Sunday Story: The Angry Young Patel

Who was Hardik Patel before last week? Parimal Dabhi goes in search, from a village near Viramgam to the rally in Ahmedabad.

Updated: August 30, 2015 11:58:15 am
Hardik Patel, Patidar agitation, Gujarat Patidar community leader Hardik Patel leading a rally for reservation in Ahmedabad on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)

His dream was to play cricket with Sachin Tendulkar. In 2010, Hardik Patel claims to have played for the Baroda Cricket Association. Tendulkar retired in November 2013, but by then Hardik had already moved on. Teaming up with his physical training teacher, he opened a cricket coaching camp in Viramgam. It earned him pocket money and, crucially, loyal youth supporters.

Hardik had had his first brush with leadership.

A couple of years later, Gordhan Zadaphia would have a taste of that. The veteran leader, once among Gujarat’s most powerful men and a former minister of state for home, nurtured Hardik till not so long ago. Now he is among those who have been outsmarted by the 22-year-old on his way to emerge as a contender in a state where many, including Zadaphia, have failed trying.

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Chandan Nagri is a small, agrarian village, 10 km from Viramgam town. Of its 700-odd population, 90 per cent are Patidars. There are fields all around, fed by Narmada waters.

The Narmada water project was one of Narendra Modi’s showboat projects. Today Chandan Nagri is known as “Hardik’s village”.

Hardik’s parents and sister at their home in Viramgam. They moved here from the village for children’s education. (Source: Express Photo by Javed Raja)  Hardik’s parents and sister at their home in Viramgam. They moved here from the village for children’s education. (Source: Express Photo by Javed Raja)

Two buffaloes are tied outside a typical brick-and-limestone home. In the courtyard, lie coir charpoys, ubiquitous to village homes in these parts. Pictures of various deities are hung on the walls.

Hardik’s aunt Ranjan, a cheerful woman in her mid-40s, calls out to his grandfather, Narsinhbhai, from an inner room when asked about him. Narsinhbhai has eight children; Hardik’s father Bharat is the third born. Hardik is the elder of Bharat’s two children, daughter Monica being younger.

The family owns total 55 bighas of land in Chandan Nagri.

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Narsinhbhai has been repeating this story lately, and the 70-plus grandfather has his facts ready. “Hardik used to live in the village till he was in Class V,” he begins without much prompting. “Then his parents, Bharat and Usha, moved to Viramgam town to give him a better education.”

Incidentally, the poor facilities in the village were one reason Chandan Nagri voted for the Congress in the 2012 Assembly elections, after being loyal to the BJP for long. The Congress’s Tejashreeben Patel won from Viramgam.

In Viramgam town, Hardik’s parents Bharat, 49, and Usha, 43, live in the Jhalavadi Kadva Patidar Cooperative Housing Society. It is a society of Jhalavadi Kadva Patidars, hailing from the Jhalavad region of the erstwhile state of Dhrangadhra.

Three generations back, Bharat informs, their family migrated from Dhrangadhra to settle in Chandan Nagri. So even when not in their native village, they are closer “home”. Bharat runs a small business of fixing submersible pumps in underground wells.

Usha belongs to neighbouring Narsinhpura village. Hardik was born to the couple on July 20, 1993.

After they had shifted to Viramgam, Hardik studied up to Class VIII at Divya Jyot School, before moving to K B Shah Vinay Mandir, where he stayed till Class XII.

He did his graduation from Sahajanand College in Panjrapol area of Ahmedabad, around 60 km away. Usha describes Hardik as a “medium-ranking” student, who graduated with 60 per cent marks.

However, by the time he had reached college, he had interest in politics. Usha claims he was elected uncontested to the post of general secretary of the college.

On the side, Hardik was already into a small business. Apart from helping out his father from high school onwards, he opened a potable water stand at the Viramgam Bus Stand. “He was always interested in public life and social service,” says Bharat.

The father’s stronger memory of Hardik’s growing-up years though is his love for cricket. “He was very fond of cricket and getting himself photographed. When he started cricket coaching with his teacher Devubhai, it was easy for him to attract youngsters to it to earn pocket money.”

The leap from there to the Sardar Patel Group, the precursor to the current agitation, is more unclear.

Hardik himself has explained the new turn in his life, “around 2011”, to inspiration from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and late Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray.

In an interview to this paper, he named Babu Bajrangi, a Kadva Patidar and former Bajrang Dal leader from Kutch, as another inspiration. Bajrangi ran an outfit called the Navchetan Trust, which claimed to “rescue” Hindu girls from marriages to Muslims and Christians. The fact that Bajrangi was a convict in the Naroda Patiya massacre of 2002 doesn’t bother Hardik. “We need good people to protect society,” he says.

In 2012, Hardik joined the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), and became popular because of a brigade of ‘Protector of Girls’ he raised under its banner. A social organisation of both Leuva and Kadva Patels, the SPG had been founded by Mehsana-based Lalji Patel in 2001 in Mehsana, at a function attended by then minister of state for home Gordhan Zadaphia and Keshubhai Patel.

