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Gurjjar Footprints On Indian History

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    With the Gurjjar Mahapanchayat meeting last Sunday threatening to launch another stir, it may be useful to take a closer look at a community that has influenced the course of Indian history at various points of time.

    The Gurjjars played a major role in the 1857 struggle for independence. Historian Suraj Bhan Bharadwaj, who has done extensive research on the Gurjjars, mentions that those residing in several villages on the Grand Trunk Road in what is now Haryana, had blocked the road to Delhi, thus preventing the British from sending reinforcements when the city fell to the rebels. Together with this, Gurjjar villagers in the Panipat region refused to pay land revenue, thus forcing the British to ask the raja of Jind to send his troops to quell them.

    Zafar Choudhary’s ‘What about Kashmir’s Gurjjars?’ (IE, June 20) was an informative and insightful account of Gurjjars across the LoC in Kashmir. But it tells us only a part of the story of this fragmented, dispersed and often maligned community. Beyond Kashmir, Gurjjars today live in at least nine states of India: HP, Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, MP, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Besides these nine states, Gurjjars also possibly reside in AP and Karnataka. In fact, the community transcends religion, language, and caste, which are arguably the most divisive forces in the country today. They are known to be Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs; and speak a variety of languages. While they are generally considered to be cattle-herders and subsistence cultivators — and therefore are considered ‘sudras’ in the four-varna classification — some of the Gurjjars in Maharashtra are classified as brahmins. Some historians and anthropologists also put them outside the four-varna classification, referring to them as mlechhas. Estimates of Gurjjar numbers vary widely and could be anywhere between 5 to 10 per cent of the country’s population.

    While the community today is pan-Indian, if not pan-Asian — as Zafar Choudhary has reminded us — its origins are somewhat unclear. Depending on the historical source one consults, they may be descendents of the valiant Gurji community found between Russia and Turkmenistan, and in Georgia; they may be ‘allied in blood’ to the Huns; or they may be an off-shoot of Rajputs, primarily because of the similarity of some of the gotras between the two communities.

    Gujjars are also land-owning agriculturalists. Some with rather large holdings have been rulers of small states even during British rule. It is also historically accepted that Gurjjars ruled western India around the 6th-7th centuries AD as Gurjar Pratiharas, and of course the country has a state whose name is derived from the term, ‘Gurjjar’.

    But why is such a widespread community backward? One of the major contributing factors seems to have been British retribution in the aftermath of 1857. Gurjjars had their lands confiscated, and they themselves were declared a “criminal tribe”. This retribution resulted in their economic condition worsening, at least in northern India, which may have been a factor in forcing many to move out of northern India. It was only after independence that the stigma of being a criminal tribe was at least officially removed when Gurjjars were de-notified.

    Today they remain dispersed and fragmented. The parochialism of political opportunists who pretend to lead them and the naivete and inability of the larger community to go beyond their local and limited interests have prevented the development of a cohesive group. There are countless Gurjjar sabhas, samitis and manchs, with appellations such as ‘national’ and ‘all India’, but none represents a critical mass. A petition filed in the Supreme Court has alleged that the person who led the recent ‘agitation’ in Rajasthan and negotiated a deal with the government had “no locus standi to represent the community or sign agreements on behalf of the Gujjars”.

    Who is eligible to represent this community is of course an interesting question, given its fragmented nature. But if the recent agitation had indeed highlighted the futility of caste-based reservations, and the need to evolve a fair and rational system of providing equal opportunity for all sections of society, the Gurjjars would have done as important a service to the nation in 2007 as they did in 1857.

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