Who are they?
The Jats are a dominant farming community who own their land. The Jats have a reputation of being a feisty, hardworking people who are dedicated to community service. The word Jat is derived from Jatta, a generic term for cattle grazers and camel breeders, moving in a group or federation – jatha.
They have been known as zamindars (landowner) since the Mogul emperor, Akbar’s reign in the 16th century. Other occupations pursued by the Jat are animal husbandry, transport business, trade, and government and private service, and are teachers, doctors, engineers and surveyors.
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 to India about a century before Christ. Colonial 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. 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. They settled 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.
The largest concentrations of Jat are in the districts of Gujranwala Multan, Muzzaffargarh, Manipuri, Bahawalpur, Patiala and Faridkot in Punjab and Rohtak and Mahendranagar in Haryana. They also live in Mirpur in Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and the union territory of Chandigarh.
What Are Their Lives Like?
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.
The Jats also practice animal husbandry and work in the transport business and trade. They work as bus conductors, truck and taxi drivers or as professionals. The strong presence of the Jat in the Indian army, paramilitary and police forces reinforces their reputation as courageous people. A few Jat, as those in Himachal Pradesh, practice sericulture (the production of raw silk by raising silk worms) as a supplementary occupation.
The Jat is traditionally vegetarians whose staple food consists of wheat, maize, lentils, vegetables, milk and milk products. Lassi, a yoghurt drink is part of their daily diet. Meat mainly chicken and lamb is eaten on special occasions. They do not eat pork or beef. Muslim Jats eat female buffalo meat. Men drink alcohol.
Both extended and smaller families exist. Married women used and sometimes still observe purdah (cover their face with a veil) with their elder brother-in law and father-in-law. The Jat women are consulted in all important matters but men make the final decision. In rural areas they assist the men in the fields, look after the animals along with household duties. City women work in a variety of professions.
The women are good at embroidery (they are famous for phulkari – embroidered sheet that brides were wrapped in), weave, sew, crotchet and knotting. Charpais (bed) are intricately strung. Jhumar and gidda are energetic folk dances performed by women at weddings. Another dance, the bhangra has been made famous by Bollywood.
The Jat practice endogamy and exogamy, is permitted at the clan or village level. A popular Jat saying is that a daughter and vote should be given only to another Jat.
Parents arrange marriages and negotiate on behalf of the bride and groom. The marriageable age is twenty-one years for men and eighteen for girls. The Jat is monogamous except in cases of barrenness where polygamy is allowed. Junior levirate, which is only permitted after the death of one’s elder brother, is called chadar odhana (wrapping with a cloth or sheet). The deceased’s younger brother offers glass bangles to his elder brother’s widow after the death of her first husband, a prohibited act before his death, and then places a sheet around her shoulders, completing the ceremony. This custom of keeping the widow in the family is typical of the Jat. Junior sororate is also common, and remarriage of both widowed and divorced persons is permitted. The practice of dowry, in cash and kind is prevalent.
The Jats have a strong social organizational system in place. The eighteen Jat clans of Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh have a multi tiered infrastructure of nine main social units that break down to smaller units. These councils (panchayat) settle family disputes, demand restitution and have the authority to excommunicate persons who have committed incest or adultery. Jats fear a Panchayat’s curse or displeasure more than a monetary fine.
A Jat Maha Sabha (Jat Great Assembly) exists at a regional and national level to safeguard community interests. These exert a powerful influence politically especially at elections. They are active in lobbying for their rights; the Jat has recently been included as Other Backward Classes (OBC) which grants them special privileges and quotas in government jobs and schemes.
The Jats are politically aware and many leaders have held ministerial positions from this community. The Jats have a national level party of their own called the Lok Dal, headed by the Union Agriculture Minister in the present ruling coalition. His late father, Choudhury Charan Singh, was a former Prime Minister of India.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Jat are predominantly Sikh and also Hindu or Muslim, the last being a small number mainly living in the Kutch district of Gujarat. The Hindu Jat worship all Hindu gods and goddesses, but Shiva is considered to be one of their most ancient ancestors and is the Jat’s most venerated deities. Shiva’s son, Kartikeya, whose mount is a peacock is also worshipped. They participate in all Hindu festivals, as well as visit Hindu sacred places such as Haridwar, Varanasi and Badrinath. Most of the Hindu Jat invariably touch mother earth when they get up in the morning, wish Ram Ram to others, and invoke the sun god (Surya) when they start ploughing their fields.
The Jat Sikhs were converted to Sikhism in the 16th century during the time of the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev. Though the Jat Sikh worship the Sikh religious book, Guru Granth Sahib, and staunchly adhere to all the tenets of Sikhism, many of them also visit Hindu pilgrimage centres. Sikhs believe in a universal god who is not worshipped as an idol.
Among the Hindu and Sikh Jat a form of ancestor worship, called Jathera is quite common. The name given to the Jathera is generally of an influential ancestor or the founder of the clan who was a martyr. This place identified with the ancestor is marked by a mound of earth or perhaps a concrete shrine. The Hindu revivalist, as well as purification movement, Arya Samaj, with its protestant ethic and democratic functioning gave the Jat unfettered access to the sacred Hindu scriptures (Vedas) without the mediation of priests, and has been a major factor in the modernisation of the Jat. The egalitarian Radhasoami sect has many followers with many prayer halls scattered throughout Jat inhabited regions.
What Are Their Needs?
The Jats of India need clean drinking water and proper health care facilities. Medical teams and aid workers are needed to work among them. The Jat are a relatively affluent community. They have an active social conscience which they put into practice by helping the community. They can be very influential in bringing about change in communities.