In Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, agrarian distress and nationalism frame the electoral battle

The Shekhawati region of northeast Rajasthan is semi-arid with inadequate irrigation systems. Farmers' protests are common, such as this spontaneous gathering which took place on 23 February 2018, on the Jaipur highway, in response to a government crackdown on protesting agricultural workers of Sikar. Courtsey
05 May, 2019

On 16 February, two days after the attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy killed 49 personnel in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Kailash Meena sent a message on a WhatsApp group he was part of. The group was called “Patan newsgroup” and included journalists, local government officials, lawyers and activists from in and around Patan, a block in Rajasthan’s Sikar district. The message, which was in Hindi, can be loosely translated as—“In Berlin, Hitler burned the German parliament and blamed the communists. After dealing with them, Hitler scrapped elections and became a dictator.” The message raised a storm on the group. One member said that “bad elements” had infiltrated the group and called the message “anti-national.” He also identified Meena as the author of the message and said he was considering filing a case of sedition against Meena. Meena was soon removed from the group and asked to tender an apology. He refused.

“For them, the nation consists of just the border. But for me the nation consists of the people who live inside those borders and their constitutional rights,” Meena told me when I met him in Sikar recently. He is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, an umbrella organisation of civil society movements, and hails from a community called “Chowkidar Meena”—which translates as “Watchmen Meena.” The community’s name comes from their traditional caste occupation. “We are the original chowkidars, not these fake chowkidars on social media,” he said, referring to the prime minister Narendra Modi and his supporters, many of whom call themselves the “chowkidars” of India.

In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaigns for the ongoing general elections have centred on Narendra Modi and what some are terming his brand of “muscular nationalism.” As Rajasthan geared up for its second phase of polling, I travelled to Jhunjhunu and Sikar—two of the 12 constituencies that will vote on 6 May. Jhunjhunu claims a distinction—the number of its residents that serve in the army and the paramilitary forces is the highest among all districts in India. Sikar, too, boasts of a substantial number of serving and retired servicemen. Part of the Shekhawati region in north Rajasthan, both these districts also share a history of farmers’ agitations stretching back to the colonial era. The two provided a microcosm of some tensions at play during this election—the steadily rising tide of agrarian distress and Modi's hyper-nationalist electoral narrative.

In Jhunjhunu town, I met Yashwardhan Singh Shekhawat, who contested the 2018 Rajasthan state elections from Udaipurwati—an assembly constituency in Jhunjhunu district—as an independent. Yashwardhan, a software engineer, is a Rajput whose family has a tradition of soldiering, stretching back at least four generations. He said that his great grandfather fought in both the World Wars and his younger grandfather fought in two of the India-Pakistan wars. He told me that communities like his, which have family members in the army “know war and bloodshed intimately and are not that affected by the current phase of hyper-nationalism.” However, he added, “in Shekhawati, nationalism has had an effect on the non-dominant OBCs,”—other backward classes. He told me that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been working with these castes in the state, particularly among the youth. “The first layer of this ideology is an anti-Muslim sentiment, and the second layer is a pro-Hindu feeling, which are two sides of the same coin. The final layer on top of this is nationalism,” he explained.

Yashwardhan’s assertion was borne out during my meeting with a group of right-wing activists in Jhunjhunu town, many of whom belong to communities that are classified as OBC in Rajasthan and are considered non-dominant OBCs. Almost all of them were between 23 to 31 years of age. Draped in the colour saffron, they were conducting door-to-door campaigns for the BJP. Manoj Kumawat, a BJP member, told me, “Modi has made the country strong and the whole world respects India now.” Yogendra Kumawat, who is a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, seemed to be the leader of the group and told me that Muslims, especially Kayamkhani Muslims many of whom reside in Shekhawati, are patriotic and every family has some soldiers in the army. The Kayamkhanis are a Muslim community that claim descent from Rajputs who embraced Islam. “But the Wahhabi ideology from Uttar Pradesh is erasing local Muslim identity,” he added.

The two upper-caste campaigners among them shared these views. Mahavir Sharma, who is a Brahmin and a member of the VHP, declared that India had scored a diplomatic victory over China by getting Masood Azhar designated a global terrorist by the United Nations. Ravindra Shekhawat, who works with a local cow-protection group, said, “Modi got our pilot back from Pakistan within 48 hours. That is nationalism.” According to him, “when it comes to nationalism Muslims fall short.” He added that “Hindus do not say murdabad”—death to the nation—“except in Jawaharlal Nehru University.”

According to Yogendra Yadav, the president of the political party Swaraj India, “Pulwama has become an opportunity for the BJP to push anxieties on national security, and through that foreground the question of the prime ministerial contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.” He added that because of this narrative “issues of agricultural distress have been pushed to the margins.” Yadav was in Sikar to campaign for Amra Ram, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate from the constituency.

Sikar and Jhunjhunu are dry and arid. The water table is falling and existing irrigation systems are inadequate. Rituals like kuan poojan, or worship of wells, are common in this area where farmers grow wheat, millets and pulsesdry land crops that do not require much water.

In Sikar, I travelled to Toda village, where local farmers were holding a dharna against mining leases granted by the government which encroach on the village’s common grazing land. The Aravalli range runs through Sikar and mining, legal and illegal, is rampant.

The day I visited was day 1,308 of the dharna, which had started on 2 October 2015. I signed the guest register—used to mark the number of days—the tenth such register that had been signed since the beginning of the dharna. Hari Singh Tanwar, a 65-year-old veteran, is the driving force behind the protest. Tanwar, a Rajput, joined the Border Security force in 1971, just before the India-Pakistan war. “Indira Gandhi split Pakistan in two and created Bangladesh. Did nationalism ever become an issue in domestic politics then? So why now?” Tanwar said he was unhappy with the BJP “using” Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman for “political purposes” and added that “it is anti-national on the BJP’s part.” Another protestor, Shambhu Dayal Gujjar, disagreed. “Modi has done so much for the nation,” he said. “There are no corruption scams and he has made India the number four nation in the world.” Soon, an argument broke out among the group about the merits and demerits of Narendra Modi.

I also visited Baniyala village in Sikar. Ram Sahai Gujjar, a former soldier, is the sarpanch of the Mahawa gram panchayat in which the village is located. He joined the sixth battalion of the Rajput regiment of the Indian army in 1969 and saw action in 1971 on the Bangladesh border. “I was a chowkidar of the nation and now I am doing chowkidari in the village as a sarpanch,” he told me. “In a farming family, one son joins the army while the other continues as a farmer. Modi has failed farmers. He has not doubled our income and the stray cattle menace is further destroying our fields.” Four members of his family currently serve in the army and eight others are retired soldiers. His panchayat has almost seventy current soldiers and 50 retired servicemen. Dismissive of the nationalistic electoral pitch, he told me, “The biggest issues here are stray cattle, land acquisition for mines and non-availability of water. Is Modi addressing these issues?”