Patels' quota demand may become hot potato in Gujarat

Gujarat, after a gap of four decades, is witnessing a series of rallies that appear to be shaking the ruling establishment at its roots. In 1970s, the then government of Chimanbhai Patel witnessed a student revolution that led to his fall. Now, it is a movement of one of the most politically, socially and economically influential castes in the state - Patels, who have hit the streets across the state seeking reservation like the Other Backward Classes for the purposes of admission to educational institutions and government jobs.

Patels, who comprise 15 per cent of the state population, have held almost three dozen rallies in last one month, seeking the status of OBCs. Last week, over 30,000 Patels held a silent march in state capital Gandhinagar. “It is spreading like a wildfire. People are coming out in huge numbers to support our cause,” Dr Nachiket Patel, an Ahmedabad-based physician and part of the Patel Anamat Aandolan Samiti (Patel Reservation Movement Committee) or PAAS, said.

The Patels have played a key role not just in shaping and writing Gujarat’s modern history. The man who unified modern India politically, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, or  Tribhuvandas Patel, the father of dairy industry and cooperative movement in India, who nurtured the “milkman” Varghese Kurien to build Amul, were born Patels.

Gujarat has seen four Patel chief ministers – Babubhai Patel, Chimanbhai Patel, Keshubhai Patel and now its first lady chief minister of the state Anandiben Patel - rule the state for over 14 years since its formation in 1960. And the number of legislators, parliamentarians, ministers, bureaucrats is humongous.

“Between 1960 to 2005, Patels formed almost 30 per cent of state’s administrative machinery. This is less than 4 per cent today. During the same period, almost 60 per cent of primary teachers in the state, 65 per cent of secondary teachers and 70 per cent of the staff in gram panchayats were Patels. Today, this stands at 40, 25 and 20 per cent, respectively,” reads a message being circulated on a social media among Patel community members.

Other than the fall in their dominance in administration, the Patels also perceive the-mselves to be marginalised in the state politics. “If you ignore, persecute, pressurise, isolate everyone to promote only preferred communities, this is bound to happen,” says a senior BJP leader from forward caste. “Last dispensation played caste politics pretty deftly by quietly promoting members of OBCs and SC/STs. Most of the government schemes too were directed at them.”

He claimed that as the BJP had pushed out Keshbhai Patel from chief ministership and merely symbolically put Anandiben Patel now, after Narendra Modi moved to Delhi. “She has no mass following compared to other Patel leaders as Purushottam Rupala, Dilip Sanghani, Vitthal Radadia, Mohan Kundaria, who have all been smartly sidelined,” he said.

But why has this movement gained momentum in last few weeks? “We have dem-ocracy now. We had begun a similar agitation from Visnagar and Mehsana about four years ago but it was crushed. We were then told that the UPA government would not allow Patels to get reservation as it would otherwise cross the threshold prescribed by the Supreme Court.”

He added: “But now, we have a BJP government at the state as well as the Centre. They must heed to our demands,” the PAAS activist said. “If they cannot give us reservation, then they must remove it completely. Why should our children, who get over 90 per cent marks cannot get admissions or jobs or promotions? Why should we suffer in silence?” he asked.

Certain political observers attribute fanning of fire to the forthcoming local body elections in the state, with a section within BJP trying to sully chances of Anandiben Patel going forward. They also attribute this undercurrent to Anandiben’s actions in the recent past.

“She brandished sword and sickle in public rallies stating that she is the daughter of a farmer and that they can be used for purposes other than cutting grass and that she must not be taken lightly just because she is a woman. What is she trying to say?” the BJP leader said.

Dominant Patels
This, some say, saw few Patel leaders from within the party ignite the fire that would see her in a Catch 22 situation and make it difficult for her to stay beyond 2017 when polls to elect a new government will be held. The other section of BJP, on the other hand, blames it on Opposition Congress for orchestrating the movement. Congress has denies it.

Patels, who before independence were landless tillers, have since emerged as affluent farmers and land owners. Over the years, they have travelled the globe, setting up businesses. They dominate world’s diamond business, India’s ceramic and pharmaceutical business. They also form major part of Gujarat’s dominant and affluent Non-Resident Gujarati community.

“The ceramic and diamond industries in the North and South Gujarat, respectively, are under strain. We have seen massive lay offs and insolvency recently. As Patels have huge stake in these businesses, it has hit them hard. This is adding fuel to the fire,” one of the former ministers and a BJP leader said.

What if the state government does not heed to the requests of Patels? “If Patels begin to be perceived as threat by OBCs, there is a remote chance that Gujarat may see caste strife as it had in late 1980s,” warns a senior BJP leader adding that some of the messages doing rounds are pretty objectionable and are raising the caste divide.

And, looking at the statements of some Patel leaders running the agitation, who say that they would follow the path of Gujjars if their demand is not met, the situation remains fluid and getting a little too hot to handle.

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