The agitation by members of the Patel community in Gujarat, demanding reservation, has taken a violent turn with the loss of many lives and large-scale destruction of property. The two-month-old agitation has shaken the Gujarat government which has not had to face much popular unrest in the recent past. After suddenly taking on a disruptive and violent turn, the agitation threatens to further snowball. The Patels are demanding 15 per cent reservation in education and employment, like other backward classes. The irony is that it was the Patel community which was in the vanguard of anti-reservation movements when quotas were introduced by the state government and later by the Central government. It was with these agitations that they came close to the BJP and became the main support base of the party. They are now fighting against a government dominated by them.
The Patels do not have a case for reservation because they are a powerful and dominant community well represented in government, politics and business. The chief minister, many ministers and one-third of the members of the state legislature are Patels. They have been landlords and have done well in business, both within the country and abroad, with their enterprise. The representation in government service has not been high, but this is considered a result of choice, because the community has traditionally attached more value to self-help and enterprise. In any case, they are not socially and economically backward to be considered for reservations. The case is much like that made out by the Gujjars in Rajasthan, the Jats in five states including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana and the Marathas in Maharashtra. The Supreme Court had struck down reservations in such cases. Communities which now enjoy reservations would not like the cake to be shared with new claimants. Separate reservation for more communities would fall foul of the 50 per cent limit set by the court, though some states have tried to get around the ceiling.
Dominant communities, which have no legitimate claim to reservations, are making a pitch for quotas in state after state. Some of them had opposed or even looked down on reservations. There may be a stronger sense of caste identity and competitiveness at work. It is also possible that there are fresh social and economic concerns which create a sense of insecurity. It has been pointed that the Patels’ demand could be linked to their grievances relating to stagnation in agriculture, the decline and poor performance of the industrial and export businesses they have and the problems in the state’s educational system.