India File

The Patel uprising: Searching for answers

Rutam Vora | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 31, 2015

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Patels

Why is a community, known for its businessmen, hankering after reservation in government jobs? There are more answers than one, writes Rutam Vora

Companies owned by them have market capitalisation of over ₹1,00,000 crore in the Indian stock market; they are among the most influential sections of Indian Diaspora; in politics, they have been king makers, kings and a queen, and their caste name means ‘owner of land.’ But still, the Patidars, or Patels as they are better known, have taken to the streets in Gujarat demanding reservation under the Other Backward Class (OBC) quota.

The sense of deprivation among Patidars is so high that in just over a month, a movement has emerged from a small rally. When the 22-year-old Hardik Patel, who is the face of the agitation, addressed his first rally in Mehsana in North Gujarat on July 6, nobody took notice barring a few local news dailies. But that changed after Patel completed 127 rallies across Gujarat. And on August 25, the fire-brand leader had close to a million of the Patidars coming from the state’s nook and corner to listen to him at the GMDC grounds in Ahmedabad. Now, he makes national headlines regularly. "Reservation is our right. Give us happily, else we know how to snatch it," Hardik said addressing the 'Maha Kranti Rally'.

But are the Patels really underprivileged?

Patel power

The Patels’ influence in Gujarat is palpable. According to projections based on the 1931 caste census, Patels constitute to 15 per cent of Gujarat’s 6.5 million population. Yet, their socio-economic influence goes beyond their numbers. Of the 117 MLAs belonging to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat Assembly, 37 (31.6 per cent) are from the Patidar community. Six of the 26 parliamentary constituencies (23 per cent) of the State are represented by Patel leaders. Moreover, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, besides herself, has six Patels in her Cabinet of 23 ministers (26 per cent).

Financially too, the Patidars are dominant. They have an enviable track record in entrepreneurship, holding a lion's share in the state’s manufacturing sector. Entrepreneurs from the community dominate industrial clusters such as those of engineering tools in Rajkot and Jamnagar; dyes and chemicals in Dhoraji Naroda and Ankleshwar; tiles in Morbi, and textiles and diamond in Surat and Ahmedabad. 

Joblessness & sinking businesses

However, it will be a mistake to paint the entire community with this picture of prosperity. Experts say that only up to 20 per cent of the Patidar population can be considered prosperous. The recent agitation is the fallout of high incidence of joblessness among the community’s youth, and the stressed conditions in the local economy.

"In the last few years, Gujarat had been calm (socially) for a variety of reasons. The economy has grown fast on an average over a fairly long period. But there have been problems when the growth dipped,” says Sebastian Morris, Professor at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. “In 1997 and 2002-03, the growth had dipped very significantly. National GDP was growing at 4.5-5 per cent and Gujarat’s was even slower at 3 per cent. Poor economic conditions led to social unrest. Since 2012, it seems Gujarat may have had negative growth, which is yet to be officially recorded. So, we see a bit of that (the fallout)," says Morris. Small businesses have suffered after the RBI tightened its monetary stance to curtail inflation. As per the RBI data for 2014, Gujarat reported about 48,000 sick units, including small and medium enterprises, which are predominantly owned by the Patels.

Apart from business, the Patels have been landowners, involved in agriculture and allied activities. But the primary sector too hasn’t fared well, registering negative growth in 2012-13. "Youngsters from the Patel community are frustrated largely because of unemployment. Also, for those dependent on agriculture, the earning potential is less due to the weak agro-processing sector,” says Y K Alagh, economist and a former union minister. “They are land owners, but around land, there needs to be a job or income. The present Gujarat growth model has several limitations and this is one of them. Along with growth, there has not been enough employment opportunity or job creation. We are a model state. So, we want better opportunities," adds Alagh.

Though the Centre’s Annual Employment & Unemployment Survey report for 2013-14 says that Gujarat has the lowest unemployment rate in India at 1.2 per cent, against the national average of 4.9 per cent, experts say that the ground reality is different. With rapid urbanisation, the youth have aspirations of white-collar jobs. 

Ghanshyam Shah, a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that urbanisation and rapid growth in aspirations have brought the growth of this community to a standstill. "There is a greater sense of insecurity among Patidars. Further, informal sectors are providing jobs, but there is no security of job. We had seen large portions of Patidar community migrate to the US, which is also no longer a heaven for them as employment opportunities have dried there as well," Shah said.

"The sickness of Gujarat's industries has increased in the past five years. There are reasons to believe that the Gujarat growth model is responsible for the plight of Patels. These people can't go back to villages, when there is a slowdown in the industry ," says Shah.

Sanskritisation & rising aspirations

The Patels have always been ambitious. In the Indian caste system, they belonged to the lowest rung, below the Brahmins, Kshatriya and Vaishyas. Till the 18th century, the Patel community was considered a low-caste community. But as they strived to go up the caste system, their movement differed from others.

