Patel stir hits Ahmedabad: Inside a city charred by caste tension

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
  • Updated: Aug 27, 2015 00:39 IST

The public bus is now parked in the middle of Shahibagh, with spectators flashing their mobile cameras to get a shot. The bus has seats, but the seats neither have a base nor a cover. The bus has doors, but the doors are almost disentangled from the vehicle and can fall off any moment. There is a residue of a steering wheel and a gear box. The front screen and the window panes are shattered. And a motor-bike, burnt to pieces, is spread right next to the bus tyre, a strong smell emanating from it all.

The bus is symbolic of events in Ahmedabad and the rest of Gujarat on Tuesday and Wednesday. Seven people have died, five of them in police firing; curfew has been imposed in several parts of the state; the army and the paramilitary forces have been called in; PM Narendra Modi has had to step in to call for peace and calm. And at the root of it is a polarised society and a state that is unable to deal with a challenge from a powerful, aggressive social group.

The backdrop of violence

"We regret to inform you that we cannot provide the car because of Gujarat violence and Ahmedabad curfew," said the text from an Ahmedabad tour operator. It was 5am on Wednesday morning and I was waiting in the security queue of the Terminal 1 airport in Delhi.

I was heading to the city to cover the aftermath of the massive Patel rally on Tuesday. The Patel community has been demanding inclusion in the OBC category and affirmative action benefits, claiming they have got deprived of education and employment opportunities because of the quota regime. The movement had picked up intensity in the last month.

Patel stir: 7 killed, army called in to control Gujarat violence

On Tuesday, the rally saw the participation of lakhs. And then it took an unexpected turn. The 22-year-old mascot of the movement, Hardik Patel, announced he would sit on a fast at the venue till CM Anandiben Patel came and received the memorandum with their demands personally. The police had, unprovoked most accounts suggest, used lathi-charge to dispense the crowds and had detained Patel.

Within minutes, there was a backlash as young Patel men - in Ahmedabad as well as other parts of Gujarat - went on the rampage. Police posts were vandalised; police vans were burnt down; homes of BJP leaders were attacked; buses were torched; and the city resembled, in a matter of minutes, a ghost town. Patel was released a few hours later. He - and the CM - appealed for calm. Late at night, the Patel led Patidari Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) called for a bandh.

But the damage had been done.

When I landed, the mobile data service had been frozen through the city. The prepaid cab counters at the Ahmedabad airport were shut. An auto was willing to get on to the road though. The bandh had not crippled Ahmedabad entirely, but had been rather effective. The city looked semi-deserted. Police vans watched over crossings, public buses were entirely missing and even private vehicles were few and far between.

A polarised society

The Patel agitation has sparked off a debate at many levels on the entire issue of reservation – should Patels be entitled to quotas at all; what should be the criteria for affirmative action; should it be ‘economic-based’; should it be scrapped; is this all a plot to deprive the most-needy of benefits? What your surname is, and whether you are a beneficiary or a real or perceived victim of the reservation politics, is often a good determinant of your position on the issue in Ahmedabad.

Dilip Santukbhai, the auto driver who took me around the city, said Patels had done 'danga' last night. "They own most of the land near the airport, most of the hotels there. They are rich. But they want reservation. If they get it, so should Brahmans, so should Thakurs and so should my son who is in Class 8," he said, with a laugh. He added, on his own, "I am Sindhi."

A report said there had been tension at the Akhbarnagar circle. I rushed there in the afternoon.

On a street corner, a traffic post had been burnt - and the smoke was still emanating. A group of young Rajasthani migrant workers had heard about the incidents of the night and come to see what was going on. Among them was Manoj, who worked in a hotel. He said he and his friends lived in a flat close by, and that he did not follow Gujarati politics. “I heard this was for quotas. I am a Brahman. If Patels get reservation, Brahmans should also get it.”

A burnt bus in Shahibagh, Ahmedabad. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)

A little distance away, a police van was parked - it looked deceptively in shape till one walked to the front and saw the same burnt remains. When I was taking photographs of the bus, a policeman interrupted and called out.

As the inspector of the nearest thana, VR Bhil, led a team of cops at the crossing. He told me that but for their presence, groups of young Patel boys on bikes would come and start throwing stones at vehicles. “There are Patel houses right behind the Mansi hospital close-by. We have to constantly chase them away.” I asked Bhil what he thought of their demands. "If they get it, everyone will ask for it. The government has said they will not give it." The inspector was a Scheduled Tribe. "It will not affect me even if they get it. It will cut into the OBC quota. But they really don't need it."

