Anti-reservation stir gets fired up
Although the agitation has been capped for now, maybe due to the Bihar elections, it may well rage again and contribute in the reordering of national politics
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Just a few days before the mega rally on August 25 in Ahmedabad, Delhi newspapers had begun to report on 22-year-old Hardik Patel, presenting him virtually as a new tribal chief trying to establish his authority over his subjects and also gain the attention of higher powers elsewhere. But these impressions were soon subjected to new interpretations.
After holding two rallies in Surat that were more like foreplay, Hardik and his followers from the land-owning Patidar community unleashed a super rally. Estimates vary, but the helicopter shots of the throng of people that collected to hear the young firebrand – who needed grace marks to pass the Class XII exams – were enough to boggle anyone’s mind. Whether they numbered three lakh, as observers maintain, or 15 lakh, as the organisers claimed, the crowds appeared to dwarf any that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had ever collected on this dirty brown patch of earth. It was a monster rally.
Why did so many young Patels show up to protest against the development model that Modi propagated for the rest of the country during the 2014 parliament elections? From a distance, Gujarat seemed to promise jobs, infrastructure and a business-friendly environment. Economists and industrialists never tired of talking about the virtues of Gujarat and how it galloped smartly under Modi’s leadership. There was no evidence – electoral or otherwise – of anyone getting left behind. Nor did successive Gujarat elections of the past 15 years reveal this anger. So what had happened? Are election results and development statistics an inadequate gauge of public resentment? Does the winner alone represent the troubled social reality? Many of these disturbing questions framed the discussion of Hardik’s sudden emergence.
The Patels are a privileged caste – if, indeed, they can be called a caste at all! The name Patel is also used as an honorific for the landed gentry. Hence, it is intriguing that the young Patels should be screaming for reservation. The truth is that these Patels were demanding reservation for themselves when they meant just the opposite. Many of their posters and placards brought to the fore how the exclusionary reservation policy of the state and the Central government was denying them an opportunity to get admission in quality government institutions. Though Gujarat boasts elite institutions like IIM, IID, and IRMA, where the country’s finest come to pick up critical educational and vocational skills, seats at these institutions were denied to a large number of Gujaratis due to their indifferent scholastic performance, as well as due to reservation.
Young Hardik, who barely passed his school examinations, is the perfect icon for this generation of Indians – who have so much angst about reservation, especially for the Other Backward Classies (OBCs). They harbour less resentment over reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, which is Constitutionally mandated at 22.5 per cent. But reservation for OBCs, premised on social, economic and education criteria have been difficult to defend in many states where affirmative action has economically empowered these groups over the years. In states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, many of the backward communities that enjoy reservations are rich and powerful, and dominate the political sphere. It is not surprising, therefore, that upper caste youths who fail to get into government-aided educational institutes as the number of general category seats continues to shrink, were drawn to Hardik’s protests.
Although nearly everyone agrees that the Patel agitation was indeed against backward quota reservation, what is being hotly debated in Delhi and elsewhere was, who was pulling the strings. Confusion has been injected into simple conspiracy theories due to the merciless counterattack by the Gujarat police on the Patel agitators. YouTube videos show police entering Patel colonies and dragging the men out of their houses and caning them. One killing by the police has been declared as homicidal! If police violence is not introduced in these theories then the general impression was that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological precursor of the ruling BJP, is behind this agitation. After all, no one can gather large congregations in this country unless the RSS has some role to play. The Indians Against Corruption (IAC) mobilisation in Delhi or other similar movements have the imprimatur of the Sangh. Moreover, the RSS is a Brahmin-centred organisation that has deep reservations about reservation and has worked hard at social engineering, which means putting all the Hindu castes within brackets with the promise that they will benefit together in a merit-based society. Backward and Scheduled Castes do not buy into this argument and find it status quoist.
The question is, why did the government in Delhi appear so shell-shocked on August 25 if the RSS was really involved? This is a question that has not been adequately answered. Is the RSS pursuing its own social agenda that includes doing away with reservation at some time in the future? Or is it a subtle attempt by the RSS to keep the high-flying prime minister in check? Is there a rupture between the two?
Delhi is full of rumours about the implications of the Hardik rally. Immediately after it, the government went into overdrive to control the publicity. In Gujarat, the Internet was locked down – so there was no WhatsApp, YouTube or anything. TV channels in Delhi were encouraged by media managers to masticate the unending drama of the Sheena Bora murder case and make light of the Gujarat caste resurgence. Whatever may be the shenanigans of the RSS or any of its outfits in bolstering the Patel rally, the fact is that the mirror of the Gujarat model cracked that day. No one can now confidently say that Gujarat is the only beacon of hope in the industrial wasteland that the majority of India has become. Because it is a mercantile society with a pragmatic approach to politics, Gujarat is able to frame the desire for change far ahead of other states. Many years ago, it spearheaded the anti-corruption movement under the rubric of Nav Nirman. This movement finally swept aside Indira Gandhi and her government in 1977. Gujarat also provided the springboard for Narendra Modi and helped the BJP return to power. Now Gujarat is sending out a strong message against reservation for backwards in educational institutions and elsewhere. Although the agitation has been capped for now, maybe due to the Bihar elections, it may well rage again in the coming days and contribute in the reordering of national politics. What will perhaps serve to aggravate this issue are discrete suggestions that the caste census shows the backward castes to be far lower than the 54 per cent assumed by the Mandal Commission in 1979. Sources claim it could be around 32 per cent. If there is any truth in this, look out for more upper caste rallying around Hardik and his politics.