fabric. Gujars and Meos have lived together in intimacy in villages for centuries, addressing each other by kinship terms, sharing languages and mythologies, practices and pilgrimages including to the Siva temple at Jhir. They have even intermarried in the past, as their common clan names suggest. The friendship between a Meo and a Gujar chief is described by the metaphor of “dant kati roti,” i.e. sharing the same bread! If the Meos were recognised as “marginally Muslim,” the Gujars have been “marginally Hindu” in the period preceding Partition. In a folk epic from the Meo oral tradition dating to the late 19th century, a Gujar woman weeps in the hills for the tiger has eaten her only cow. The Meo brothers, Ghurchari and Meo Khan, the “good” bandits, rescue her cow and dare to kill the tiger “protected” for the kingly kill, an act of supreme defiance against the Rajput-ruled kingdom.
In the rural areas of Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana, Gujar and Meos live in mixed or adjacent villages. An everyday cosmopolitanism marks local cultures, impossible to capture in the theory of high cosmopolitanism. Without it, one cannot understand peasant-pastoral lifeworlds of bare sustenance that many Gujars and Meos share. The upward mobility of other OBC peasant castes bypassed both groups in the previous two centuries until recently, when we witness the phenomenon of “city as imperium.”
Changing land regime
The background of a land dispute culminating in firing, vandalism and scorched bodies in Gopalgarh's mosque is constituted by Delhi's changing land regime and its fallout which seems to be escaping economists, urbanists, and planners. The entrepreneurial governance and spider-like agility of the “global city” has been highlighted by David Harvey and Aihwa Ong. But they fail to recognise how the mega-city in both China and India depeasantises and depastoralises. The urban corridor from Mehrauli to Mumbai — termed a “megalopolis” — gobbles land at a frenzied pace. Between Delhi and Ajmer, the industrial areas of Bhiwadi, Neemrana and Bagru thrive and are fast dissolving the cultural regions known for centuries as Gujarvati and Mewat. Gujars and Meos are both communities whose primary identity derives from land. And that land is now being sought by others willing to pay vast sums.
The genocide of 1947 against the Meos was a traumatic event and Gopalgarh suggests at its continuing reverberations. The new phenomenon is a politico-cultural ethnocide as Meo and Gujar landholders increasingly join the race to make quick money from land sales. Gurgaon was built on a few Gujars and others exchanging their land for thousands of crores.
The mega-city covets agricultural land, “wastelands” and the commons including its water bodies and waqf-owned land. Stone from the Aravallis is being mined at a furious pace. Six thousand truckloads from one village alone daily feed Delhi's limitless appetite for construction despite a Supreme Court stay order. The Aravallis are the oldest mountains in the world and responsible for the region's rainfall, fertility and the ways in which the scarce resource of water has been maximised by communities for a millennia.
Bhiwadi is one of the utopias that have mushroomed in this new landscape: Sunshine City, malls, real estate agent offices, gated apartment buildings and billboards provide incessant temptation to the capital's middle classes. Ranajit Guha described colonialism as dominance without hegemony. In this new mode of imperialism, hegemony is absolute, based on the total consent of the governed, urban and rural. Delhi's rise and Gopalgarh's descent are intrinsically connected. Indeed, the very conceptions of “urban” and “rural” are being transformed. Empire and nation have been older and established modes of imperialism. The 21st century is witness to the city as imperium.
(Shail Mayaram is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)