Fakru Ahmed Bashu
While there is uproar from backward classes and downtrodden strata of the society to strictly implement the constitutionally earmarked reservations, there is, on the other hand, a vicious attempt through some recent events to bring the reservation system to an end. Upper caste people with vested interests, who came out openly to oppose the Mandal commission report, thus creating violent human suffering during VP Singh's regime, are resurfacing on the scene albeit in a different form.
The unruly movement witnessed recently in Gujarat involving people from the Patel caste to get themselves listed in the OBC category, is part of this phenomenon. The leader of this movement, 22 year old Hardik Patel has openly declared, in an interview to The Hindu1, his real intent behind starting this conflict and sharing it with other members of Patel community, "Either you free the country from the reservations or make every citizen of this country a slave to reservations."
In the past, we have seen some upper castes like the well-to-do Jats resorting to harmful roadshows in north India to bring pressure on the state and central governments to include them in the OBC category. Under duress, many state governments even conceded to their demand. Most recently, in Maharashtra we have seen economically and politically well-developed Marathas being given OBC status (which was later quashed by the courts) after the government faced stiff protests by the people from the Maratha community. The unjustifiable demands of these economically and politically strong castes had been fully complied with both by the Congress and the BJP. This is a complete violation of the original idea of reserving seats for economically and socially backward people of our country. In this violation, both BJP and Congress have been partners.
In fact, if Patels, Jats and Marathas are included among backward classes, the very definition of a backward class would require to be reviewed and there will be no question of any reservations being meaningful any longer. This does not mean that there are no people suffering from abject poverty within these communities. But the Indian society ridden with the caste disease for thousands of years resulted in the oppression of a large section of its people. Education and employment have been a distant dream for this oppressed class. It is in this context that Dr B R Ambedkar desired a caste based reservation system.
However, RSS has been relentlessly arguing since a long time that it is not on the basis of caste but the economic status of an individual that one needs to be considered for reservations.2 In their mouthpiece 'Organiser', at the time of Mandal I in 1990, RSS claimed that OBC reservations would promote "caste war" and the politics surrounding reservations is hurting the social fabric of the country. Merit is sidelined and mediocrity is rewarded, which is leading to a serious conflict among different castes in India (Organiser, August 26, 1990)
An OBC leader from Maharashtra, Jitendra Awhad, sees an RSS hand behind Patel's agitation. "Hardik is demanding reservations for Patels and claims if they don't get it reservations should be cancelled. He is being propped up by the RSS, which is keen to do away with reservations in the country. His agitation is a precursor to an anti-reservation campaign being planned in the country".3
Some national television channels have shown that efforts have already been initiated by the RSS in this direction. Further, Sandeepan Sharma, a columnist writing for firstpost.com said, "Hardik Patel has provided us with an opportunity to review and redefine the entire reservation policy. We should be grateful and indebted to him for indicating that all Indians should be given equal opportunities to be successful."4 Youth for Equality, an organization which had opposed the reservations in the admissions to AIIMS is coming back on the scene as we all can see.
The reality of Patels
Hardik Patel, the son of a BJP activist, has gained importance as a firebrand 'revolutionary' in a short period of time. He passed his college degree with 50% marks and entered the business of water supply. Then, he joined the Sardar Patel Group and worked for reservations for the Patels. After some time, he started his own organization called 'Patidar Anamat Andolan Samithi' (PAAS) and conducted protest rallies in all the important cities of Gujarat. In Surat alone, which is a centre for the diamond industry, nearly four lakh people participated in the rally. In the Ahmedabad rally, more than five lakh people took part. A lot of poor people from the Patel caste apparently participated in the Ahmedabad rally.
