Privileged Patels of Gujarat fight to be given low caste status

rally01_3488590bNew generation fights unconventional class war, claiming their once affluent caste is now at a disadvantage when jobs are set aside for lower-born IndiansIn the reverse of the usual desire for upward mobility in life, young people from a populous Indian caste long regarded as prosperous and privileged have been staging violent protests as they clamour for a downgrade to “backward” status.
The agitation by the Patels has so shaken the government in Gujarat – the home that they share with Narendra Modi, the prime minister – that the authorities been rounding up key organisers.
Among those detained and charged with serious offences, including in some cases the colonial-era crime of sedition, was Varun Patel, a protest leader, just hours before he due to give an interview to The Telegraph.
And the movement’s firebrand champion Hardik Patel, a 22-year-old farmer’s son already in jail, lost a new court challenge to quash charges that he was plotting to overthrow the state.At stake in the unconventional class struggle is access to millions of government jobs and free college places allocated to lower castes under the “reservation system” of affirmative action to counter ingrained discrimination.
Up to 50 per cent of such positions are ring-fenced for Dalits (previously known as the “untouchables”), tribal peoples and social groupings designated together as “other backward classes” (OBCs), whose ranks include Mr Modi, a tea-seller’s son.
By contrast, the Patels – the family name of the Patider caste – are traditional landowners who over the years gained important roles in politics and commerce in Gujarat, a major trading hub.
They are also one of the country’s best-known castes internationally, with a major diaspora across North America and Britain where their numbers include Priti Patel, MP, the environment minister.
But as the cost of education soars and land-holdings have been divided into smaller parcels, a new generation of Patels claim that they are the ones suffering discrimination by their exclusion from jobs and college places set aside for lower castes.
Their demands of government are two-pronged: either end the reservation system – a move that would be electoral suicide for any politician – or re-classify them as OBCs. “If you do not give us our right, we will snatch it,” said Hardik Patel declared in typically confrontational form at one rally.
But leaders of Gujarat’s lower castes have made clear that they do not want any company from “affluent” Patels on their rung of the social ladder.
Following the recent raids, Harikesh Patel, 24, a businessman’s son, stepped in to speak to The Telegraph at a late-evening meeting.He insisted that the struggle would continue, despite the police clampdown on his comrades when the authorities at one stage suspended Internet services to prevent word spreading and counter-protests being organised.
“The Patels may once have been rich, but many are becoming poor,” he said. “The so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of economic development under Mr Modi was much-hyped but the reality is very different.
“Many Patels are facing economic hardship now and we need our share of the reservation quotas.”
Gujarat’s OBCs give short shrift to such claims. “We will not let the Patel agitation succeed in snatching away the quotas which are meant for us,” said Alpesh Thakor, 25, who has organised counter-protests by communities that receive benefits.
“We are poor, landless and uneducated communities, who need quotas to give us a level playing field. We will not allow our quotas to be slashed to accommodate Patels or any other community.”
He contended that the real motivation for the Patels was a desire to maintain their grip on privilege in Gujarat. “In recent years, education level has gone up in certain communities from OBC and children are getting government jobs, which has upset the Patels, who believe that it’s their monopoly,” he said.
“They want the labourer’s son to stay a labourer, and the master’s son to stay a master.”
In recent days, the police have rounded up leaders of protests that previously brought the commercial capital of Ahmedebad to a standstill and have continued across Gujarat.
The rallies, which ended in at least 10 deaths, were often accompanied by the distinctive clanking of rolling pins against thalis (steel dining plates) by Patidar women.
As tensions deepened last week, five men were arrested with a can of petrol and threatening self-immolation if Hardik Patel was not released, while other Patels threatened to convert religion to change their caste.
The showdown reflects the ingrained influence of India’s caste system, which dates back more than 2,000 years and was entrenched by the British in their divide and rule administration of the Raj. It still seeps through all walks of life in a country where everyone’s caste is known and most Indians continue to marry within their own.
But it also intimately tied to the cut and thrust of 21st century politics in the world’s largest democracy as politicians consolidate their support among so-called “vote banks”.
For example, Mr Modi presents himself as a post-caste leader but played the “caste and quota cards” himself last week as he campaigned for crucial state elections in the eastern region of Bihar, one of the country’s poorest.
The prime minister, whose humble background is nonetheless generally viewed as the equivalent of lower middle-class in Indian terms, compared his roots to those of Bihar’s most impoverished. His party even claimed, incorrectly, that he was the first OPC prime minister.
And Mr Modi warned darkly that “other communities” might take away the quota benefits of Bihar’s OPC classes if his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not win the November 8 vote that is widely seen as a barometer of his administration’s domestic success.
The Gujarat stand-off has also pitched millions of Patidars against one of their own in the form of Anandiben Patel, Mr Modi’s BJP successor as chief minister.
Mrs Patel has maintained loyalty to her party rather than caste, however, offering only limited concessions in the form of increased student financial aid. Hardik Patel rejected the offer as a derisory “lollipop” or political sweetener.
The Patel movement has ignited similar protests by castes long viewed as privileged in other states. And it spread to America when some expatriate Gujarati Patel caste members demonstrated outside appearances by Mr Modi on his trip there in October.
BJP aides have been busy working with the leader of Britain’s Patel community to avoid any embarrassing protests by his fellow Gujaratis when he visits the UK for a high-profile trip in November.
Mr Modi is due to address more than 60,000 mainly Gujarati Indian expatriates at Wembley Stadium in one of the highlights of a visit that will also involve lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and several meetings with David Cameron.
So the verdict of the Patel community leaders who met at Patidar House in Wembley recently was a major relief to the Modi camp – and doubtless to Pridi Patel, who has played a key role in organising the trip.
They denounced police brutality when protests were broken up with several deaths. But by the end of the meeting, they decided overwhelmingly to accord Mr Modi a “grand welcome” when he arrives in London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *