India’s Gujjar mess underlines problem of relying on quotas

May 29, 2008

There is no doubt that India is a deeply unequal society, that people at the bottom of the pile face discrimination, and struggle for the opportunities they need to raise themselves up. But is the answer caste- or tribe-based quotas in government jobs and universities?

Members of the Gujjar community beat a burning effigy of Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje during a protest in Bikaner district of India’s desert state of Rajasthan May 28, 2008. REUTERS/Vinay Joshi (INDIA)This week, the debate is back in the headlines, as the Gujjar community takes to the streets again, blockading India’s capital to reinforce their demand for more quota-based jobs . Nearly 40 people have been killed in the latest violence, most shot dead by police.

I am not qualified to say whether quotas are right or wrong.

On the one hand, they reinforce caste identity and rivalry and seem to fly in the face of a secular India. On the other, they can be a useful tool in forcing an end to discrimination and giving people a leg up.

But one thing seems clear to me. Relying solely on quotas, or reservations as they are called, as a substitute for real policies to address discrimination and inequality, seems inadequate.

Take the case of the Gujjars.

Already considered a disadvantaged group, the Gujjars want to be reclassified further down the caste and status system so they qualify for more reserved government jobs and university seats. Already classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC), they want Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

What has developed is a race to the bottom.

Once the powerful Jat caste were also given OBC status in 1999, the Gujjars had to share the OBC pie and felt they were not getting enough. But if they are granted ST status, they are bound to take jobs set aside for other ST groups like the Meenas, and a Meena backlash seems inevitable.

At a more fundamental level, the whole issue underlines the inadequacies of India’s education system.

Gujjar youth have enough education to want more opportunity, but not enough education to compete for private sector jobs in the modern Indian economy.

Last year, when the Gujjar agitation began, the chief minister of the western state of Rajasthan promised more investment in education in Gujjar-dominated areas to address that very concern. That offer has been repeated this year, but dismissed by Gujjar leaders as too little, too late.

Two weeks ago, my colleague Alistair Scrutton warned that pressure was growing for more caste-based quotas in India’s private sector.

But what the Gujjar story seems to show is this. Quotas on their own, as a sticking plaster over the wound of discrimination, are not enough.

Real political will, to invest in education for all of India’s one billion people, is absolutely fundamental to address the underlying malady.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I’m really afraid to raise my voice against anything in India. Whole Nation is blocked under grips of Polictians who control Police forces, economy, in few years the family issues too. We are about to step back like the rule we were century back. I don’t say all of them are the Aluminum Foils there few gold even, let them please come up to save our nation.

Is that really required to have a Caste Based system, does it sounds like a “DIVIDE and RULE” policy of Whites?. I completely agree we need to provide aids for the people at the backward education and below poverty line. If the our Hon’ Politicians are really interested on below poverty let them provide specialties based on the Economy!!.

Today one community is demanding for Special Quota, tomorrow other one. Will the govt. handshake for each and every move to save their Vote banks?

Let’s be neutral, stick to the reality-help the poor to come up! Save our India!!

If you think my thoughts are hurting your feelings kindly apologize me.

Posted by K12 | Report as abusive

I do not think that reservations based on caste are going to solve the social and economic problems of the backwards.At best economic criterion can be used for reservations.
Also what is required is focus on primary education and health for all the people below poverty line irrespective of caste/ creed or religion.We need to create more infrastructure in terms of schools with good labs and other sports/recreational facilities,equip these with well qualified teachers and also arrest the heavy drop outs from schools by providing some form of dole for the really poor.Also health care has to be improved with better hospitals and qualified doctors especially in rural regions.

The current demon of reservation which is out of the bottle is causing a rift between the have nots (un reserved) and haves(reserved) .We are now going in the reverse order which is already creating social unrest. More and more categories want the tag of reservation.Who is going to bell the cat/put the demon back in its place is a million dollar question.

Posted by Ganesh | Report as abusive

the world most populous democracy is again proven a failure to its people.

the incompetance of indian goverment is appalling. the richness of the few ‘elites’ are enjoying the mess this goverment is creating. while the Gujjars race to the bottom, tatas and its alike are racing to more fortune they can’t otherwise make in other countries.

it’s a shame to be an indian.

