On April 18, when a seven-member team headed by Gujarat Health Minister Nitin Patel sat down with agitating Patel leaders, what grabbed more attention was the absence of representatives from the two major Patel groups, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) and the Sardar Patel Group (SPG). The talks failed to break the deadlock, reflecting the failure of the BJP government led by Anandiben Patel in handling the issue, which erupted last year after the Patels took to streets demanding reservation under the Other Backward Classes category.
The government from the outset has maintained that it would not be possible to give reservation to the Patels under the OBC category as Supreme Court guidelines do not permit reservations beyond 49 per cent. PAAS leader Hardik Patel, the face of the agitation, has been in jail since October on sedition charges. The 23-year-old commerce graduate was accused of advising an agitating Patel youth to kill policemen instead of committing suicide. Hardik's speeches were branded by the police as attempts to overthrow the government. With him behind the bars, it was expected that the agitation would die a natural death.
But the Patels decided to intensify the agitation. Subsequently, the PAAS and the SPG, which were not on the same page earlier, came together and gave a jail bharo (court arrest) call on April 17 in Mehsana in north Gujarat. After the protests turned violent, the Patels called for a bandh the next day.
Patel anger has been among the key factors behind the reverses the BJP suffered in the local body elections last year. Before the elections, senior BJP leaders were sent to mollify the Patels by talking about the cases filed against them. It worked in urban areas where the BJP was strong, but it failed to create any impact in semi-urban and rural areas, resulting in a strong performance by the Congress.
It prompted the government to offer the Patels some sops, like the scheme to support the financially backward meritorious students from non-OBC categories. This was done also to avoid the ire of the US-based Patels, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US last year.The move did not work, forcing the government to open direct talks.
Nitin Patel said the government would seriously consider the demands of the Patels, including the release of imprisoned leaders like Hardik. The meeting also discussed other demands like the compensation of Rs 15 lakh each for the next of kin of the dead in clashes with the police and the setting up of a commission to study their demands.
The government has so far ignored two of the biggest Patel organisations—the PAAS and the SPG. “The dispute is between us and the government, but the government is talking to a third party,” said Lalit Vasoya, core committee member of the PAAS. Varun Patel, convener of the organisation, said the government was targeting the second-rung leadership. “But if we are arrested, the third rung will take over.”
Hardik's father, Bharat, alleged that the government feared that his son's release would add momentum to the agitation. “My son’s spirit remains the same,” he said. “What he has done is not a crime.” Sources said the government was yet to make its stand clear on Hardik’s bail plea because if it did so, it would have to withdraw sedition charges against him. State BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said the option of talks remained open. “A final solution can be brought about only through talks.”