“The group’s main objective was to discourage bad practices like female foeticide, and hold blood donation camps. It also ran a matrimony website and helped protect girls from sexual harassment,” says Zadaphia.

Lalji Patel remembers meeting Hardik for the first time. “We were celebrating the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel in Mehsana. Hardik came to us and expressed his wish to join the SPG. We inducted him and made him president of the Viramgam region.”

Hardik claims to have handled 6,000 cases of sexual harassment of girls from Mandal and Viramgam in his two-year stint as Viramgam region president, till 2014.

Bharat says his son “came into the limelight” after joining the SPG. “Hardik came in contact with many top leaders such as Nitin Patel (Minister for Health), Purshottam Rupala (BJP national vice-president), Tejashreeben Patel etc,” he says.

Following his interactions with leaders, says Bharat, Hardik came to realise the larger problem facing the Patidars. “A number of Patidar youths would approach him now for admission in educational institutes and he could not secure admission for them, all because of the OBC quota,” says Bharat.

Hardik’s sister Monica, a BA, says he didn’t have to look too far. She wanted to pursue a post-graduate course in human resource management or labour welfare, she says. “But I did not get admission despite securing 64 per cent in graduation.”

While Hardik was still grasping this, there was another fortuitous turn of events. Zadaphia, who is now back in the BJP after briefly quitting it, took Hardik along to Uttar Pradesh, and put him in touch with Patels of other states. “In November last year, I, as president of the Akhil Bharatiya Sardar Patel Mahasabha, took Hardik to the Akhil Bharatiya Kurmi Mahasabha in Barabanki.”

Hardik has admitted that it was at this meeting, seeing that Patels of some other states enjoyed reservations, that he decided to seek quota for them in Gujarat.

Kamlesh Katiyar, a Kanpur-based block development officer, was among those who helped organise the Barabanki convention. He remembers seeing Hardik at the 2014 convention. “He spoke for a few minutes. He mostly listened,” recalls Katiyar.

“Hardik was a sharp kid,” adds Ramanuj Patel, who was among those present at the convention. “He was surprised to know how far and wide the Patels were spread.”

But Shailendra Patel, who runs eight schools in the district, all named after Sardar Patel, says he could “never have imagined” Hardik making it big back in Gujarat.

Still, till April 16, when a huge congregation of the Patidars was held in Viramgam, also attended by Zadaphia, there was no talk of reservation for the community.

That would happen on July 6, at the first rally held under the banner of the new Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), under Hardik’s leadership, in Mehsana.

Zadaphia says he was not told about or consulted on this new course Hardik was charting. “After two or three rallies, I tried to tell him that this was not correct and that there was an OBC commission to approach for quota, but he wanted to take the agitation route,” says Zadaphia.

Hardik himself didn’t realise the full potential of what he had started till July 24, when a Patidar rally, in Visnagar, reported its first violent clash. More than 150 Patidars were booked. Exactly a month later, Hardik would draw around 5 lakh people at a rally in Ahmedabad, that would end in clashes, violence across state, and draw an appeal for peace from PM Narendra Modi.

Hardik admits it was at Visnagar that the split between the PAAS and SPG was finally clear. Last week, asked about Lalji Patel, he told The Sunday Express, “What is Laljibhai?”

Scoffing, he added that Lalji had broken away from the PAAS because he had been running the SPG for 14 years but not achieved the scale he had. He also alleged that the SPG was now aligned with the government and trying to disrupt his agitation.

Hardik, who is almost always clad in jeans, now claims to be on 512 WhatsApp groups, clarifying he has “not created all of them”. His supporters have also been rallying numbers on Facebook, websites and Twitter.

Hardik keeps repeating how all this has helped him mobilise the “entire” Patidars, including the Leuvas and Kadvas, in all of 55 days. The Patidars, numbering 1.5 crore, constitute nearly 14 per cent of Gujarat’s population. He also claims support of Ahirs, Muslims, STs and SCs as well as the Brahmins and Kshatriyas.

Thousands have come in for his rallies, Hardik adds, due to word of mouth and work done on the ground by volunteers not just of the SPG but also other Patidar groups. At one rally, the PAAS put the number of such volunteers at more than 50,000, who had come offering services “on their own”.

“Fifty per cent of our mobilisation is using social media,” Hardik told The Sunday Express. Addressing the rally in Ahmedabad last week, he mocked the PM over this. “Modi taught us the power of social media, and now he must be thinking, ‘What have I done!’.” Naming two private mobile service providers from the dais, he added, “Let them also be happy that we took their name.”

He has shown earlier too that he is not afraid of pitting himself against Modi. If his supporters have designated him ‘Patidar Hridaya Samrat’, he has talked about “Patels having 56-inch chests”.

On his biggest day yet, the Ahmedabad rally, Hardik chose to address the crowd in Hindi, not Gujarati, as he usually does. Hardik explained, “The issue of reservation is of national importance. And so, it was necessary to take it to the entire country.”

