119 Years of Trust


Saturday, July 3, 1999

This above all

regional vignettes

Forming an identity
By Nonica Datta

WHAT does the term Jat mean or convey? Who are they and where did they come from? For one, they live in Punjab, Rajputana and on the banks of the Yamuna and the Ganges. They seem to have first appeared during the seventh century in Sind, gradually moved into Punjab and the Yamuna valley, and then settled in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Early historical accounts of Sind indicate that the term Jat was popularly applied to a ‘servile creature’ tied to his qaum. The Brahuis, Afghans and Persians resented this group which eked a poor living out of agriculture and moved about the barren plains tending and breeding camels. Early eighteenth-century accounts described the non-Sikh Jats, who were dominant in the regions south and east of Delhi after 1710, as ‘plunderers and bandits preying on the imperial lines of communication’. They gained notoriety for attacking the caravans on the important Delhi-Multan route passing through Mahim (Meham), Jhajjar, Hansi, Sirsa, Hissar and Panipat, the qasbahs on the fringes of their hinterland. Around the same time, they were involved in colonising lands around the banks of the Yamuna river and were gradually transformed into a wider category of warrior-cultivators and semi-pastoralists. Clearly, they were not a rigid caste, but a socially inclusive group with a remarkable capacity to incorporate ‘pioneer peasant castes, miscellaneous military adventurers and groups living on the fringes of settled agriculture’.

Geographically, the Jats were separated by the Yamuna river into two groups. One of them, lived on the western side of the river Yamuna in the area traditionally known as Hariana, famous for its cattle and pasturage. It included the regions of Hissar and Rohtak.

The name has an ancient connotation. According to one version, Paras Ram (incarnate of Harri) had killed the Chattris in a village called Ramridth, four kos (miles) west of Jind, on twenty-one occasions. Harri in Shastri (Sanskrit), means slain, and ana assembly. Hence the name Hariana. Another view is the Hariana was named after Raja Hari Chand. Some have even pointed out that the name is derived from a wild wood called harriaban. Although Rajputs, Brahmans, Jats, Gujars, Bakkals, Afghans and the Syeds lived in the region for centuries, the popular Jat claim has been that Hariana, formerly a green forest, was peopled and later brought under cultivation by their ancestors from Bagar (Bikaner). According to them, Hariana was a Jat country.

Hissar, Rohtak, Gurgaon and Panipat, with their bhaiachara (co-sharing) tenures and the khudkasht (peasant-proprietor), were part of the Jatiyar or Jatiyat the country of the Jats. Here lived the Deswali or Hele and the Dhe or Pachchade Jats. The Deswali claimed to be the descendants of the ‘original’ Jats settled in India about a thousand years ago, while the Dhe were late arrivals who extended their sphere of influence following the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. In Rohtak, situated on the right bank of the Yamuna river, the Deswali Jats appear to have settled some seven or eight hundred years ago while the Dhe Jats, probably the descendants of immigrants from Bagar, a tract just beyond the border of Bikaner, moved into the western parts of the Hissar district around 1783 and took up the lands abandoned after the terrible Chalisa famine of that year. Some of them came from Bikaner and Nabha in the early nineteenth century. The areas adjoining Bikaner and to the west of Bhiwani, such as Hissar and Fatehabad, were called Bagar, a term meaning ‘dry country’ in common parlance. Those living in the region were descendants of the itinerant Bagri Jats and the Bishnois.

The term Bagri was applied to a Hindu Rajput or Jat from the Bagar region. According to local traditions, it was a corrupted form of Nagri who claimed to be Chauhan Rajputs. The Godars and Punias, too, considered themselves to be Bagri Jats. In general, they were neither permanent settlers nor attached to the land which they abandoned in seasons of drought. They kept camels for ploughing in favourable seasons and for carrying goods to more secure parts during hard times. The Bishnois were mainly Jats or carpenters who, having discarded their caste names, called themselves Bishnois. They were mobile armed groups who brought with them their own distinctive cultures and infused dynamism in the areas they inhabited. While the Bagri Jats forged cultural links and matrimonial alliances with the Jats living in Rajasthan beyond the desert, the Deswali Jats did the same with their counterparts in western UP living on the other side of the Yamuna river. There were some Muslim Jats as well. They were called ‘Mula’ or ‘Mule’ a few of whom were found in Rohtak. In the Delhi territory, the term ‘Mula’/ ‘Mule’, was applied to the Muslim converts from the Jat caste only, frequently being used for those whose ‘ancestors were forcibly circumcised by the Emperors, and not converted by persuasion’. They called themselves Sheikhs. They intermarried and smoked with the Hindu Jats.

The relationship of the Jats with the other groups was defined through their got (clan) — an exogamous kin-group. The Deswalis were members of twelve different gots which were further divided into at least 137 sub-clans. Locally, they were organised under the tappa system, a territorial and not a kinship grouping. The tappa was controlled by the dominant landholding Jat clan group in a given area.

