My article on Patel Agitation in Gujarat
The Patel rhetoric is nowhere close to the Mandal agitation: Suryakant Waghmore
Interview with Associate professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Ranjita Ganesan August 29, 2015 Last Updated at 20:30 IST
The Patels are considered a powerful, land-owning community of farmers and businessmen. Does their recent demand for reservations stand?
Yes, Patels are powerful both politically and economically. What is interesting about the demand is them playing up economic backwardness. This makes their claim for reservations under the OBC category a difficult proposition. The reservation for OBCs is based on social backwardness (degraded status, lack of education, underrepresentation in the civil service, and secondary and tertiary sector.) Castes are thus identified on these lines before applying the creamy layer criteria.
The Patels, who had opposed reservations in 1980, are now asking to be recognised as backward. How has the scenario changed?
For Patels, the opposition to reservations begins with Sardar Patel. He was opposed to reservation even for Scheduled Castes and gave in unwillingly. A generalised view is that Patels are a new middle class and their growing aspirations are largely unmet - both the earlier opposition to reservations and present attempt of inclusion in OBCs could be understood through this prism. Patels have considerable dominance but it is under strain. They are Patidars - (village) kings. They do not see themselves as socially backward nor would they want to be called so. Their rhetoric is nowhere close to that of the Mandal agitation. The Mandal movement evoked discourse of rights of socially deprived - even the Mandal Commission report invoked the misgivings of Manusmriti to emphasise how caste constructed social and educational backwardness of OBCs. Reservations for OBCs were supposed to give them a feeling of participation in nation's governance. Patels, however, have considerable power in the governance of the state. If their situation has worsened in the last two decades, the recent caste census could have answers.
Some other well-off communities like Marathas, Jats and Kammas have joined in demanding reservations too. What does this indicate?
Across India this is mostly a trend amongst the middle castes - Jats, Patels and Marathas. These are also castes with requisite political numbers. It was not surprising therefore that both BJP and Congress supported the Jat cause that was opposed by National Commission for Backward Classes and finally shot down by the Supreme Court. Further, the list of OBCs is different at the state level as compared to Central list. Patels and Marathas could make it to their respective state lists if enough scientific evidence is created on their social and educational backwardness. Jats are already in the OBC list of several north Indian states.
Is the issue a political vehicle for Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old who led the massive rally in Ahmedabad?
Hardik Patel was at the right place at the right time. He is not one of those elite sophisticated Patels but is perfectly in the middle of urban and rural. He warned the nation that he would snatch reservations like a 'true' patidar. This was to consolidate Patel discomfort with other castes and consolidate Patels as a political community. The past few years of Hindu consolidation in Gujarat had kind of overrun Patel power. He will be a leader to watch in Gujarati politics for next several years.
There are some voices that suggest economic reservations instead of caste-based reservations. Your view?
It cannot be caste against economic criteria. Caste is here to stay for a while; at best some percentage could be added for poor amongst unreserved castes through constitutional amendment. That way all will be reserved and the hate against "reserved" could possibly lessen. Tamil Nadu is an interesting case - with 69 per cent reservation, almost all groups are covered. Merit is a lost cause in some sense. In India, merit invariably means lack of diversity. Caste has some positive function in Indian polity but also plays a disabling role for several social groups. Studies have shown that places where there are no caste reservations - take, for instance, the private sector - caste networks come into play to exclude those who lack traditional social power. Mandal was not random in identifying OBCs as opposed to colonial rule where backward classes mostly meant non-Brahmins. OBC reservation excludes the creamy layer. But the reservation of SCs and STs are based on different principles of untouchability and spatial exclusion, respectively, and are not subject to cream criteria therefore. Dalits suffer cumulative burden of caste incivilities.
Is the Patel agitation about merit or about poverty?
This is the central problem with present Patel politics of reservation. If the protest is about poverty it cannot be restricted to Patels or reservations. One would look for broader anti-poverty slogans. If merit is the crux and one is to assume that all or most Patels are meritorious then the demand of entering OBC list will only compromise Patel Merit. We need data on how underrepresented Patels are in education and government jobs, at least in Gujarat. Do Patels feel excluded from the governance processes? Or are they unhappy about the expanse of their dominance?