Jats: A brief history

farmers tractor rally

The Jats have been at the forefront of the ongoing farmer’s protests against the Center imposed three agri bills. Jat Sikh (Jatt Sikh), is a sub-group of the Jat people, and the Sikh ethnoreligious group from the Indian subcontinent. They are one of the dominant community in the Punjab, India owing to their large land-holdings. They form an estimated 21% -25% of the population of the Indian state of Punjab. They form at least half of the Sikh population in Punjab, with some sources estimating them to be about 60% to 66% of the Sikh population.

A brief history of this community:

The Jats constitute one of the largest and diverse communities living in northwestern India and Pakistan. According to Westphal-Hellbusch and Wesphal (The Jat of Pakistan,1964), give the Arabic equivalent of Jat as Zutt, a generic term used for “men from India.” The word Jat also means “bunch of hair” and the Jats themselves claim that they have descended from the hair of lord Shiv. According to Ibbetson (Panjab Castes, 1916), Jats are of Indo-Aryan (or Indo- Scythian) descent. G.T. Bowles (The People of Asia, 1977) argues that the word Jat in the Punjabi language means a “grazer” or “herdsman,” but notes Ibbetson’s suggestion that a shift from the Punjabi soft “t” to a hard “t” (jutt) in some Muslim areas means an agriculturalist. “Jat” is a loose and flexible label applied to a wide-ranging community from simple landowning peasants to wealthy and influential Zamindars.

There are many theories about the history of the Jat. Classical Greek historians Pliny and Ptolemy, trace the migration of the Jat from the banks of the Oxus River (Amu Dariya, Central Asia) to India about a century before Christ. Historians Vincent Smith and James Todd identify them as belonging to the Indo-Scythian hordes that invaded India between 200 BC and 600 AD, and finally settled there. Other scholars such as Ibbetson, Rose and William Crooke believe the Jat to be one of the Rajput tribes. There are also beliefs of Jat/Jute/Zut as a race with origins in Getae/ Mesa getae tribe (Lower Danube) which primarily worshiped one common ancestor and were pagans.

Current research suggests that the Jat migrated from central Asia in the 2nd millennium BC onwards. They spoke Indo-Aryan languages and are believed to be one of the most ancient people in India, eventually settling along the Indus River in the fertile plains of the Punjab and became a pastoral and peasant community. They united to form a network of councils that linked the clans into villages. Some Jats in Gujarat are Muslim and are pastoral people.

Originally pastoralists in the lower Indus river-valley of Sindh, Jats migrated north into the Punjab region in late medieval times, and subsequently into the Delhi Territory, northeastern Rajputana, and the western Gangetic Plain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths, they are now found mostly in the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

Stephen Fuchs suggests that the Jats probably migrated from Central Asia to India as a “predatory nomadic tribe”. He writes: “The overall analysis of the nomadic tribes in northern India suggests that they fall into three main categories: (a) one group belongs to a basically primitive food gathering and hunting stage of culture; (b) the second group belongs to a more advanced culture of jungle dwellers and primitive cultivators, akin perhaps to the Doms, and the aborigines of north-eastern India in their past; and (c) a third group which probably belonged to originally predatory nomadic tribes, immigrants from central Asia, such as the Jats and Rajputs.”

As Yogesh Snehi mentioned in his ‘LYHC’ (Lyallpur Young Historians Club) talk: “Chach Nama also known as the Fateh nama Sindh and Tarikh- al-Hind (Al Biruni) are the main historical sources for the history of Sindh in the seventh to eighth centuries CE, written in Persian. The body of the work narrates the Arab intrusions into Sindh of the 7th-8th centuries CE.”

This tells of the Jats, though then not known as jats, as living in Lower Sindh region. They are referred to as Shramanik Budhhists (as also by Hiuen Tsang). “They are nomadic pastoralists and live on wastelands, follow no customs and have no financial resources except firewood.

At the time of Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest of Sind in the 8th century, Arab writers described agglomerations of Jats in the arid, the wet, and the mountainous regions of the conquered land. The Arab rulers, though professing a theologically egalitarian religion, the position of Jats or the discriminatory practices against them that had been put in place in the long period of ‘Hindu’ rule in Sind, didn’t change. The text tells of Muhammad bin Qasim levying jaziya on them.