"The Patel community's Sanskritisation (upward social mobility, usually backed by academic enlightenment) is different from what is seen in other parts of India. While elsewhere it followed education, the Patels were more focused on agriculture and entrepreneurship. As the Vaishyas, who were a rung above, dominated the business class, the Patels imitated them,” says Morris.

The IIM-A professor points out that the Ryotwari system followed by the British in western India, including Gujarat, was the turning point in the evolution of the Patels into a leading business community. "The British liked the system, where they would be given the land revenue irrespective of the output. So they were quite willing to work with the lower caste community, the direct tillers and gave them the land rights. So this led to the Patidar community to emerge as a land owning caste. They were essentially the agrarian Shudra caste," says Morris. 

Further, the establishment of narrow gauge railway in the Princely state of Gaekwads of Baroda in the late 1860s boosted the prospects for the more entrepreneurial among the Patels, who cultivated and exported cotton, tobacco and oilseeds. Later, the next generation of these rich Patels migrated overseas. That is why today, the Patels famous for their motels in the US, may not associate themselves with a community that is now demanding reservation.

“But entrepreneurship,” adds Morris, “is not feasible for everyone. So inequality remained in the Patel community and generally in Gujarat."

The reservation turnabout

Politically, the Patels had become a dominant force since the days of Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister. A veteran Congress statesman, the rest of his community followed his association with the Grand Old Party. But the agitation of 1985 was a turning point in many ways.

The Patels’ current demand for reservation is a turnabout from their earlier stance. They spearheaded the anti-reservation movement in 1985 and argued against reservation for the OBCs. This led to widespread caste conflict in the state claiming over 100 lives. The then Madhavsinh Solanki-led Congress government in the state had increased the OBC quota in jobs from 10 per cent to 28 per cent This was seen by the Patels as an encroachment on their rights and squeezing of opportunities in higher education and government jobs. Politically, it also meant another community gaining prominence. Slowly but surely, the Patels shifted their allegiance to the BJP.

After 30 years, though the tables have turned and the Patels are now demanding reservation, politically, it might hurt their relationship with the governing party. Present Chief Minister Anandiben Patel has ruled out any possibility of offering reservation to Patels under OBC. Citing the Constitution and a Supreme Court judgment, she stated that "We cannot make any changes in the structure of reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs, nor can we give reservation beyond 50 per cent... Various state governments at different points of time gave reservation by going against the Constitution and Supreme Court judgments... We do not want to do that."

Playing politics

But is Hardik Patel really demanding reservation? Though the current agitation seems to be for it, there is an undertone against reservation. "Firstly, they have not applied to the Commission (National Commission for Backward Classes) for their demand of reservation, as is the norm. So, it appears they are creating a kind of pressure on the government with a hidden message against reservation in the name of asking for it,” says Dhirubhai Sheth, member of the first NCBC and honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. “The agitation received widespread spontaneous support from the Patels and people from other upper castes. This shows the sentiment against reservation," adds Sheth. Representatives of the Brahmin and Baniya (who come under Vaishyas in the caste system) communities have also demanded reservation in Gujarat.

Sheth says that the NCBC had two agendas and one of them was to include the deserving communities in the reserved category, and to remove those that have ceased to be backward. “Initially, we tried to do it. But it hasn't happened and therefore there is a lot of heartburn among the Patels and people from other upper castes. This created an imbalance in society," he says. Sheth also points out to a political angle to the agitation. "There is no need to agitate unless your petition is rejected by the commission. But you haven't filed a petition in the first place." The agitation led by Patidars may give the Centre an opportunity to chalk out a new policy for reservation based on economical and educational criteria. This has led to allegations that the present agitation has the backing of the Sangh Parivar.

But Gujarat continues to be a peculiar case, where OBCs constitute 22 per cent of the population, against the national average of 40 per cent; the Patels believe that the ‘benefits’ are going to a very small community. "As long as the economy was dynamic, the Patels probably didn't even care. Half of the bottom 50 per cent of Patel population is socially and economically no different from the OBCs. But the community can't have the cake and eat it too. So, basically the idea of OBC reservation is problematic," says Morris.

A national social crisis

For social scientists and economists, the agitation has become a case study that can implode nationally. "This agitation can spread nationally,” says Alagh. Adds Morris: “If we have a slow growth, which is likely given RBI's position and China’s currency depreciation. So, if we don't grow, these kinds of issues may crop up in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and many other places. This agitation could be the starting point against reservation or for reservation.”

Hardik Patel has already reached out to the Gurjars in Rajasthan, who have also been demanding a reservation status. The Gurjars share the farming legacy with the Patels.

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Published on August 31, 2015
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