Back in Shahibagh, where the burnt bus had become an object of sight-seeing, Ridham Panchala owned a hotel. He was sitting on his bike, chatting casually with a group of other young men, one of whom, I later learnt, was in the police.

Panchala said that he was from the OBC community – OBCs have warned against Patels being granted a similar status as it would cut into their share. Panchala said, “There is no way Patels will get it. But I think their core demand is not inclusion in the OBC category. It is to do away with reservation or have it on an economic basis.” This, indeed, was among the demands made by Hardik Patel in the rally on Tuesday. Panchala said the situation would not have got out of hand if ‘Modi Saheb’ was still Gujarat’s CM. “This government has not been able to manage it.”

But even as non Patels are vocally against extending reservation benefits to them, the Patels themselves have become very strongly – and rather suddenly – mobilised around the issue and have their own set of grievances.

In Shahibagh itself, at the Dream Plaza Society, I met Vikas Patel, who runs an agricultural motor-pump business. He had attended the rally on Tuesday, and argued that their demands are misunderstood. “We are not asking for food; we are not asking for homes; all we are asking for is access to education. Someone with 90 percent sells medicines; a Dalit with 40 percent becomes a doctor.” A group of younger Pate men around him echo the demand, and one of them says, “It is best to scrap reservations if they don’t give it to us.”

The police-Patel tension

The Dream Plaza Society residents had another story to tell as well.

Each car in the parking lot was smashed, its window panes shattered. The residents of the society claimed that it had 72 families, out of which there were almost 50 Patel households. “40 cars and 15 two-wheelers have got destroyed here. And guess who has done it? It is the police.”

When asked to substantiate the allegation, a young Brahman man – who insisted that he not be named because of the fear of reprisal – showed a video of policemen supposedly attacking a shop outside the society. The video was hazy; it was dark; and HT has no way of independently verifying it. But one Patel resident of the society said, “They blamed us for the burnt bus that you saw outside. And at 12, 12.30 at night, policemen came in, smashed our cars, abused Patels and said we will teach you a lesson.”

This was a major allegation, and I went to the nearest police station. Officials were not authorized to speak. But in informal conversations, they were candid.

“We are not blaming all Patels. It may be two out of ten. But they have made us the primary target. From last night, they have only attacked us. Our posts have got destroyed. Our men have got injured. Whenever our cars move, they throw stones,” said one official.

When asked about the specific attack on the residential society, he did not accept it – but neither did he deny it. “You have to understand there is a lot of anger among policemen. These boys come out, burn buses, attack us, and we cannot do anything because the media will tell us we have violated human rights. That is not fair.” He said that they had tried old methods – of taking Patel elders of the community – to the younger more aggressive lot. “But they refuse to listen. And the older lot has given up.”

Watch: Modi appeals for peace in home state Gujarat

The limits of the Gujarat model?

Patels – or Patidar as the community is known – had been a powerful agrarian community traditionally. In the freedom struggle, they sided with the Congress. Sardar Patel was their iconic leader, and given that many satyagraha movements were land-based, it was natural that the agrarian community would get mobilised.

For over 30 years after Independence, the Patels remained with the Congress – but the party in 1980, under the then chief minister Madhavrao Solanki, made a switch in its social base. The Congress opted for the KHAM formula – Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis, Muslims. The Patels felt politically orphaned; they were at the forefront of anti reservation movements in the 80s, and gradually shifted to the BJP.

To understand their political evolution, I went to Achyut Yagnik, a scholar and renowned author of a definitive book called ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat'. Yagnik is 70 years old and runs Setu, Centre for Social Knowledge and Action.

“Since the 90s, the BJP’s backbone in Gujarat has been the Patel community. Look, both before and after Modi, chief ministers have been Patels, Keshubhai and Anandiben. And Modi also gave them a sense of ownership and consolidated their support.”Yagnik said that besides chief minister , the BJP state president, seven ministers and 40 MPs of the party were Patels. “Patel anger against BJP could possibly lead to a fundamental political rupture, with long term consequences.”

Yagnik believes that the roots of the agitation lie in the limits of the Gujarat model of growth. Patels had invested their surplus agricultural income in medium and small industries – but he claims that these sectors never got the kind of support big business did in Gujarat in terms of concessions during the Modi regime. Growth did not necessarily translate into a massive spurt in employment. There was intense competition for government jobs. And for younger Patels, agriculture was no longer a lucrative option. Their grandparents may still be BJP supporters, but the younger generation had now become dissatisfied, argued Yagnik.

“The government has lacked vision and strategy and now it is stuck since the demand cannot be implemented. What we are witnessing is a different manifestation of a caste war,” concludes Yagnik. How this war will pan out in the next few days will shape Gujarati politics and society for a long time to come.

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