They were also referred to as boatmen. Later there are references of the Arab governor meeting them in Central Sindh. This tells of their slow migration towards north. The earliest reference of them as ‘Jats’ is when they fight against Ghazni in 1026. They are said to have fought him in a naval fleet of nearly 8000 ships.

When Arabs entered Sindh and other Southern regions of current Pakistan in the seventh century, the chief tribal groupings they found were the Jats and the Med people (ethnic community of coastal areas of Balochistan). These Jats are often referred as Zatts in early Arab writings. The Jats were the first converts to Islam, and many were employed as soldiers by the new Arab Muslim administration in Sindh. The Muslim conquest chronicles further point at the important concentrations of Jats in towns and fortresses of Lower and Central Sindh.

Between the 10th and the 13th Century, there was large immigration of Jat groups northwards to Punjab and eastwards towards what is now Rajasthan. Many Jat clans initially settled in a region known as the Bar country, which referred to the country between the rivers of Punjab, thinly populated with scanty rainfall which accommodated a type of pastoral nomadism which was based primary on the rearing of goats and camels. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, the Jats became essentially a farming population, taking advantage in the growth of irrigation. As these Jats became converted to farmers, they started accepting Islam. Most Jats clans of western Punjab have beliefs and traditions of accepting Islam at the hands of many famous Sufi saints of Punjab, Shaikh Faridudin Ganj Shaker of Pakpattan, Ahmad Sirhindi of east Punjab and Baha-ud-din Zakariya of Multan, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Sindh, Jalaluddin Surkh-Posh Bukhari of Bahawalpur area. It, however, may have been a longer process from earlier times.

During the Tughlaq period they are found in Multan & near Beas. The move up north sees the Jats becoming agriculturists. After Baba Farid’s death, Tughlaq gives land to his Diwans. The land is tilled by Jats. By the time Ain-I-Akbari is written, the Jats (Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs) become synonymous with peasantry class.”

This shift from nomadic life to settled agri-life becomes an opposition to the ascetic life of nathyogis. The new discourse, of Guru Nanak becomes of “Kirat” … to do work and become a householder. This period also sees the rise of Sikhism and Sufism.

Between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries, Jat herders migrated up along the river valleys, into the Punjab, which had not been cultivated in the first millennium. Many took up tilling in regions such as Western Punjab, where the sakia (water wheel) had been recently introduced. By early Mughal times, in the Punjab, the term “Jat” had become loosely synonymous with “peasant”, and some Jats had come to own land and exert local influence.

According to historians Catherine Asher and Cynthia Talbot (India Before Europe, 2006): “The Jats also provide an important insight into how religious identities evolved during the precolonial era. Before they settled in the Punjab and other northern regions, the pastoralist Jats had little exposure to any of the mainstream religions. Only after they became more integrated into the agrarian world did the Jats adopt the dominant religion of the people in whose midst they dwelt”.

Over time the Jats became primarily Muslim in the western Punjab, Sikh in the eastern Punjab, and Hindu in the areas between Delhi Territory and Agra, with the divisions by faith reflecting the geographical strengths of these religions. They have been known as zamindars since the Mogul emperor, Akbar’s reign in the 16th century.

During the decline of Mughal rule in the early 18th century, the Indian subcontinent’s hinterland dwellers, many of whom were armed and nomadic (Jats & Ahirs), increasingly interacted with settled townspeople and agriculturists. Many new rulers of the 18th century came from such martial and nomadic backgrounds. The effect of this interaction on India’s social organization lasted well into the colonial period.

According to Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf (A Concise History of Modern India, 2001): “Upstart warriors, Marathas, Jats, and the like, as coherent social groups with military and governing ideals, were themselves a product of the Mughal context, which recognized them and provided them with military and governing experience. Their successes were a part of the Mughal success.”

As the Mughal empire declined, there were a series of rural rebellions in North India. Although these had sometimes been characterized as “peasant rebellions”, others, such as Muzaffar Alam, have pointed out that small local landholders, or zamindars, often led these uprisings. The Sikh and Jat rebellions were led by such small local zamindars.

These communities of rising peasant-warriors were not well-established Indian castes, but rather quite new, without fixed status categories, and with the ability to absorb older peasant castes, sundry warlords, and nomadic groups on the fringes of settled agriculture. The Mughal Empire, even at the zenith of its power, functioned by devolving authority and never had direct control over its rural grandees. It was only through faujdars and zamindars.