Posted by Bombay Rubbish King | Report as abusive

Any move towards quotas is not affirmative action. It just shows the lack of social responsibility. Reservation system cannot be a means to uplift a particular section of the society. The quota in education and jobs creates inequality.

People and their representatives are contributing to the quota mess. The root of the problem is selfishness. Everyone wants to maintain their identity and status. To live as a human being, it does not cost much. Everything else is expensive.

Yes. If you want to live like a politician, or belong to a particular caste, community, or nation, that is going to cost you your life.

Hopefully good sense prevails over common sense.

Posted by Ashwath | Report as abusive

It’s simply divide and rule policy of politiciens and there is no rule
we have to go back and see affarmative support for ST group yield how much, what is the process of taking comunity out of ST group
I agree to give support to backward but how long that needs to be pre defined, it can not be perpetual

the politician and govt.does not have answer for how long?

Posted by rajsingh | Report as abusive

I may not be politically correct but i strongly believe that democracy cannot work in India. It has been ingrained in our minds that democracy is the best form of government. India is not free. Politicians in India will continue to use reservation as a tool to appease their votebank. I just have to look across the Himalaya’s to see the progress China is making. China has been able to achieve so much because it is not a democracy. Group Interest takes precedence over individual interest. 70% of people live in villages are illiterate and do not deserve to choose their leadership or any part in decision making since they themselves dont know whats good for them and they became puppets for corrupt politicians who use them for their interests.

Posted by mohit juneja | Report as abusive

I would agree with the comments posted by Ganesh earlier. It’s no doubt that the politicians use caste and religion as their vote banks – doesn’t matter what group they belong to. Of course the ministers have made enough money to ensure the prosperity of the next few generations, but nobody really cares about the real issue – of education, healthcare. Why doesn’t anyone talk about retirement plan of a farmer who turns 60 and is no longer fit to go to the fields to grow crops? Who takes care of him/her? Why does he have to rely on what his family provides him at that stage? Why doesn’t the govt think of providing economic packages/benefits for people who are physically challenged?

I can imagine having reservations for basic education (say upto high school). In fact economic packages should be provided to ensure that people from poor families have access to the same facilities as from the rich people. But beyond a certain point, everyone has to compete for the same seat at the competitive college like IIT and IIMS. Let the quality not suffer, otherwise the India, as Thomas Friedman sees, will not last very long. It’s basic right – the output is dependant on the input…Without being too cynical about it, I think not much can happen or will happen at this point…

Posted by Guiltfree | Report as abusive

How did the the dominant Jat caste of Gujjars get a OBC status in the first place? Wasn’t that dirty politics? Now that they’ve tasted ‘success’ they want more of it (they want to become ST).
Can’t some party stand up against this? (Please, it’s not because I’m a Kerala Christian and I don’t get any reservation benefits).
India is soon becoming a second-class nation.
Why isn’t reservation given only to the ‘poor’ and to the ‘handicapped’ and above all to the families of those ‘who died for the country’ (armed forces families).
All other reservations should be discontinued.

Posted by Cherian Varghese | Report as abusive

Earlier, lower class people used to feel discriminated when upper class people called them or treated them as lower class people. Now the same lower class people are demanding to be called and treated as lower class people, thanks to our politicians’ reservation games!

Posted by indian | Report as abusive

Well said, Cherian / Indian ! When the whole Reservation System has become an instrument for opportunists like these Gujjars, you know it has ceased to serve any useful purpose and must be scrapped. It means that India is now officially an egalitarian state, and caste based reservations are no longer necessary. You may want to reserve for other purposes, or in other parts of India like in Orissa, but mainstream India doesn’t need reservation anymore.

Posted by bajji | Report as abusive

what a disaster……
you move one sect to OBC, they want to go down to SC, this will follow all the way until the people ralise that eservation should be based on economic situation not caste.

with the current system, lot of folks who are rich but belong to so called reservation quota are enjoying while poor upper class children are suffering. Politicians are playing the game for their survival and not for India’s cause.

Time has come for all indians to realise that we need to change.

Posted by SP | Report as abusive

Its the politicians who have let it grow for their powers. Eventually, how many of the gujjar population is it going to benefit? People below the poverty line would remain the same. They are being misled with false promises. It is difficult to root out reservations system from India. God save…

Posted by RS | Report as abusive