Politics of Patel-Patidar agitation
by G B Reddy on 08 Nov 2017 8 Comments

The politics of Patel-Patidar agitations, as per media reports, is likely to play a significant role in the current Gujarat elections. But things are not as simplistic as a partisan media suggests. Is the agitation a prelude to a “Storm before the Storm” or a “Storm before the Calm” – that is the question.


Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), has demanded that Rahul Gandhi unconditionally declare the Congress party’s commitment to meet all PAAS demands. Can Rahul Gandhi agree at the cost of unleashing similar demands in other States and the resultant backlash? Even a half-hearted agreement would be a most opportunistic move with dangerous consequences as it could trigger upper castes demands and violent protests in other States.


The real issues behind the PAAS agitation and their implications on the social security issues have generally been less debated. As usual, partisan, fictional and fake news is sensationalizing the agitation. The media has built up Hardik Patel, a 24-year-old, into a larger than life personality by extensive and exhaustive coverage just as it did in the case of Kanhaiya Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, in the aftermath of the Rohit Vemula suicide. Aggrandisement of such divisive figures does not augur well for national unity.


Regarding the PAAS agitation, this writer partly agrees with the view of the OBC, SC and ST groups that the politicization of PAAS demands for reservations is a heinous fraud. But one also agrees with upper castes anxiety over reservations after 70 years even as the majority of their brethren suffer from poverty and unemployment, particularly in rural areas. In retrospect, both the anti-reservation and pro-reservation groups are pursuing their group interests. Naturally, both groups can start protests and violent agitations at will.


From a constitutional viewpoint, reservation is explicitly and exclusively about redressing historic deprivation, discrimination and inequality due to birth. Evidence of discrimination or backwardness is mandatory. Hence, reservation is ruled out for dominant castes, but limited initially for only 10 years. Now, it is ad infinitum.


Meanwhile, over the past 70 years, Indian society has been undergoing dynamic changes. A few belonging to the deprived sections of society have become rich and super rich (creamy layer) by exploiting the benefits of reservations for themselves and their progeny for eternity. In doing so, they have left the majority of their group in absolute poverty.


Meanwhile, the state of ‘upper castes’ in society (Gujarat being no exception) has undergone dramatic change. Contrary to the popular perception, only 15 per cent of the Patels are rich in Gujarat. As per Patidar leaders, nearly 60 per cent of Patidars live in villages and about 30 per cent have landholdings of less than 10 bighas. Agriculture is no longer considered lucrative, so farmers look for options other than agriculture for livelihood. Tremendous uncertainty stares at them.


The flight of landowner families from rural areas to cities is real. And, their children having pursued education in towns and cities do not want to go back to villages. The more successful ones have migrated abroad. Shrinking economic opportunities and downward social mobility are real. The youth mostly want government jobs as other vocations do not guarantee lifelong security.  


This is equally true of the Reddys, Khammas and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and of upper castes in general in other states. Many of them had been landlords in bygone days, but the average landholding size has reduced with every passing generation. None want to return to villages.


Currently, there is a view that any caste can get reservation if it can bend the state to its will. Hence, the Patidars, like upper castes in other states, are agitating for this prize. This bizarre demand is flummoxing political parties without exception as they do not known how to control violent protests by disgruntled elements all over the country.


In recent years, the Jat community of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana has been indulging in road and rail blockades. The Andhra Pradesh-based Agra Kula Ikya Vedika, a forum of upper castes with representatives from Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya, Kamma, Reddy, Velama, and Kapu communities, demanded that reservations be based on economic status instead of caste (September 2015). In September 2016, an agitation for reservations for Marathas in Maharashtra intensified. Soon upper caste agitations may spread.


Patidars comprise 12.3% of the population of Gujarat. They can swing the election results in 75-80 assembly constituencies. Likewise, the Reddys, Khammas, and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh dominate sizeable number of seats in their respective regions.


The Patel community is renowned in the West, especially in the United States and Great Britain. Till the 1960s, the community had a significant presence along the East African coast. Today, they have a fair share in the industrial scene in Gujarat; 15 per cent of India’s business and 70 per cent of Gujarat business owners are Patels. They are the sixth richest community in the world.  Apart from big names like Karsanbhai Patel of Nirma, Pankaj Patel of Zydus Group, or Savji Dholakia of Harekrishna Diamonds, there are over 6,000 industrial units in Gujarat with a turnover of over Rs 10 crore each, of which nearly 1700 units belong to Patels, 720 to Jains, 320 to Brahmins and the remaining to other castes, per data in the public domain.


