Patidar Play in Gujarat: Uncovering the Hidden Script
Why is Gujarat's most affluent community, that of the Patels, agitating?
A community which perhaps could stand out as one of the most enviable and powerful communities not only in the country but in the world throngs around a 22-year old-non-descript middle class boy from a village in numbers which are difficult to conceive these days, seeking backward community status to get reservations in the OBC quota. This is indeed a veritable theatre of the absurd as it was staged on August 25 in Ahmedabad. The community, which has been a backbone of Narendra Modi's fabrication of 'vibrant Gujarat' for 13 long years, appeared suddenly to be dissociating from him, revealing that it was all fake. Nothing really had happened in Gujarat except for offering everything the State had to big business and conversely depriving its own people. Winning successive elections is no criterion to judge such hard realities; they can be managed with smart marketing strategies which Modi seems to have mastered. Indeed, the entire country is wonderstruck by these recent developments in Modi's backyard.
Theatre of Absurd, Not Really
The analysts are abuzz with various theories but none has touched the crucial point that reservations in post-colonial India were meant to be weapons in the hands of ruling classes rather than a social justice measure as professed and publicised. Paradoxically, when they were born during the colonial regime, much maligned for its obsessive 'divide and rule' policies, in favour of the Untouchables, admittedly a unique people on the planet to have endured two millennium of inhuman oppression, they were an exceptional policy for exceptional people. They had even devised an administrative identity, 'Scheduled Caste,' for them, chopping off their umbilical cord with the Hindu caste system. Conceding separate identity to the Untouchables, as Babasaheb Ambedkar persistently demanded, might have had an element of 'divide and rule', but the policies they framed were far more rational and logical. The new rulers of India soon overtook their imperialist masters in cunning and intrigue. They created a high-pitched pro-people rhetoric to cover their cunning. While writing the Constitution, they promptly outlawed untouchability, which was being spoken against by all upper caste reformers best represented by Gandhi, but not caste, ostensibly to do social justice to the lower castes. If they meant to adopt the reservation policy from the colonial era, castes, which was the source of untouchability, also could have been outlawed. But how could they let go of such God-gifted weapons as caste and religion which could thwart any possible threat to their rule? They did it with reformist élan. They adopted reservations for the SCs but created a separate Schedule for the tribals to institute ditto provisions. Notwithstanding the dilution of the principle of 'exceptional policy', the tribals could have been included in the same Schedule which would have de-stigmatised it as tribals did not have caste. They have not stopped at that even; they included a vague clause in the Constitution that the State would identify such 'classes' (read castes) which were 'socially and educationally' backward to extend similar policy support. In a backward country like India, to have backwardness as a criterion for reservation itself is ridiculous. But they wanted to construct a veritable 'can of caste worms', the lid of which could be opened at an appropriate moment. VP Singh opened that lid in 1990 to unleash the caste worms everywhere.
Patidars or Patels may be the richest community dominating business and politics but, arguably, as they contend, they can be proved to be educationally backward. This can really apply to any community, including the Brahmins as a majority of its members will always be somewhat backward. Therefore, we find Jats, Gujjars and Marathas, which could be counted among the most dominant castes, demanding reservation. Patels are a rather late addition to the list, stretching the farce to its logical limits. Even though many of them came in their Mercedes cars to the Kranti Rally on August 25 to stress backwardness in a country where 78 per cent of people live on `20 per day, as the government report stated a few years ago, or 74.5 per cent of its rural households survive on `5,000 per month, as the recent Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 data revealed, they may not themselves constitute a theatre of the absurd as much as our reservation policy framework does. Only the inveterate ignoramuses would dismiss the need for reservation in the social milieu of India but certainly it should have been framed with honesty. The truth is that it is not.
What are the Patidars up to?
Whether Hardik Patel knows or not, the demand for inclusion of Patidars in the OBCs is not possible to meet immediately. There are formidable procedural and legal hurdles. Theirs being a forward or backward community is of no consequence; it is to be decided by the Backwards Commission at the Centre, or in the states, according to the Constitution. It alone is empowered to declare them as OBC after undertaking an elaborate socio-economic survey. Thus, there is no way that they can get their demands from any government, howsoever sympathetic it may be. Another hurdle is in terms of the 50 per cent cap in reservations stipulated by the Supreme Court judgment in the Indra Sawhney case. The cap may appear arbitrary but was introduced to strike a balance between the competing ideas of social justice and merit. If Patidars are included in the OBC list without increasing the OBC quota, it will not be acceptable to the existing OBCs and it might spark off another agitation. It was possible for the state to pass a law to remove the 50 per cent cap and place it in the Ninth Schedule, thereby ensuring, at least theoretically, that the courts wouldn't strike it down. However, a 2007 Supreme Court judgment says laws placed in this Schedule after 1973 can still be challenged on the grounds of violating the basic structure of the Constitution. It appears that from the feasibility perspective the current agitation is not viable.
The Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) appears to be aware of these facts. It demands OBC reservation but in the same breath warns that in case the Patels can't be declared socially and educationally backward, then caste-based reservation should be scrapped in favour of one based on economic indices. In fact, the latter part is said more forcefully than the former as their slogans revealed: "I am born intelligent, but reservation has ruined me", "6o years of reservations has taken the country 60 years back"… It is clear that their main objective is to do away with the caste- based reservations, which is what the Patels always wanted. It should be noted that they have been the first community in India to come out openly against the reservations for Dalits, Adivasis and socially and economically backward castes (SEBC) in 1981. The Congress government headed by Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki had introduced reservation for the latter category (SEBC) that included 82 communities, including some Muslims, based on recommendations of the Bakshi Commission in July 1980. It resulted in anti-reservation riots, which were more widespread than even the 2002 anti-Muslim riots under Modi, resulting in more than 100 deaths. As IP Desai noted in EPW (May 2, 1981), the most aggressive and cruel in their attacks on Dalits were Patidar landholders in Ahmedabad, Kheda and Mehsana. It had started on a deceptive note of two academically poor Patidar students not getting PG admission in the BJ Medical College, which did not have much to do with reservations as the prescribed quota was not even filled by the SC/ST/SEBC. As for the prescription, the total percentage of reservations for all these categories, accounting for not less than 60 per cent of the state's population, came to just 26 per cent; leaving the balance 74 per cent for the upper castes accounting for 40 per cent or less of the population. Undeserving though, the government tried to meet the demands of rioters by abolishing the carry forward system (which mandated carrying forward only 45 per cent seats not filled in the previous year to the next year) by an immediate order and declaring that the system of inter-changeability of seats (between SC and ST) would
As it is seen, the anti-reservation riots were the response of Patidars to their loss of political clout as Madhavsinh Solanki, a "lower caste" Kshatriya, had become chief minister in 1981. It led to the political consolidation of the Brahmins, Banias and Patidars with Dalits as their target. They had renewed their agitation again in 1985, ostensibly against the hike in job quotas for the OBCs in government and educational institutions, but the victims remained mainly Dalits. With this social consolidation, they could easily morph this agitation into anti-Muslim sentiment under the guidance of the RSS and VHP, paving the way for the BJP to come to power in Gujarat.
Smelling the Bigger Rot
The question begs an answer as to what is the big script behind this play. There is no doubt, as veteran sociologist Ghanshaym Shah has observed ("The Shrinking, the Rage", The Indian Express August 28, 2015) that all Patels are not rich and a majority of them, as could rather be axiomatically said of any forward community, belong to the lower end of the middle class. A majority of them are small and medium farmers in rural areas and in urban areas, barring a few professionals and entrepreneurs, the majority are white or blue-collar employees, or self-employed or casual, skilled labourers in textile or diamond factories. The diamond industry, which had been their mainstay, has been in deep crisis with closure of many units and the rest on the verge of it, leading to huge job losses. Agricultural growth has been spectacular in Gujarat, clocking 8 per cent of growth; due mainly to advances in irrigation, but it has not benefitted the small and marginal farmers, which constitute one-third of the Patidar households. The aspiration level in the community has been extremely high; every Patel aspiring to migrate to the US and make it big as their predecessors. The prerequisite for which, unlike in olden days, is the professional qualification, requiring academic orientation, which the community lacked because of its love for business. That they do not get admission in government college and have to pay many times more for the inferior education in private colleges therefore can be exploited to externalise the blame on the reservations.
This is all certainly true insofar as there has been a build-up of resentment in the community but then which community has not suffered during the last three neoliberal decades? Going by the earlier agitations of Patels, the reservations just served as an alibi to accomplish a clear rightist political agenda. If one observes the anatomy of the current stir, one cannot miss a similar sinister agenda at the core. And, make no mistake; this agenda is the long cherished agenda of the RSS to abolish the caste-based reservations. The choice of Patels as the actors and Gujarat as the theatre is strategic for its controlled enactment. Patels in Gujarat have most to flaunt any bravado (as Hardik Patel speaks of guns and swords) without incurring state repression, as could be seen from the attitude of the administration towards the build-up and the execution of the Kranti rally. It is incidental that it went a little out of gear, entailing some loss of life. It is simply impossible for anybody, partcularly a novice like Hardik, to organise such a massive mobilisation of middle class people unless there is well-oiled machinery backing it. No movement, least a middle class movement, can acquire such a sweep, and depth simply on the basis of anger, financial resources, and numerical strength. It has to have access to organisational skills, honed over years of experience in crafting popular protests. Not alone organisation, the manner in which Hardik conducted and has been conducting himself is not without a script. And the script strives to create a nationwide discourse against caste-based reservations.
There are some puzzling details which mislead one to construe it as being against Modi and his camp. For instance, exposing the hollowness of Modi's Gujarat model; its beginning from Mehsana district to which all three, Modi, his proxy, Anandiben Patel, and Amit Shah, belong; and its timing, to embarrass him on the eve of the Bihar elections, do point towards some such scheming. But, on careful analysis, it may be seen as a strategic ploy, characteristic of the RSS, to hoodwink people with regard to its real design.