Patel trap

  • Quota crusader
    Quota crusader: Hardik Patel at the rally in Ahmedabad on August 25 | AFP
  • Burning ire
    Burning ire: A file picture of Gujjars protesting in Ajmer over reservations. The community has pledged its support to Hardik Patel's agitation | PTI

Hardik's agitation could be aimed at restarting the debate over reservation policy

A prominent leitmotif in Hardik Patel’s speeches is his sister Monika. He makes it a point to talk about how his kid sister missed out on a state scholarship despite getting 84 per cent marks in class twelve. He relates how her classmate, with less marks, got the scholarship as she fell in the reserved category.

Another story that he loves to tell is about an unnamed farmer in Saurashtra, who got 90 per cent marks in high school, but the marks were not good enough to get him admission in a good college in the general category.

Hardik, founder of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, has also mentioned what a US-based friend told him. This friend told him that Patels are powerful, even in the US. He said Patels went to the US because there was no reservation there. “He told me to tell Modi saheb to give reservation to Patels here or else all of us will go to the US. Soon the US president will be a Patel,” Hardik told a gathering.

The 22-year-old quota crusader is not a great orator. However, the message that he attempts to convey through these stories resonates with the Patel community. Lakhs turned out for his rally in Ahmedabad on August 25. He has drawn huge crowds in other places also. Mostly young, his listeners agree with him totally when he says Patels should be given reservation under the Other Backward Class category.

However, the underlying belief feeding the agitation is that the youth of the community is getting a raw deal because of quotas for others. Patels have been known as an influential, socially upwardly mobile community of Gujarat. For them to demand quota turns the very idea of reservation on its head. After all, reservation represents affirmative action through positive discrimination to uplift the socially and educationally backward communities.

“OBC reservation is given on the basis of social and educational backwardness. But the two groups of Patels in Gujarat [Leuva and Kadva] are neither socially nor educationally backward. They don’t fit the criteria for reservation in the OBC category,” said Gaurang Jani, noted sociologist and member of the OBC Commission in Gujarat. He said that in modern India, the Patels are perhaps the most economically and socially, upwardly mobile, growing community.

The traditionally land-owning Patel community has dominated the state in various walks of life. Critics of the agitation point out that the community has 62 MLAs in the Gujarat assembly. Nine ministers, including the chief minister, are Patels. And a majority of the university vice chancellors in the state are Patels.

Hardik's agitation, however, has questioned the very existence of quota. He has, after all, demanded that either the Patels be given reservation or the quota system be scrapped. He says that a new reservation policy that works on the basis of economic criteria should be introduced. Hence, even as the agitation is for reservation for Patels, it is in essence an anti-reservation unrest.

Politics watchers say the agitation is finding such huge resonance because there is a lot of anger among the Patels against reservation. “The reservation system was put forward by political parties as an election plank. Because of this, the country has gone back 60 years. If you have to give reservation, give it to everyone…. The poor of every community should be given reservation,” Hardik said in his press conference in Delhi.

The opposition Congress in Gujarat sees a “hidden agenda” behind the agitation. “Clearly, the basic premise of the agitation is anti-reservation, in sync with the RSS’s views. They are not directly asking for withdrawal of reservation,” said Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia. He said there were two anti-reservation stirs in Gujarat, in 1981 and 1985. “BJP leaders led the agitation and the RSS planned it. The BJP did not support the Mandal Commission. It was after that that they started their rath yatra,” said Modhwadia.

Indeed, there has been intense speculation on the forces behind the agitation, with people questioning the capabilities of Hardik to mobilise his community at such a large scale and hold such well-organised rallies. While there has been talk of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal or Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whom Hardik had mentioned in his speeches, having propped him up, another theory that has been doing the rounds is that it is actually the RSS that is behind the agitation, given its traditional disapproval of the reservation system. The aim of the agitation, it is said, could be to restart a debate on the reservation policy.

“There is no need for caste-based reservation now because no caste has remained backward. At the most, continue it for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but only for ten years. Abolish it completely after that,” RSS ideologue M.G. Vaidya told a newspaper recently.