It was these zamindars who gained most from these rebellions, increasing the land under their control. The triumphant even attained the ranks of minor princes, such as the Jat ruler Badan Singh of the princely state of Bharatpur. The non-Sikh Jats came to predominate south and east of Delhi after 1710.

The Jats had moved into the Gangetic Plain in two large migrations, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries respectively. They were not a caste in the usual Hindu sense, rather they were an umbrella group of peasant-warriors.

Some Jats started to follow the teachings of Guru Nanak in small numbers and these swelled after the formation of the Khalsa. They formed the vanguard of Sikh resistance against the Mughal Empire from the 18th century onwards. W. H. McLeod, basing his work on the martial race theory, says that the Jats began to join Sikhism in large numbers during the period of the sixth guru, Hargobind, but this theory has been refuted by Jagjit Singh, a Sikh historian.

Irfan Habib has argued that Sikhism did much to uplift the social status of Jats, who were previously regarded in the Punjab as being of Shudra or Vaishya status in the Hindu ritual ranking system of varna.

Maharaja (Sir) Kishan Singh says: “A serious contradiction afflicts the Jat farmer of the Punjab. He has unflinching faith in Guru Gobind Singh, yet at the same time he is imbued with traits typical of a Jat. There are two sides to the Jat’s known traits. One has a positive effect in the sense that it saves him from feeling inferior; and the other side is negative. It makes him overbearing and arrogant which is a disease. A Jat’s negative traits can be suppressed only through the true spirit of Sikhism.”

At least seven of the 12 Sikh Misls (Sikh confederacies) were led by Jat Sikhs. One of these was the Sukerchakia Misl. The Sukerchakia last Misldar (commander of the Misl) was Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh united all the misls and established an independent kingdom in Punjab. However, many do not consider the Suckerchakia Misl as Jats.

The Sukerchakia belonged to the Sansi tribe – because of which some refute the claim of being Jats. Sansi is a gypsy and nomadic caste of Sikhs, although Hindu Sansis also exist within and outside Punjab in sizable numbers. The caste claims origin from Bhati Rajputs from Rajputana who had taken to nomadic life after their defeat by Alla-ud-din Khilji in 1303 AD. Many of these Bhati Rajputs moved north into Punjab and the Sikh ruling houses of Jind, Faridkot and Patiala as well as the clan of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was a Sansi, traced their origin to these Bhati Rajputs. Bhati is a clan of Rajputs, Gurjars, and Jats found in India and Pakistan. One could, therefore, categorise the Sukerchakia Misl as Jats. The Sikh Sidhu Jatt rulers of Patiala and Nabha also claim descent from the Bhati ruler Rawal Jaisal.

According to Christopher Bayly (Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870): “This was a society where Brahmins were few and male Jats married into the whole range of lower agricultural and entrepreneurial castes. A kind of tribal nationalism animated them rather than a nice calculation of caste differences expressed within the context of Brahminical Hindu state.”

In Punjab, the states of Patiala, Faridkot, Jind and Nabha were ruled by the Sikh Jats. According to anthropologist Sunil K. Khanna, Jat population is estimated to be around 30 million (or 3 crore) in South Asia in 2010. Deryck O. Lodrick (The Idea of Rajasthan: Explorations in Regional Identity, 2003) estimates Jat population to be over 33 million (around 12 million and over 21 million in India and Pakistan, respectively) in South Asia in 2009. His estimation is based on a late 1980s population projection of Jats and the population growth of India and Pakistan. He also notes that some estimates put their total population in South Asia at approximately 43 million in 2009. His religion-wise break-up of Jats is as follows: 47% Hindus, 33% Muslims, and 20% Sikhs. In India, multiple 21st-century estimates put Jats’ population share at 20–25% in Haryana state and at 20–35% in Punjab state. In Rajasthan, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh, they constitute around 9%, 5%, and 1.2% respectively of the total population. In western Punjab, the Jats became primarily Muslim, in eastern Punjab, Sikh (Jatts), and in the areas between Haryana, Delhi Territory and Agra, primarily Hindu (Jaats, though some consider Jats & Jaats as different race). Consolidation of economic gains and participation in the electoral process are two visible outcomes of the post-independence situation. Through this participation they have been able to significantly influence the politics of North India.