However, the Patidar community faces class differentiation within the community. Since 1988, the Patidar ‘Panch’ which met in Daor with 10,000 representatives present, has been making efforts to remove inequality among Patidars, but could not arrive at consensus. As a result, the circles (Gor, Samaj) of Leuva-Patidars were established.


The caste-based politicization of Gujarat and its linkage to reservation agitations is not a new phenomenon. Political parties are squarely to be blamed for playing the diabolical game of caste politics, particularly the Congress Party since the 1960s. In 1967, Bhailal Patel mobilized Patidars and Kshatriyas to give the Congress supremacy. In the 1980s, the OBC leader Madhavsinh Solanki of the Congress Party introduced reservations for socially and economically backward castes (SEBC) based on the recommendations of the Bakshi Commission. So, Rahul Gandhi cannot claim to be “holier than thou”.


The reservations triggered violent anti-reservation agitations across the state, resulting in over one hundred deaths. Madhavsinh Solanki resigned in 1985, but returned to power on the basis of KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance, winning 149 out of 182 assembly seats. His KHAM formula isolated the Patidars, who went over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the anti-reservation protests of the 1980s. The BJP played the Hindutva card to bring all backward communities under its umbrella, to counter the KHAM effect.


Initially, the SEBC (later called OBC) list comprised 81 communities; by 2014 it had expanded to 146 communities. In the 1980s, the proportion of reserved seats was 10 per cent; by 2014 it had increased to 27 per cent.


In 2015, drawing inspiration from the agitation by the Gujjar community in Rajasthan, the PAAS headed by Hardik Patel was formed with support from the Sardar Patel Sevadal, an organization for community service. The organization described itself as apolitical. Social media helped to spread the protest quickly across the state. There were incidents of violence and arson across the state, resulting in curfews.


The government announced a scheme which offered scholarships and subsidies to general category students and uniforms and free books in school education on 24 September 2015, and a 10 per cent quota of spaces reserved for economically backward classes in April 2016. The government also announced its intention to increase intake in medical and engineering education.


Hardik Patel called the scheme a “lollipop” and launched a “lollipop movement” in which lollipops were distributed to community members across the state. He famously said in one rally: “The lotus will not bloom in 2017”. Some Patidar leaders and organisations criticized Patel for his and PAAS’s tactics. Four major Patidar organisations denied any involvement in the agitation.


Sensing an electoral opportunity, Rahul Gandhi blamed the Modi government and called the agitation a repercussion of the “politics of anger”. On 1 October 2015, Gurudas Kamat, general secretary of the Congress, announced the party’s support for the agitation and demanded nationwide reservation for 15-20 per cent population from the economically weaker section (EWS) of society.


When petitions were filed against 10 per cent EBC reservation, it was quashed by the Gujarat High Court in August 2016 as grounds of being unconstitutional. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which gave an interim direction to not allow fresh admissions or recruitment under the EBC quota. The ordinance for EBC reservation lapsed on 4 October.


Meanwhile, leaders of communities already having OBC status opposed the agitation. OBC Ekta Manch along with Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena held a counter-protest. Further, leaders of several other Gujarat communities, including the Brahmin, Thakors, Vaishnava, Rajput, Sindhi, Kansara, Soni and Raghuvanshi communities, also started agitation for reservation on similar lines.


Some media channels reported Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as expressing solidarity with the agitation, which he denied. Sharad Yadav advised dismissing the agitators’ demands, calling them unjustified, and said that the reason behind the agitation is a lack of job opportunities. Biju Janata Dal MP Baijayant Panda said the angst of the Patidar community is justified by the scarcity of jobs.


Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat suggested a review of the effectiveness of reservations. In an interview to RSS periodical Sadhna, national spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya said he supports reservations given to SC and ST based on historical injustice, but criticised Hardik Patel for his speech and divisive tactics.


Contrary to predictions, in the November 2016 local body elections, despite several Patidar leaders’ appeals against the BJP, the party won 109 seats while INC won 17 seats, 39 less than the last elections.


Experts say the idea of reservation is related to the idea of India. As an idea, reservation predates the nation. It was meant to establish a community of formal equals, a precondition for nationhood and a casteless society. This is forgotten due to lack of political consensus and will. As a result, economically backward upper castes deem it their right to seek reservations across the spectrum as a natural right of a “Welfare State”.


How will it end? The results of Gujarat elections will determine its future course. The final electoral results are a culmination of interplay of highly complex variables. If there is a backlash and polarisation of the remaining over 85 per cent of other castes and communities, Hardik Patel and the PAAS may be consigned to the dustbin of history. Else, we may see a spike in the activities of divisive forces. 

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