Traditionally involved in peasantry, the Jat community saw radical social changes in the 17th century, when the Hindu Jats took up arms against the Mughal Empire during the late 17th and early 18th century. The Hindu Jat kingdom reached its zenith under Maharaja Suraj Mal of Bharatpur (1707–1763). The Jat community of the Punjab region played an important role in the development of the martial Khalsa Panth of Sikhism; they are more commonly known as the Jat Sikhs. By the 20th century, the landowning Jats became an influential group in several parts of North India, including Haryana, Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi. Over the years, several Jats abandoned agriculture in favour of urban jobs, and used their dominant economic and political status to claim higher social status.
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.
The Jats are a paradigmatic example of community- and identity-formation in early modern Indian subcontinent. "Jat" is an elastic label applied to a wide-ranging, traditionally non-elite, community which had its origins in pastoralism in the lower Indus valley of Sindh. 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 Islamic rulers, though professing a theologically egalitarian religion, did not alter either the non-elite status of Jats or the discriminatory practices against them that had been put in place in the long period of Hindu rule in Sind. 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.
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.