The Jat clans had different versions of territoriality denoting a segmented lineage. Among the main clans in Rohtak, the stronghold of the Ghatwalas (Maliks) was at Ahulana in the Gohana tahsil of the district. The Dagars lived in Delhi and Gurgaon, while the Dahiyas inhabited the northeastern border of Sampla and the adjoining portion of the Sonepat tahsil in Rohtak and Delhi. The Rathi Jats were concentrated in Gurgaon, Delhi and Rohtak, the Golias in Rohtak and Karnal. They were indistinguishable from Gwalas and Ahirs in some areas. The Dalals lived in the adjoining territory of Delhi, Hissar and Jind. The Deswals were more numerous in Rohtak, Gurgaon and Karnal; the Dhankars in Jhajjar (Rohtak); the Phogats in Jind and the neighbouring areas of Gurgaon and Rohtak; and the Sangwans in Jind, Hissar and Rohtak. The Bahniwals, who were settled mostly in the Hissar division, moved up to the Lower Sutlej in Montgomery and claimed to be Bhatti Rajputs. The Pawania, a clan from Hissar, settled in Rohtak, Sirsa and Jind. The Nains, having lived in Patiala, moved into Hissar and Delhi.

An important feature of Jat society in pre-colonial Hariana was the absence of a political authority or a monarchical form. This was not so in the case of either the Jat state of Bharatpur in the south or the Sikh states of Jind and Patiala in the north. Generally speaking, the Harianavi Jats, with their distaste for headmen and chiefs, had their villages managed by their panch, a committee of elders (heads of families). Hierarchy and dominance were shaped by the clans which were, nonetheless, at loggerheads with one another. This also meant that some gots wielded power and controlled economic resources, while the less-privileged sections had to eke out a living in areas which were not always conducive to agricultural production. In the long run, this led to social and economic tensions within the Jat community. For example, the Dahiyas were jealous of the Ghatwalas who had access to water supply and better irrigation facilities. The Bagri Jats, too, resented the prosperity that came the way of the Deswali Jats.

During the eighteenth century, the Jats, like the rest of the mobile pastoral and peasant groups in north India, formed armed roving bands. This started with the rise of the Bharatpur kingdom which introduced the Jats to military culture. During the rule of Begum Samru, they were inducted into her irregular armies. George Thomas recruited about 5000-6000 men into his army, including the Jats, paid pensions to them and encouraged them to settle in Hariana. The colonisation of land through pensions to sipahis contributed to Hariana becoming a stable military labour market in the 1790s. Eventually, Thomas raised an army of eight battalions of infantry comprising 6000 men, fifty pieces of cannon, 1000 cavalry, and 1500 Rohillas along with 2000 men incharge of his different forts.

A new social order

The strengthening of the Brahman literati and the Banias, along with the emergence of the Jats as sepoys and agriculturists, led to the creation of a new social order in southeast Punjab. This had serious implications. For one, the increasing hierarchical social order resulted in serious tensions between the Jats, who were placed lower down the caste hierarchy, and the upper castes. The Jat headmen and their powerful allies began to challenge the dominance of Brahmans and tried to scale the caste hierarchy through a conscious and organised endeavour. They were in a much stronger position to do so because of their landholdings, their key role in the village-based economy, and their representation in the army.

The emergence of Jat identity needs to be related to the wider changes in nineteenth century society: the decline of the warrior culture, the rise of village-based peasant economy, the neutral position of the East India Company towards the local peasant-pastoral culture and the interrelated diminution of syncretic traditions. Though the population of Rohtak-Hissar was predominantly rural, new towns mushroomed by early twentieth century and old towns began losing much of their importance. Hissar, an old prominent Muslim qasbah and fortified town, became less important while Rohtak emerged as an important market and recruiting centre. Strategically located on the Delhi-Multan route, Hansi, Panipat, Mahim, Narnaul, Sirsa and Jhajjar also diminished in importance as trading and sufi centres, particularly due to the reduction of caravan trade after the 1760s. Bhiwani, a town founded by the British, was gradually transformed from an insignificant village to a ‘free market’ in 1817. Thus, many old cultural centres turned into mandis (market towns).

By the late nineteenth century a new culture pattern emerged in southeast Punjab. The Jats emerged as a dominant economic group simultaneous with the decline of the nawabi and the old Islamic pastoralist culture. In Rohtak, the Hindus constituted 80 per cent of the population by the early part of the twentieth century; the Hindu Jats were about a third. In the mid-1880s, out of 511 estates in the district, the Jats held about 366. By 1931, the Maliks numbered 20,000 males out of the total Jat male population of 142,764, owning 22 villages, while the Dahiyas, numbering about 20,000 males, held 16 villages. In the creation of Jat identity in southeast Punjab, these two clans played a significant role initially. Later, many other clans began playing their part in accelerating the process of Jat identity formation. But despite the fact that the warrior culture had been on the decline since the 1820s and community boundaries were being more clearly defined thereafter as a result of the disruption of a pluralist culture, the crystallisation of a self-conscious Jat identity took place after 1880 and, more significantly, in the context of the Arya Samaj movement.

(Excerpted from Forming an Identity: A Social History of the Jats.Oxford University Press, Delhi).back

Home Image Map
| Good Motoring and You | Dream Analysis | Regional Vignettes |
Fact File | Roots | Crossword | Stamp Quiz | Stamped Impressions | Mail box |