Up in arms, thalis and belans

rutam vora | Updated on January 22, 2018

Kitchen politics: Women from the Patidar community took to the streets when their ‘hero’ Hardik Patel was detained by the police. Photo: PTI   -  PTI

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leader Hardik Patel. Photo: Vijay Soneji   -  THE HINDU

Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. Photo: Vivek Bendre   -  th;THE HINDU

Kitchen politics: Women from the Patidar community took to the streets when their ‘hero’ Hardik Patel was detained by the police.   -  Vijay Soneji;THE HINDU

The Patidar agitation has moved from urban centres to smaller pockets of Gujarat, but it is now a pitched battle between the community and the BJP

n the afternoon of September 19, a Saturday, Ahmedabad’s National Highway 8 witnessed an unusual sight. Traffic was at a standstill as thousands of women marched, many of them barefoot, banging their belans (rolling pins) against thalis (steel plates). The air was filled with the clanging. The women belonged to the Patidar community, and they were angry. Earlier that morning, their reservation ‘hero’ Hardik Patel had been detained by the police for defying prohibitory orders with his Surat-to-Ahmedabad Ekta Yatra.

Similar scenes played out in other Patidar-dominated parts of the city. Thali-belan brigades took to the streets in Bapunagar, Narol and Vastral. The protests spread across smaller towns too, in Bagasara, Morbi, Unjha, Visnagar, Mehsana, and Kamrej. Women turned out in droves in response to Hardik Patel’s August 31 call to join the cause with their ‘weapons’, the steel plate and rolling pin.

Across the state, these unlikely foot soldiers have targeted many public events of the state government. They have disrupted speeches of ministers, including chief minister Anandiben Patel. Taking their cue from the 22-year-old Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader, their message is loud and clear. First, justice for the victims of police atrocities on August 25, and next, reservations. Fearing the thali-belan brigade, political leaders are said to be avoiding public events altogether.

The September 14 meeting between Anandiben Patel and Patidar leaders was inconclusive. While the state government asked for 10 days’ time to come up with a proposal, Hardik, who has resurfaced after mysteriously disappearing, is planning more rallies.

The Patidars’ (they form 15 per cent of the state’s population) fight for reservation under the OBC quota started on July 6 with a relatively small gathering in Mehsana. Since then, Hardik Patel has travelled across Gujarat, held 127 rallies, and drummed up support from urban centres — Surat, Rajkot, Mehsana, Ahmedabad; and smaller pockets — Gir-Somnath, Amreli and Morbi. Despite the tepid response from the Gurjars of Rajasthan, and the Jats and Kurmis of Haryana, the Patidar agitation has found legs in Gujarat. But the biggest fallout of the movement is the widening rift between the BJP and its powerful Patel backers.

Whose reservation is it anyway?

When senior Patidar community members gathered on September 13 at Shahibaug, in Ahmedabad, to understand the growing unrest among Patel youth, high-end automobiles packed the venue. Patidar leaders had come to rage for reservation in Audis, BMWs, Mercs, Porsches and Rolls-Royces.

Contrast this with the sobering fact that the Patel-dominated Surat and Morbi — which are prominent clusters of diamond and ceramic industries — are facing an economic slowdown. Nearly 5,000 people have been retrenched from the diamond industry in less than a year, while in Morbi, many small-unit owners are closing their shutters or operating at reduced capacity.

Analysts explain that the ‘Gujarat Model’ has not created enough employment opportunities. “You have big industries setting up shop in the state with mega investments, but that has failed to generate employment for the youth. The latest reservation demand of Patidars has the potential to lead the state towards a caste-war,” says the noted social scientist Achyut Yagnik.

According to Yagnik, the agitation follows the same pattern as the Patidar migration from north Gujarat to Saurashtra, then from Saurashtra to south Gujarat. Believed to be the descendants of Lord Rama’s sons, Luv and Kush, respectively, the Leuva Patels are mainly found in the south Gujarat region of Surat, and the Kadva Patels in the north Gujarat areas of Mehsana and Sabarkantha.