The Patel community reportedly constitutes 15% of the total population of Gujarat. 70% of the Patel households possess at least 6 acres of agricultural land each. They got the title Patidar because of this title over land i.e. patta. After agriculture, a majority of the Patel caste are owners of medium scale industries. They are also managers. This caste enjoys an important role in the running of the diamond industry in Surat. The majority of Gujaratis settled in the USA are Patels. From central Gujarat, at least one person from each Patel family is well settled either in the USA or in England, according to Aakar Patel, a political analyst. This is not an exaggeration but a reality. According to one estimate, by the year 2012, Patels, owned nearly 15000 hotels in the US.
Politically, until the 1980s, Patels were supporters of the Congress. But since the Congress was getting biased towards BC, SC, ST and Muslims for the purpose of creating a vote bank, Patels shifted their loyalty to the BJP. In the Gujarat assembly at present out of 120 BJP MLAs, 40 MLAs are Patels. Seven senior cabinet ministers and the CM, Anandi Ben Patel, are Patels.
The hollowness of Modi's model
At the time of the Lok Sabha elections, there was a campaign by the BJP leaders saying that if there was ever a heaven it is in Gujarat. These leaders requested the voters to give them a chance to apply this Gujarat model all over India by giving them votes. The leftist parties and the other political parties told the voters at the time of the election campaign that there was a vast difference between the actual situation in Gujarat and what the BJP leaders were claiming. In view of the recent agitation by the Patels in Gujarat, it has come true that there really was a difference between what the real condition of Gujarat was and what the BJP leaders were claiming it to be.
During Modi's regime as the CM of Gujarat, the so-called development was only for big corporates and capitalists. Small and medium industrialists had been suffering a lot, and needless to add, the continued miserable condition of Dalits, Tribals and other backward communities of the society in Gujarat. Whatever little bits of land these people possessed, had been grabbed by the industrialists or the landlords, frequently. The 'development' in Gujarat during Modi's regime never really happened for the majority of the marginalized.
In terms of employment creation, the NSSO estimates clearly state that during 2004-2005 to 2009-10 (six years) the employment creation in Gujarat was zero. Leave alone new jobs, people even lost jobs which they were holding. According to RBI reports, about 2.61 lakh small industries in Gujarat closed down due to heavy losses. In this regard Gujarat occupies the second place after U.P. Most of the owners/managers of these industries are Patels. During the last six months, 150 diamond industries in Surat closed down. As a result, ten thousand workers came on the road. Because of the crisis in the agricultural sector, many farmers committed suicides under these circumstances. Therefore, the Patels are burning with dissatisfaction and that is why they took to the streets to protest.
Although the media tried to project Hardik Patel's leadership as being significant, it is actually these miserable conditions which led to the present scenario. The dissatisfaction which is now prevalent among people is likely to be diverted and disgraced as a caste conflict saving a big embarrassment to Modi's corporate favoring economic model.
Court judgments and government policies
The UPA government, against the advice of National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), included Jats in the OBC category in March 2014 when the election dates were nearing. The Supreme Court quashed this decision stating that this is against the basic nature of reservations and hence is faulty. The Modi government recently filed a review petition in the Supreme Court pleading that Jats be placed in the OBC category. Additionally, the Modi government argued that it is not bound to follow the NCBC advice.
Similarly, the Mumbai High Court cancelled the decision to include Marathas in OBC category. The Maharashtra government announced that they will approach the Supreme Court against the high court decision. It seems the BJP does not wish to lag behind the Congress and is bent upon uprooting the reservation policy.
In 1999, the Vajpayee-led NDA government included the Rajasthan Jats in the OBC category for the first time. That fire is still simmering till date. In view of the comments made by RSS leaders on the violence caused by the Patels, it has become clear that the original reservation system is in doldrums. Because of ineffective economic policies of Modi's government, many are losing jobs in public sector undertakings; addition of jobs is a distant dream. The dissatisfaction of people is being diverted instead of addressing the main issue. The government should go ahead with a plan for 'education and employment for everyone' while preserving the reservation policy of the Indian constitution.
Fakru Ahmed Bashu is a freelance journalist.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.