Jats are classified as Other Backward Class (OBC) in seven of India’s thirty-six States and UTs, namely Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. However, only the Jats of Rajasthan – excluding those of Bharatpur district and Dholpur district – are entitled to reservation of central government jobs under the OBC reservation. In 2016, the Jats of Haryana organized massive protests demanding to be classified as OBC in order to obtain such affirmative action benefits.

Many Jat Muslims live in Pakistan and have dominant roles in public life in the Pakistani Punjab and Pakistan in general. Jat communities also exist in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, in Sindh, particularly the Indus delta and among Saraiki-speaking communities in southern Pakistani Punjab, the Kachhi region of Balochistan and the Dera Ismail Khan District of the North West Frontier Province. In Pakistan also, Jats have become notable political leaders, like Asif Ali Zardari and Hina Rabbani Khar.

As farmers, the Jat’s main natural resource is the land that they own. During the second half of the nineteenth century the British laid an extensive canal irrigation system in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab which greatly benefited the Jat. Since India’s independence, in 1947, they have become the countries chief producer and supplier of food grains. Their links with local and regional markets are direct and fully regulated. In East Punjab, Jat Sikhs are associated with agricultural pursuits and land ownership. They own more than 80%, and possibly as much as 95% of available agricultural land in Punjab.

Many Jats serve in the Indian Army, including the Jat Regiment, Sikh Regiment, Rajputana Rifles and the Grenadiers, where they have won many of the highest military awards for gallantry and bravery. Jats also serve in the Pakistan Army especially in the Punjab Regiment.

Jats were designated by officials of the British Raj as a “martial race”, which meant that they were one of the groups whom the British favoured for recruitment to the British Indian Army. They participated in both World War I and World War II, as a part of the British Indian Army. In the period subsequent to 1881, when the British reversed their prior anti-Sikh policies, it was necessary to profess Sikhism in order to be recruited to the army because the administration believed Hindus to be inferior for military purposes.

Jat Sikhs, according to Major A. E. Barstow, (British Indian Army office, 1909 – 1942), were very good soldiers due to the influence of Sikhism, and possessed more of a martial quality than their non-Sikh Jat brethren. Barstow further comments, that due to their diet and their fondness for wrestling (believed to have been encouraged and taught by Guru Angad) and weightlifting, they possessed good physical attributes for soldiery. According to R. W. Falcon (Hand Book of Sikhs 1808), Jat Sikhs were seen as a good source for recruitment. According to Captain A. H. Bingley (Handbook On Rajputs,1999) they were particularly loyal soldiers.

The Indian Army admitted in 2013 that the 150-strong Presidential Bodyguard comprises only people who are Hindu Jats, Jat Sikhs and Hindu Rajputs. Refuting claims of discrimination, it said that this was for “functional” reasons rather than selection based on caste or religion.

According to Khushwant Singh, the Jats’ attitude never allowed themselves to be absorbed in the Brahminic fold. “The Jat’s spirit of freedom and equality refused to submit to Brahmanical Hinduism and in its turn drew the censure of the privileged Brahmins…. The upper caste Hindu’s denigration of the Jat did not in the least lower the Jat in his own eyes nor elevate the Brahmin or the Kshatriya in the Jat’s estimation. On the contrary, he assumed a somewhat condescending attitude towards the Brahmin, whom he considered little more than a soothsayer or a beggar, or the Kshatriya, who disdained earning an honest living and was proud of being a mercenary.”

Some known Jats/ Jatts/Jaats:

Bhai Bala, Baba Buddha, Bhai Bidhi Chand, Baba Deep Singh, Bhagat Singh, Sah Mal, Raja Nahar Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (?), Suraj Mal, Nawab Kapur Singh, Hira Singh Nabha, Achhar Singh Chhina, Mahendra Pratap, Ala Singh, Bhupinder Singh, Raghubir Singh, Dara Singh, Vijender Singh, Krishna Poonia, Vurender Sehwag, Amarinder Singh, Charan Singh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Partap Singh Kairon, Chaudhary Bharat Singh, Chhotu Ram, Chaudhari Devi Lal, Bansi Lal, Balram Jakhar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Randeep Hooda, the Deols

Other references: Jat, Sunil Khanna, Springer; The Aboriginal Tribes of India, Stephen Fuchs; Gem in the Lotus, Abraham Eraly; People groups of India, Wikipedia, Yogesh Snehi, LYHC; Jatland wiki

Jaspreet Kaur is an architect-urban designer, New Delhi




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