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Who is reviving caste protests? Hardik Patel

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti movement convener and Founder of Patel Navnirman Sena (PNS) Hardik Patel addressing a press conference at Private Party Plot outskirt of Ahmedabad on Saturday October 10, 2015.  

Hardik Patel, the face of Gujarat’s Patidar quota agitation which was launched in 2015, has revived caste protests ahead of the crucial Assembly elections at the end of the year. The 24-year-old commerce graduate, who is active on social media, has taken the fight to the BJP government on its development claims under the ‘Gujarat Model.’

What is his stand?

He is demanding reservation for the Patidar community, to which he belongs, and which constitutes 14% of Gujarat’s population but has disproportionate hold over the State’s politics and economy. He has raised several issues — distress of farmers; education being too expensive for most; and the high rate of unemployment.

What is his politics?

Mr. Patel’s connect with the people is visible at every forum. He set up the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), which has organised several protest rallies where his fiery speeches draw huge crowds. Hailing from a middle class family in a village near Viramgam town, Mr. Patel rose to prominence with the quota agitation.

Before he set up the PAAS, he was part of the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), a social outfit floated by Lalji Patel, a Patidar community leader in Mehsana district. Both leaders and their aides created dozens of social media groups to reach out to community members before launching the quota agitation in 2015.

Why did protests turn violent?

After a month-long agitation which mobilised lakhs of Patidars with a demand for quota in education and government jobs in around 100 rallies, the police clamped down on his supporters which led to widespread violence across the State. In August 2015, 14 persons were killed in police firing, and protesters torched public buses, police vehicles and public properties. The government had to call in the Army to bring the situation under control while mobile-based Internet services were shut for a week.

In the district and taluka panchayat elections held in November 2015, the BJP was wiped out from 24 of 32 districts as the Patidars revolted against the party, which came to power essentially with their support in 1995.

What did the government do?

Subsequently, the police in Ahmedabad and Surat slapped sedition cases on Mr. Patel and his close aides, and they were arrested and jailed for nine months.

After getting bail, he was externed from the State for six months as the High Court asked him to stay in Udaipur, in neighbouring Rajasthan.

However, as soon as he returned to Gujarat, he revived the agitation, which may not be as intense and largescale as it was in 2015, but still reverberates in the Patidar-dominated areas in Saurashtra, north Gujarat and parts of Surat.

“In Gujarat, the BJP has been ruling for more than two decades. If there is so much development, why are people out on the streets fighting to get jobs? Not only Patidars, even OBC communities are agitating for jobs,” Mr. Patel said, addressing villagers in Saurashtra.

What lies ahead?

So far, Mr. Patel has rejected all compromise offers by the State government to resolve the contentious reservation issue before the Assembly elections. The government’s latest formula to set up a State-backed corporation to help economically backward upper castes like the Patels and an inquiry commission to probe alleged police excesses during the agitation in 2015 has not cut ice with him. Whether he will succeed in his mission to dislodge the ruling party is not clear yet, but his presence gives the BJP discomfort in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home State.

In Gujarat, Patidars are staunch BJP supporters and it’s with their support that the BJP wrested power from the Congress in the mid-1990s. Its first Chief Minister was Keshubhai Patel. However, now the Patidars feel that their domination over the party is on the decline as the BJP is slowly but steadily building an OBC vote-bank, giving prominence to Kolis and Thakurs, numerically significant OBC communities in the State.

All along, Mr. Patel has claimed that his agitation is apolitical, and that he is a ‘social worker,’ not a politician. But ever since the protests of 2015, when he mobilised thousands of people, he has emerged as a prominent leader with significant influence over the Patidar community.

Mahesh Langa

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Printable version | Apr 30, 2021 6:55:12 AM |

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