The Patel agitation for inclusion in the OBC category has triggered huge political unrest in Gujarat.
After a massive show of strength in Ahmedabad, the young leader of the agitation, Hardik Patel, went on a hunger strike.
The police did not take too kind to it and arrested him. Young Patel men went on a rampage across the state, and by the time Mr. Patel was released, the damage had been done. The state has witnessed clashes between protesters and the police; nine people have been killed; the army has been deployed; curfew has been imposed in many parts; the government appears at a loss on how to deal with the situation; and the Prime Minister has had to step in appealing for calm and peace.
It has come as a surprise to many that the Patels — long considered among the most politically influential, economically prosperous, and socially well-networked communities — are demanding affirmative action benefits. But it is instructive to examine their rhetoric carefully.
At the rally, the Patel leaders demanded reservation or that it is scrapped altogether or that quotas on the basis of economic backwardness be introduced. The movement has struck a chord with a substantial section of the community and it has thrown up questions about the larger politics of affirmative action in India.
The founding fathers of the nation recognized the structural inequities in society, particularly on the question of caste and tribal identity. Dalits and Scheduled Tribes were given reservation in legislatures, government jobs, and educational institutions. This later expanded as other backward classes, which mostly included intermediate castes who were at the lower rung of the caste hierarchy, but above Dalits. The expanding OBC reservations generated an upper-caste backlash during the Mandal years of the early 90s.
It’s been 25 years since Mandal was introduced nationally and over 30 years since OBC reservation expanded in Gujarat. A generation of beneficiaries, as well as real and perceived victims, of the policies, has emerged. The former are deeply invested in the reservation regime; the latter wants to overturn it.
The Patel rebellion is a signal that the young people of the so-called general castes have developed deep anxieties and feel that they have had to pay a price for social justice measures. This could get replicated in other states, and take the form of a movement against reservation as it exists now. This is bound to generate inter-caste tensions and disrupt politics. India’s political leadership needs to think hard about how to sustain social justice measures.
Far from helping people move out of backwardness, reservations are making the better off demand crutches and abandon their ability to walk unaided. Like the Patels in Gujarat, we have had the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Gujjars and Jats elsewhere demanding this status – and spineless politicians with short-term vote bank in mind have usually caved in.
In the case of the numerically and economically powerful Patels – who constitute a quarter of Gujarat’s population and control many major levers of power – there is no case whatsoever for favoured treatment in jobs. Patels – including the ones who run motels in the US – have huge resources, and the top two politicians in the Gujarat BJP – CM Anandiben and Finance Minister Saurabhbhai – are Patels.
The very fact that the organisation at the apex of the Patel agitation – the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti – is so well funded and can bring thousands of people to a rally in Ahmedabad at the drop of a Gandhi cap tells us that the Patidars are not economically challenged.
However, there is a need to now make a larger point about extending mindless reservations. It should be obvious to any politician with some good sense that what is unarticulated may actually represent a majority opinion in society rather than the vocal demands of a powerful section. If we accept that the interests of the whole have to be protected against the demands of a section, this may be as good a time as any to call the bluff of forward communities. Simple arithmetic will tell you that as more people get shoe-horned into the same class of quotas, everybody gets less. The only thing that any government can reasonably promise is to give everyone an equal opportunity to skill and educate themselves.
The Patidars may be flexing their 25 percent population muscle, but sensible leaders should point out two things: that only a very small percentage of them will actually benefit, and, even more obviously, if more communities are to share the same number of jobs available, the quantity available for everyone will be even lower. If Patels get 25 percent of the 27 percent reservation for OBCs, the rest of the real OBCs will get a lower share of 27 percent.
It is a zero-sum game. For every Patel clamoring for a quota seat, there will be three non-Patels losing out.