Reservation blues in Gujarat
As per latest news reports, six people have been killed as protesters clashed with the police in parts of Gujarat. The protests followed the brief detention of Hardik Patel, the 21-year-old convener of Patidar <g data-gr-id="40">Anamat</g> Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in Ahmedabad. For the uninitiated, Hardik is leading a movement by the powerful Patel or Patidar caste that wants reservation in government jobs and colleges. A political nobody a few months back, Hardik recently shot to prominence after he led a Gujarat-wide movement to demand reservations for Patels in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota. Hardik feels that the Patidar community has lost out on India’s development story because of the present reservation regime in colleges and government jobs. “A Patidar student with 90% marks does not get admission in an MBBS course while SC/ST or OBC students get it with 45% marks,” he said. In addition, Hardik has also said that Patidars was not against reservations for SC/ST or OBC communities. The consequent results of the protest has left the city of Ahmedabad remains in a tense situation, with the Army now called in to restore law and order.
For a community, which has dominated the political and economic scene in Gujarat, this agitation and the resulting political fallout may seem unusual to the uninitiated. Agitations by the Patel community, however, have past precedence. Till the late 1970s, the Patels were staunch supporters of the Congress. However, when various backward castes began to assert their political ambitions, the Congress turned away from the Patels and forged an alliance of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasis and Muslim (KHAM) communities, which ruled the state through the 1980s. Subsequently, the State saw a period of massive social unrest. Throughout the decade, the Patel community launched violent anti-reservation movements against both Dalits and other communities under the OBC bracket. However, once the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to prominence in the late ‘80s, the Patel community switched sides and has remained with it since. In exchange for their support, the Patel community, over the years, has been <g data-gr-id="49">awarded with</g> plum political posts. The current Chief Minister of Gujarat Anandiben Patel is an example. Moreover, 40 of the 120 BJP MLAs in the State are from the Patel community.
The current agitation, however, has its seeds in the economic discontentment the community faces today. One reason provided by social scientists and political commentators on the ground is that Vibrant Gujarat development story has not really <g data-gr-id="46">aided</g> large sections of the Patel community. A once prosperous agricultural community, the Patel community, in the recent past, had invested most of their surplus income accrued from agriculture into micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). However, according to data compiled by the Reserve Bank of India, of the 2.61 lakh MSMEs registered with the Gujarat government, over 48,000 are sick. Located over major business districts of Gujarat, which hold a significant number of Patels, MSMEs employ more than 21 lakh people. Latest news reports from the state have said that many of them now have been rendered unemployed. Moreover, the focus of the Vibrant Gujarat development model only focussed on big business and large-scale investments. What’s worse, Surat’s diamond industry, which is controlled by the Patels of Saurashtra, is undergoing a serious economic downturn. In the past six months, more than 10,000 workers have been laid off, while nearly 150 units have shut down, according to leading Indian English news channel NDTV.
In addition to a downturn in their economic fate, there has been a perceptible change in the aspiration of young people in the Patel community. Unlike those in the past, who would join the family business at a very young age instead of pursuing higher studies, today’s Patel youth seek to acquire admissions into spheres of technical education, including engineering and medicine, according to a leading social scientist in the State. A degree in technical education, she argues, gives them a platform to migrate abroad, besides remunerative jobs in the State. Therefore, when large sections of the Patel community were ignored in the latest State recruitment drive for key government departments, permanent teaching posts in schools and the local police, a growing number of unemployed youth began agitating for reservations. The apex court ruling, albeit arbitrary, states that reservations cannot cross the 50 percent mark in any state. Gujarat, unfortunately, has crossed that threshold. The Patels, therefore, are seeking a slice of the 27 percent OBC <g data-gr-id="48">quote</g> in government colleges and jobs, which puts them in a direct confrontation against 146 other community groups in the OBC list. Caste tensions are in the air. It’s time everyone took note.