The vast and unprecedented mobilisation of young, middle-class Patels, or Patidars, as seen at the Kranti Rally on August 25, is a symptom of the unrest simmering in a globalised Gujarat. The government’s repeated projection of Gujarat as a state where “all is well” has been undermined by the scale and strength of this protest, which took the government, political parties and the media by surprise. Among all the castes in Gujarat, the unity of the Patidars — which often publicly manifests as caste patriotism — is taken as a given in the public discourse. This perception has been reinforced by the half-million strong demonstration organised on Tuesday, where Patidars from all parts of the state came together to shout slogans like “Jai Sardar” and “Jai Patidar”. They demand that the government either extend OBC reservations to Patidars or abolish the caste-based reservation system altogether. It should be noted here that the Patidars were the first community in India to launch anti-reservation movements against the Dalits and Adivasis, and later against Gujarat’s OBCs, in 1981 and 1985. Later, community leaders, under the guidance of the RSS and VHP, shrewdly diverted the agitation, so it morphed into one against Muslims. Non-resident Gujaratis who live abroad have also extended moral and material support, much as they did to the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda.
The upsurge comprises the well-off and dominant Leuva and Kadva Patidars. They constitute around 12 per cent of the state’s population and are the single-largest community among rich and middle-class peasants. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, well-off Patidars have been investing their agricultural surpluses in business, industry and also in skill development. High rates of migration in the community, first to Africa and later to the UK and the US, have added to their prosperity. Indeed, in that sense they are a model community others have tried to emulate. There is an almost universal aspiration among Patidars to go to the US for economic purposes. Those who cannot settle abroad look to get white-collar jobs or become industrialists.
However, in urban areas, except for a few well-established professionals and entrepreneurs, the majority are white- or blue-collar employees, or self-employed or casual, skilled labourers in textile or diamond factories. The diamond industry has been a mainstay of the community — eight in 10 diamonds in the world are said to be cut and polished in Surat and in other towns and villages in Gujarat. But for the last several months, the industry has been in deep crisis. Several units have closed down, and a large number of diamond workers have been retrenched, which has contributed to the current unrest in the Patidar community.
Similarly, though advances in irrigation have meant that agricultural growth in Gujarat over the last decade has been high at around 8 per cent per annum, this growth has not been inclusive. Small and marginal farmers have been left behind, and the head of every third Patidar household is a small and marginal farmer, and/ or a landless labourer. He grapples with the constant tension of high aspirations and wretched living conditions. Poor farmers don’t have enough resources to invest in farming and incur debt. Hardik Patel, the leader of the agitation, highlighted cases of farmer suicide. The government has been guilty of ignoring the phenomenon. The poor have desperately tried to get non-farm employment in nearby urban areas and dream of joining the urban middle class. But urban growth, though impressive, has been unable to absorb and accommodate these rising aspirations. It is true that economic growth, largely in the manufacturing sector, is higher than in many other states. But the quality of available employment does not meet the expectations of young people. The growth in employment comes largely from the informal sector, where there is no social security. Wages in Gujarat are lower than in most other states. Even in the formal sector, more often than not, employment is casual or contractual. Insecurity haunts most young employees. In such a situation, government employment is perceived by frustrated young Patidars as the only secure and dignified position available. In fact, the number of these government positions is also shrinking, though paradoxically many sanctioned posts remain vacant for years. But these young people want simply to claim something that they perceive others, lower in caste status, are entitled to.
The aspirational young want admission in professional courses, particularly in medicine or information technology, at well-reputed institutions, so they can acquire status and wealth. The grouse of the angry and agitated Patidar youth is that he is deprived of that opportunity, because these “others” with less marks are admitted to these institutions because of quotas. His grievance is that he has to pay high fees to attend private colleges because government offices are closed to him. The number of government-aided institutions has also stagnated over time, while the number of self-financed colleges has increased. Seats in government colleges increased 31 per cent from 2001 to 2015, while in self-financed colleges, the proportion of seats increased over 600 per cent during the same period. Fees in the latter are six to seven times those in the former, at an average of Rs 6,000 for a government college and around Rs 4 lakh for a private college. It is beyond the reach of most middle-class families, unless one incurs debt. So the Patidar envies those who get admission on reserved seats.
Moreover, Patidars have harboured ambitions of migrating to the US for years. Their relatives settled there and improved their social status, and they wish to imitate that advancement. But the opportunities for that, too, are sinking, which adds fuel to the fire. Then, in the last year, the Narendra Modi government’s promise of “achhe din” and jobs does not seem to have been fulfilled, further exacerbating their anger.
The writer is former national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research (affiliated to the Centre for Social Studies, Surat), 2013-15