The savage tide of rage broke through the great bronze gates, exploding over the cascades of gemstones, marble and gold that lined the emperor’s grave. “Against him living they could do nothing,” the not-invariably reliable memoirs of the physician Niccolao Mannuci record, “they therefore reaped vengeance on his sepulchre”. That which could not be looted was destroyed. The bones of Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Akbar, King of Kings, were dug up and set on fire. In all the centuries it had stood, no greater insult had ever been delivered to the house of Tamerlane.
For weeks now, an improbable romance has been blossoming between metropolitan liberalism and the great Jat caste-associations that have massed on New Delhi’s peripheries. Not long ago, the khaps were cast as enemies of liberal values; perpetrators of communal and caste savagery. The khaps’ allies in those battles, Hindu nationalist activists, now present them as enemies of the state.
The story of the sacking of Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra by Rajaram Jat’s peasant armies in 1687 tells us that rural insurrection speaks its own, special language — a language that power, irrespective of its political colour, has long struggled to understand.
In 1574, the Balian khap had hosted a gathering of peasant khaps at Shoron, near Sisauli — both the place and the clan are the centre of gravity for the ongoing protests — to negotiate terms with the Akbar. Led by Rau Landey Rai, the massed peasants passed an eighteen-point resolution, demanding, other things, official recognition of their khaps, religious freedoms, and, most important, the right to have taxes collected by their own, rather than royal agents. The scholar Mahesh Pradhan’s careful study of the remarkable Balian clan archives shows Akbar agreed.
That the Mughals, at the high-noon of their power, felt compelled to negotiate with the Balian khap tells of a remarkable transformation in the community’s status and authority, which was bought dearly, with blood.
Early-medieval chronicles show the Jats had a less-than-comfortable relationship with authority. Living along key trade routes, the clans made a living as protectors of caravans and convoys—but also predators, looting merchants, armies and the State.
A chronicle of the Arab conquest of Sindh in 710-714 lamented that the Jats “possess a savage temperament, are continually rebelling and disobedient to the rulers”. The Jats warred against Ahmad Shah Abdali and Mahmud of Ghazi alike. The Emperor Zahiruddin Babur , whose virtues did not evidently include an ironic sensibility, bitterly complained that “the Jats and Gujjars always pour down in countless numbers from hill and plain for loot”.
The transformation of Jat power, scholar Ajay Kumar has argued, was driven by the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, in particular Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s investments in canals and the turab, or irrigation wheel. From being a pastoralist, tribal society, the Jats became the dominant landholding force in the feudal rural order.
From the mid-1660s, we know from RP Rana’s superb work on the rise of Jat power, the happy arrangements arrived with the Shoron khap began to break down. Fed up with the efforts of the Mughal state to expand its revenues under Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb, a surge in banditry began around 1664, involving not only Jats but Ahirs and Gujjars. In 1669, an insurrection led by Gokula Jat of Talpat, near Mathura, had to be bloodily put down.
Evidence that trolls aren’t an invention of our digital age litters court archives from the period: Mughal officials liberally abused peasant chors [thieves], fasadis [rioters] and haramzaadas [bastards].
The abuse failed to put an end to the insurrection in western Uttar Pradesh. Led by Raja Ram Jat, peasant armies put together by local landowners waged a successful campaign against Mughal power from 1681. Nawab Khan-i-jahan Bahadur’s efforts to level the centre of Jat power at Sinsini collapsed, after his own lieutenants proving unwilling to fight a campaign in which they thought defeat was certain.
Aurangzeb now attempted to sub-contract the war to Maharaja Bishan Singh of Ambar. This effort, too, failed.. Though Raja Ram was eventually killed, his successor Churaman Jat successfully expanded Jat power and authority, using guerrilla tactics to effect. Even though the Jat citadel at Sinsini temporarily fell in 1690, the insurrection simply shifted ground into Mewat and the Doab.
“When Prince Bedar Bakht was carrying Jorawar Jat, who had been arrested at Sinsini, to the Deccan”, Rana records, “a strong force of 500 Jats attacked qasba Maujpur in retaliation. The Jats attacked qasba Pilgawa, plundered the bazaar, and imprisoned 700 mahajans [traders] from there. They also arrested Mir Fazil, the imperial karkori from his office. Subsequently, the Jats made raids on the townships of Nogaon, Ferozepur, Kama and Pahari”.
Even though early twentieth-century historians sought to read religious nationalism into these events, the story doesn’t quite fit that mould. Churaman enthusiastically sided with the Mughal campaign against Banda Singh Bahadur’s rebellion, seeking to crush his army of tenant-farmers and artisans who were demanding land redistribution. Raja Suraj Mal — eulogised in last century by historian Kalika Ranjan Qanungo as the “Jat Ulysses” for his resistance against the Mughals—famously broke with the Maratha Sadashivrao Bhau at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761.
The landlord élite who fought both Maratha and Mughal power had one, single concern: to protect their caste and clan, and with it their own power. Through tactical genius and tenacity—laced with occasional treachery—they succeeded in establishing fiefdoms that survived to the coming of British Imperial power, and beyond.
Fifty years ago, the historian EP Thompson published work that revolutionised scholarly understanding of peasant protests and violence. The landscape the peasant operates in, Thompson observed, “was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action”.
The crisis that drives the farmer protests, likely, is not only about laws, any more than the long insurrection which began in 1664 was simply the result of a broken agreement. Instead, the protests are likely shaped by a sense that the power and influence of castes and clans long dominant in the countryside is at threat. The erosion of gains made during the Green Revolution; indebtedness; the fragmentation of land; unemployment; diminishing political power: each of these has helped feed and inform events.
The murderous caste riots of 2016, documented in granular detail by the former Director-General of Police Prakash Singh, and the increasingly brutal policing of caste boundaries by khaps, speak of fear and insecurity. From the point of view of Jat leaders, the terms of the community’s engagement with the world is changing in existentially-threatening ways.
In retrospect, it’s possible to date this crisis to 1988, when Jat farmers gathered led by Mahendra Singh Tikait staged a remarkable protest in New Delhi. The protests appeared to succeed, but politics delivered the Jats a succession of blows in following decades. The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report empowered competing caste groupings; Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims allied with Yadavs, the Jats’ competitors for political influence.
Every single society transitioning into industrial capitalism has faced similar crisis, from England in the 18th century, to Mao Zedong’s China. Transformation, inexorably, involves the tearing up and remaking of the social structure. Aurangzeb’s efforts to enhance revenue and expand the influence of the State, though, also teach us that change can have unanticipated consequences, and is not without peril.
“History teaches, but it has no pupils,” Antonio Gramsci wryly observed in 1921. “Illusion is the most tenacious weed in the collective consciousness”.
Learning lessons from the past is, of course, a fraught business. The peasant rebellions of medieval India are not a mirror of the farmer protests that have broken out in western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Yet, there the past helps illuminate the present, offering insight, for those who care for it, into how this crisis came about, and where it might head.