by Steven Ramey
Note: This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog at the University of Alabama.
Group identifications are not something inherent or automatic; they require work to construct and maintain, and that work only makes sense when those group identifications serve some interests, such as gaining access to power and resources. Currently in India, communities based on caste identification, specifically Jats in Haryana (a province in northern India near New Delhi), are protesting for special access to government jobs under the reservation system. Jats are an interesting example of a contested community, as their status in the traditional hierarchy of communities is unclear. Some claim that they are upper caste, like the Rajputs, but many Rajputs dispute that. Some suggest that they lost their upper caste status by failing to maintain upper caste rituals, yet others assert that they were Dalits (formerly untouchables) but eventually raised their status to simply low caste. Each of these status positions creates winners and losers, people who gain or lose access to status, resources, and power.
The current protests relate to this contested position. To redress historical discrimination against those identified as low caste, Dalit, or tribal, people in India who are recognized as part of particular listed groups (known as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backwards Classes, etc.) receive a portion of government jobs and seats in universities. Of course, the exact percentages of those reservations and which people fit under which list become matters of debate. While those identified as Jat in states such as Rajasthan are listed as Other Backwards Classes, those identified as Jat in Haryana are not, and thus have been agitating for similar recognition that would give them reservations in government jobs. Of course, some other groups adamantly oppose this designation.
With those identified as Jat working primarily in agriculture, often as landowners, the recent droughts and struggles in agriculture in this part of India give urgency to the protests, which blocked major roads and cut off temporarily the majority of the water supply for Delhi. The protests for access to resources have certainly succeeded in gaining attention of both local and national governments by cutting off other resources.
The interests served in constructing and maintaining such groups extend further. Some oppose the reservation system, feeling resentment that access for people whom they identify as their community is reduced, yet that reduction is from a position of earlier privilege derived by distinguishing their group as higher than other groups such as the Jats. The reservation system illustrates clearly the ways the definitions of groups, who is included and how they relate in a hierarchy, are not something firm and clear but require work to maintain. These groupings also become ways that politicians mobilize people to vote for themselves, often catering to the interests of one group over another as a strategy for votes rather than principled policy. Some suggest that the Jats in Rajasthan became recognized as Other Backwards Classes to gain their electoral support.
Thus, the formation of these groups is not something automatic, natural, or disinterested. But, of course, groups such as these are most effective when they maintain an appearance of being natural.
Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on groups who contest dominant understandings of the religions of India, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. Through this project, he wants to consider alternative paradigms for describing these collections of practices and ways those alternative paradigms can influence research and pedagogy.