The agitation has nevertheless queered the pitch for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially as it comes before the Bihar elections. An OBC himself, Modi is trying to woo the backward communities of Bihar. However, the agitation by Patels is being seen as running contrary to the interests of the OBCs benefiting from reservation, and in the extremely caste-conscious Bihar, what is happening in Gujarat could have electoral repercussions for the BJP. A worried Modi has appealed to the people of Gujarat to keep peace, invoking Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in his 'Mann ki Baat' radio address. Also, in Gujarat, where the civic elections are due this year end, the ruling BJP is well aware that the pro-reservation stir could hurt its prospects. Patels constitute 14 per cent of Gujarat’s six crore population. Traditionally, they are considered BJP voters. The BJP, therefore, is trying to pacify the Patels. A government spokesperson, Nitin Patel, said: “It is a party matter and the party is looking into it.” A seven-member committee, headed by him, that held talks with the agitators would soon submit its report.

Hardik, meanwhile, has made clear his intentions of scaling up his agitation to the national level. He has wasted no time in landing in Delhi and announcing that he would soon hold a protest at Jantar Mantar. He has also announced a yatra from Dandi in south Gujarat to Ahmedabad, on the lines of Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi march, albeit in reverse order. “It will be a twelve-day rally,” Hardik told THE WEEK.

In a move to expand his protest, he has said that he wants to create a united front of Patels, Kurmis, Gujjars and Jats to demand reservation. But most political parties have been wary of supporting him since they do want to antagonise their own constituencies. They know that the agitation will get support only from either those who are opposed to reservation or socially and politically influential groups such as the Jats and the Gujjars. The SCs, the STs as well as the OBCs will be viewing Hardik as being opposed to their interests.

“The Patels of Gujarat are historically Gujjars. We feel a kinship with them. We have a blood relation with them. If Hardik Patel comes to Rajasthan, we will welcome him and support him,” said Himmat Singh, spokesman for the Gujjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti of Rajasthan—a campaign for reservation for Gujjars started by Kirori Singh Bainsla. Gujjars of Rajasthan first demanded reservation under the ST category. They are in the ST category in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Of late, they have been demanding reservation in the OBC category.

They are competing with the claims of their traditional rivals, the Jats, for inclusion in the OBC category. The UPA government had granted the Jats reservation in the OBC category in nine states. This was scrapped by the Supreme Court, which castigated the government for going against the findings of the National Commission for Backward Classes.

“Ninety per cent of the Jats live in villages. It is said that we are dabangg [daring]. But that is no yardstick to measure our backwardness or forwardness,” said Hawa Singh Sangwan, spokesman for the All India Jat Mahasabha. Pointing out the political influence of the Jats, he said that there were eight Jat MPs from Rajasthan, five from Uttar Pradesh and one from Haryana.

Hardik’s language is not very different. He has threatened Modi that the Patels will not allow the Lotus to bloom in the next assembly elections in Gujarat if they are not granted reservation. Clearly, the mightier the group, the stronger its demand for reservation.

* Patels constitute 14 per cent of Gujarat's six crore population
* Leuva and Kadva—the two main subcastes of Patels
* Leuvas are more dominant in central and south Gujarat. Saurashtra and the north Gujarat have more Kadvas
* Traditional land owners, Patels moved from agriculture to industry, diversifying into and dominating various sectors
* More than 70 per cent of Surat's diamond and textile industry is controlled by Patels
* Every second private college, especially engineering, is controlled by them
* Nearly 90 per cent of the vice chancellors appointed during Narendra Modi's tenure as chief minister were Patels
* Sixty-two of 182 MLAs in Gujarat are Patels. Nine ministers, including Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, belong to the community
* Patels own or manage more than 40 per cent of motels in the United States. In the US, the Patels outnumber all the other Gujaratis
* Prominent personalities include Pankaj Patel, chairman of pharma company Zydus Cadila, Karsanbhai Patel of Nirma Group, Lalji Patel, owner of Dharmanandan Diamonds Pvt Ltd (who bought Modi's monogrammed suit), Rushabh Patel of Parshwanath Group of Companies, Tulsi Tanti of Suzlon and Odhavji Patel of the Ajanta brand of clocks

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