In the north Gujarat rallies, the protesters were mainly farmers and unemployed youth with little education. The second leg of the agitation in Saurashtra saw the participation of the more prosperous Kadva Patels. Their demand was for the removal of reservation, not for one under the OBC quota.

“Reservation would suppress entrepreneurship,” says 33-year-old Saket Akola, who hails from a family of entrepreneurs in Rajkot, Saurashtra. Akola has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from a private college, but has never considered taking a government job. Having spent 15 years building his water pump business, he plans a similar future for his child. “I always wanted to set up my own factory. Reservation would have killed my enterprising spirit,” he says.

Nimesh Patel, 31, believes education is the problem. “I didn’t want to go for medical or engineering (studies). But my daughters needn’t feel the same. Education is the area where the maximum heartburn happens because of reservation,” says this employee of a private firm in Ahmedabad who believes in merit-based competition and not protection through reservation.

However, in Surat — home to Patidar youth who migrated from Saurashtra — diamond workers facing lay-offs and a sluggish economy are vociferously demanding reservation.

Political leaders too feel that the current agitation is an outcome of injustice rather than a demand for benefits under reservation. “Lack of education is one problem. But there are cases where they are educated but find no jobs,” says Surendra Patel (Kaka), a former Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat and a BJP veteran.

The state government’s recruitment drive for talati (tehsildar) and class II/III grade under the State Public Service Commission came after a decade. Employment opportunities in the private sector have also fallen. “The government took out a massive recruitment drive for various posts only after many years. Many Patidar youth had passed the age limit for these jobs, but those in the reserved categories made it. There has to be equitable distribution among all classes,” Kaka adds.

Party with a distance

The relationship between the BJP and the Patidar community goes back a long way, from the time the party first came to power in 1995, with Keshubhai Patel as chief minister. The Patidars have ensured that the BJP has had a strong footing in Gujarat, where it has held power for 17 years continuously. The community, in turn, has been a primary beneficiary of the ‘Gujarat Model’. This symbiotic relationship had started to show signs of strain. With the Patidar agitation, the rift between them, as well as within the BJP is widening.

While top leaders like state BJP chief RC Faldu, a Patel leader from Saurashtra, have maintained their distance from the issue, several others have announced their support “under pressure from Patidar youth”. Dipsinh Rathod, an MP from north Gujarat, however had to backtrack after openly declaring support to the Patidar women.

The Patidar agitation is also taking a new form, no longer limited to rallies and protest marches. Across Gujarat, Patidars have decided to take up economic non-cooperation as part of their agitation. Farmers, small traders, and housewives who have financial assets with cooperative banks owned by BJP leaders have started mass withdrawals. “In a single day, there was a transaction of about ₹30 lakh. This is unusual for our branch in a lean period like this,” says an official of the Sabarkantha District Central Co-operative Bank Ltd in north Gujarat.

Mass resignations are also in the offing at several credit cooperatives and dairy cooperatives, a significant move against the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit is also being targeted. The US Patidars, among the richest NRIs, are expected to show solidarity with their community back home. A protest march in New York to greet PM Modi has been announced. The Sardar Patel Group USA-Canada, according to its social media posts, plans to organise a rally at the United Nations headquarters to demand “the removal of caste-based reservation that is causing injustice. And seek justice for those who lost their lives in police firing and women who were victims of police atrocities in Gujarat.”

Back home in Gujarat, Patidars have started putting up banners outside their societies and residential buildings, restricting the entry of leaders from across the political spectrum. One banner outside Vihar village in Gandhingar district reads, “Those who say no to reservation for Patidars will not get votes here. The entire Patidar community in this village has supported the agitation. And we boycott all upcoming elections. It is a request to all political parties, including the BJP and Congress, to not enter this village. Villagers will not be responsible for your safety.”

If Hardik Patel’s claim that he has 27 crore supporters, including Patidars, Gurjars, Jats, Kurmis and Reddys across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is to be believed, the BJP is in for a fight in these states and at the Centre. The Patidar protest for reservation has now become a volatile protest against the BJP.

Published on September 25, 2015

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