The Akhil Bharatiya Patel Navnirman Sena (ABPNS), the pan Indian outfit launched by the leader of the Patidar agitation Hardik Patel last week, takes its name and essential characteristics from two earlier agitations separated by roughly a decade in Gujarat — both of which were led by students, and had significant political ramifications.
In 1985, students of medical and engineering colleges in the state led an agitation against the move by the then Congress Chief Minister, Madhavsinh Solanki, to raise the OBC quota from 10 per cent to 28 per cent.
In the earlier decade, Gujarat had witnessed what is now seen as its only successful agitation — the Navnirman Andolan of 1973-74 against inflation and corruption, which forced the Congress’s Chimanbhai Patel out of office and, subsequently, contributed to the circumstances that led Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to declare the Emergency in 1975.
Both these agitations began as student protests and metamorphosed into violent caste and community conflicts that led to bloodshed and the combined loss of nearly 400 lives — and left deep marks on the state’s political and social fabric. Chief Minister Anandiben Patel has drawn parallels with history, and warned the Patel agitators not to allow their aggression to turn into caste conflict this time. Representatives of the 146 castes currently on the OBC list have reacted strongly to the Patidar agitation, carrying out counter-protests of their own.
According to leaders of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), the condition of underprivileged Patidar communities across India needs improvement in the same way as the navnirman (reconstruction) of Gujarat was required in 1973-74. The Navnirman Andolan and later 1985 agitation had, for the first time, led to the consolidation of upper caste communities including Patels, Brahmins, Vaishnavs and Jains — PAAS now wants to cast the net beyond Gujarat, bringing Patidars from several states under its umbrella. At Hardik Patel’s show of strength in New Delhi were present Kurmis from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Gurjars from Rajasthan, Mahatos from Jharkhand, and Patils from Maharashtra.
The Navnirman Andolan of the 70s started with a strike by students of Ahmedabad’s LD Engineering College, protesting the 20 per cent increase in the hostel food bill. In 1985, students of the same college laid the foundations of the Akhil Gujarat Navrachna Samiti and Akhil Gujarat Vali Mandal, which demanded the rollback of the 28 per cent reservation for OBCs. The agitation subsided with the resignation of Chief Minister Solanki, an OBC himself, who was replaced by Amarsinh Chaudhary, a tribal leader. Many of the political leaders of Gujarat today are graduates from LD Engineering College. But the similarities end here.
The ongoing Patidar agitation is not yet anywhere near the scale of the Navnirman Andolan, which uprooted the corrupt Chimanbhai Patel government. In 1985, the agitators were demanding the removal of the quota system altogether — the Patidars this time are ostensibly demanding OBC status and a share in the quota. The current agitation mirrors social realities in Gujarat and the changing aspirations of GenNext Patidars who, given shrinking land holdings, now seek government jobs, or to become doctors or engineers.
Also, the current agitation represents the first occasion in the history of Gujarat of a single caste hitting the streets seeking benefits for only their community. Hardik Patel reiterated in Delhi last Wednesday that their struggle was primarily for benefits to Patidars, the other beneficiaries being only incidental to the movement.
It is this fundamental nature of the agitation, however, that puts limits to its growth, and creates doubts about its future, and ultimate success. Several recent political movements focused around Patidars have failed. Between 2007 and 2012, before every election, the Patidars invoked religious organisations under their reigning deities to create pressure groups (such as The Khodal Dham Trust) which led rebellions against the BJP government.
Each one of these attempts fizzled out — a significant difference, however, is that while these rebellions were led by political leaders, Hardik Patel takes pride in being the “remote control” over politics.
The 1985 agitation united savarnas (upper castes), who are mainly Hindus, against other castes, before taking a communal turn. Riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims, in which 275 people were killed over 10 months. The BJP was the clear beneficiary politically — the party came to power for the first time in alliance with Chimanbhai Patel’s Janata Dal in 1990 and, in 1995, got a clear majority of its own. This was also the time the BJP began its Hindutva experiment in the state.
The current agitation, as of now, has been showing the opposite pattern. The Patidars’ aggression has united all OBCs. And the BJP government, which was slow to react, has since appeared confused about the key takeaways from the situation.
The consolidation of lower caste votes through Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formulation isolated Patidars and other upper castes, and pushed them toward the BJP from the 1980s onwards. The current Patidar agitation has created a Catch-22 situation for the party — on the one hand it risks losing its most trusted and influential support base that has formed the backbone of successive BJP governments in the state, on the other lies the danger of a powerful OBC consolidation against the ruling party.