The Patel agitation for inclusion in the OBC category has triggered huge political unrest in Gujarat.
On Tuesday night, after a massive show of strength in Ahmedabad, the young leader of the agitation, Hardik Patel, went on a hunger strike.
The police did not take too kindly to it and arrested him. Young Patel men went on a rampage across the state, and by the time Mr Patel was released, the damage had been done. The state has witnessed clashes between protesters and the police; nine people have been killed; the army has been deployed; curfew has been imposed in many parts; the government appears at a loss on how to deal with the situation; and the Prime Minister has had to step in appealing for calm and peace.
It has come as a surprise to many that the Patels — long considered among the most politically influential, economically prosperous, and socially well networked communities — are demanding affirmative action benefits. But it is instructive to examine their rhetoric carefully.
At the rally on Tuesday, the Patel leaders demanded reservation or that it be scrapped altogether or that quotas on the basis of economic backwardness be introduced. The movement has struck a chord with a substantial section of the community and it has thrown up questions about the larger politics of affirmative action in India.
The founding fathers of the nation recognised the structural inequities in society, particularly on the question of caste and tribal identity. Dalits and Scheduled Tribes were given reservation in legislatures, government jobs, and educational institutions. This later expanded as other backward classes, which mostly included intermediate castes who were at the lower rung of the caste hierarchy, but above Dalits. The expanding OBC reservations generated an upper-caste backlash during the Mandal years of the early 90s.
It’s been 25 years since Mandal was introduced nationally and over 30 years since OBC reservation expanded in Gujarat. A generation of beneficiaries, as well as real and perceived victims, of the policies has emerged. The former are deeply invested in the reservation regime; the latter wants to overturn it.
The Patel rebellion is a signal that the young people of the so-called general castes have developed deep anxieties and feel that they have had to pay a price for social justice measures. This could get replicated in other states, and take the form of a movement against reservation as it exists now. This is bound to generate inter-caste tensions and disrupt politics. India’s political leadership needs to think hard about how to sustain social justice measures.