Modi himself used Hindi as diplomatically on the road to Delhi.

A video released recently compared Hardik not too subtly to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, while Shivaji and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose also made an appearance. The video went on to feature a roaring lion, and Hardik posing with a gun.

Ask Hardik why he is not moving the OBC commission if his demand is quota, and he says he doesn’t trust the panel. According to him, some Patidar leaders had in 1991 put in an application for OBC status, but it was rejected in a year. “In 2001, Kachhiya Patels (a community of vegetable vendors) applied for OBC quota and got reservation in central PSUs like ONGC. They spent four years digging 60 years of their history and about nine years to convince the commission,” he says. “If we have to track our history, we would have to go back to Lord Ram.”

He repeatedly emphasises the Leuvas’ and Kadvas’ supposed links to Lord Ram. “Does someone have ownership over saffron?,” he asks.

This has led many to wonder about his exact motives though.

There have been anonymous messages claiming his proximity to Congress MLA Tejashreeben Patel. Hardik countered that by releasing his pictures with BJP vice-president Purshottam Rupala and Minister of State for Home Rajnikant Patel.

Kamlesh and others from Kanpur where Hardik reportedly got his first push towards seeking reservations are not happy with the “anti-reservation” undertones in Hardik’s campaign. “He calls for reservation for all or a complete end to reservation. He is mistaken,” Kamlesh says.

Nonetheless, they are happy at the rekindling of the debate. “Who knows we might have already inspired a Hardik from UP too?” Kamlesh says.

A leader of the OBC community, Alpesh Thakor, who recently organised a gathering of OBCs against the Patidar agitation, belongs to Endla village, of the same Viramgam-Mandal region from where Hardik hails. “Hardik is whimsical,” Thakor says. “He joins any group or person from which he can gain prominence, whether the BJP, Congress or Aam Aadmi Party. In fact, around two months back, I organised a rally of Thakor community in Viramgam and Hardik put up a board welcoming the rally.”

Thakor believes the Patidar movement is actually an anti-reservation movement, and its hidden agenda is to get quotas scrapped.

Ask Hardik about Alpesh though, and the 22-year-old shows why Gujarat’s political theatre could now have a new player. “Alpesh,” Hardik smiled, “is a friend.”

With inputs from Hamza Khan in Kanpur

***

Hardik’s rally

July 6, Mehsana: 1,000-1,500 people
July 24, Visnagar: Around 2,500 people
August 13, Sawli: Around 5,000 people
August 17, Surat: Around 4.5 lakh people
August 21, Vadodara city: 1.5-2.5 lakh people
August 25, Ahmedabad: Around 5 lakh people

Hardik’s Team

Hardik names Ketan Patel, Narendra Patel, Dinesh Patel, Chirag Patel, Bharat Patel, Mansukh Patel, Narendra Patel and Vipul Patel as key aides.

Chirag Patel
He is in Hardik’s close circle of aides. A native of Viramgam just like Hardik, he lives in Ahmedabad. Was in charge of the stage for the August 25 rally.

Dinesh & Ketan Patel
Dinesh, who belongs to Jasdan in Rajkot district, says he met Hardik when the agitation gathered pace two months ago. As Hardik keeps his movements under wraps, it is Dinesh who accompanies him in his car. Ketan is a native of Mehsana.

Alpesh Katheriya
A third-year student of law from Surat, Alpesh got associated with the Patidar movement through the Surat convenor of the SPG.

With inputs from Kamaal Saiyed

Disgruntled aides blame ‘ego tussle’

Varun Patel
When the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti started its agitation under the leadership of Hardik Patel, Varun was its spokesperson. He continues to appear before the media seeking OBC status for the Patidars. However, he does not support Hardik anymore. According to Varun, Hardik didn’t stick to their plan for the movement. “He spoke in Hindi before the gathering on August 25 (it is seen as Hardik’s attempt to chart own path). He also only hailed Goddess Umiya (deity of Kadva Patels) in his address to the gathering and not hail Goddess Khodal (deity of Leuva Patels), which hurt the sentiments of Leuva Patels,” he says. Hardik himself is a Kadva Patel. Varun also criticises Hardik for “sidelining” Lalji Patel.

Pravin Patel
Pravin Patel helped mobilise the Patidars from Unjha town in Mehsana district for the Ahmedabad rally. Pravin had contested the 2012 Assembly elections from Maninagar constituency of Ahmedabad against then CM Narendra Modi on the ticket of the now dissolved Gujarat Parivartan Party of Gordhan Zadaphia. Along with Zadaphia, Pravin is now with the BJP. “I joined the Patidar movement for the community. But then I saw that it became an ego tussle between Hardik and Laljibhai and so now I am not with them,” says Pravin. He also questions why Hardik only hailed “Umiya Mataji”.

Dilip Patel
Dilip was a spokesperson of the Patidar Adhikar Andolan Samiti till the Ahmedabad rally. He has turned against Hardik for the way he has treated Lalji Patel.

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