Quota System for India’s Castes Is Under Attack

patel-protest-pti_650x400_41439039542AHMEDABAD: The resentment built slowly in Hardik Patel. It took root when he watched his younger sister lose out on a college scholarship because of India’s version of affirmative action, a system of strict quotas that reserves nearly half of government jobs and public college slots for those who come from disadvantaged castes or tribes.
It deepened as he talked to other young Patels from his farming village, where it seemed as if everyone had a story of a job lost, a door closed, or a dream thwarted all because the Patel clan is considered too well off to qualify for inclusion in India’s quota system.
This spring, with help from a loose network of friends, Hardik Patel began organizing Patels all over Gujarat, a western state of 63 million people, including roughly 10 million Patels. Meeting at farmhouses and restaurants, connecting on Facebook and WhatsApp, they quickly turned their shared resentment into an audacious plan that culminated Tuesday when Hardik Patel, a baby-faced 22-year-old, stood on a stage here before 500,000 wildly cheering people, almost all of them young Patel men, and took dead aim at an entrenched quota system that India’s leading politicians have spent decades defending and expanding as a means to win votes from one caste or another.
In an act of political jujitsu, Patel demanded that the Patels, who belong to the Patidar caste, be included in the very quota system they despise – knowing that if the wealthy and politically powerful Patels of Gujarat can qualify for special quotas, then so must every other caste in India.
“We are not begging,” he defiantly told the crowd. The roar of a half-million Patels chanting “Hardik! Hardik!” echoed off nearby apartment buildings, where still thousands more Patels lined rooftops and balconies. The adoration was all the more remarkable since almost no one had ever heard of Hardik Patel before last month.
It was not just the enormous size of the Patel rally, or the underground swiftness with which it came together, that left India’s political and media elites universally stunned. It was also the depth of the rebuke it represented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi came to national prominence because strong support from the Patels helped elect him chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.
When he ran for prime minister in 2014, Modi extolled the success of what he called “the Gujarat model” – a set of business-friendly policies he claimed had led to widely shared prosperity for the people of Gujarat. Those claims have now been called into question by 500,000 of his most faithful supporters, many of whom, in dozens of interviews last week, described a Gujarat where a young, educated workforce is finding it increasingly difficult to find good private-sector jobs.
Hours after his speech, as dusk settled Tuesday, Hardik Patel sat cross-legged on a mattress on the stage, wondering if Modi had gotten the message. To make sure, he had announced his intent to fast on the stage. Shoes off, shirt untucked, Patel seemed drained from the day’s drama. Only a few thousand equally spent supporters remained near the stage.
The point of the protest, he explained in an interview, was to confront Modi and his allies with a brutally difficult choice – either side with the Patels who had brought them to power, or else earn the Patels’ political wrath by siding with the castes and tribes that benefit from the quota system.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said, mopping sweat from his face with a rag. “The more they demand, the more the political masters give them; the more they get, the more the political masters answer to them.”
Ninety minutes later, hundreds of police officers swarmed the stage to arrest Patel and break up what remained of the rally. They beat peaceful protesters with bamboo canes, tossed chairs into the crowd and manhandled journalists.
Several miles away, the chief minister of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, and the minister in charge of the police, Rajanikant Patel, watched the violence on television with mounting horror. Only minutes earlier, Rajanikant Patel said in an interview, the two had been talking about how well the day had gone.
“We thought it was all done with, and in the best possible way,” he said. And then, all of a sudden, “things went haywire.” Neither he nor the chief minister gave an order to arrest Hardik Patel or break up the rally, he insisted, saying that they had quickly ordered the police to release Patel.
Yet by then the damage had been done. That night, and over the next two days, police officers were repeatedly caught on camera smashing cars and beating unarmed civilians, even some with hands raised. “Police Unleash Terror,” read the headline in one Ahmedabad newspaper.
Across Gujarat, mobs responded with equal fury, burning buses and police stations and targeting the homes of Gujarat’s ministers. Rajanikant Patel’s home was burned. By Thursday, 10 people were dead, including a police officer, the army had been called in, and Modi had gone on television to appeal for peace.
The impact of the week’s events is still being absorbed across India. Taking their cue from the Patels, other prosperous castes have begun talking about holding similar protests. On editorial pages and TV news programs, debate is raging over the nation’s quota system, first codified in India’s Constitution 65 years ago. The Indian Express called the Patel protest “an eruption against growth that has not been inclusive.” The Hindu called it a “rude awakening” for Modi.
In the meantime, Hardik Patel has begun plotting new ways to spread his rebellion as the most famous and feared 22-year-old in India.
Not 5 miles away, across the Sabarmati River that bisects this city, the fear was palpable in an impoverished, hopelessly overcrowded neighborhood squeezed into a depression of land at the base of Ambedkar Bridge, named for the principal architect of India’s Constitution. Almost everyone in this neighborhood comes from a caste that benefits from the quota system, including Narayan Parmar, 51, who said he felt profoundly threatened by the demands of the Patidars.
Thanks to the quota system, Parmar landed a job 28 years ago at the city’s sewage plant.”It was a moment of immense happiness for me,” he said, sitting outside a crumbling government housing block that looked as if one good shake could bring the whole thing tumbling down. With its modest pension and health benefits, and a steady paycheck of $375 a month, the government job has allowed him and his family to escape the abject destitution they otherwise faced with him eking out a living as a rickshaw puller.
Yet he and his neighbors are quick to point out the precariousness of their gains. It is a good day, he said, when he can feed his family two full meals. They line up each morning at a communal water line because their taps spew filth, and the children here attend government schools that have yet to see a computer.
The quota system helped Jitendra Jain, 40, become a lawyer, and yet, he said, he still cannot escape this neighborhood because wealthy clients simply will not hire a lawyer from his caste.
“I’m stuck in a cycle,” he said.
Many Patels, Hardik included, readily agree that the government should give extra help to poor families, regardless of caste. They object, however, to India’s quota system precisely because it is built around caste, not economic status.
Even so, in this neighborhood the Patel protest is seen as an act of monumental selfishness – just one more way for the haves to have more. If the Patels succeed, Parmar said, the implications for this neighborhood are obvious: “We will grow poorer.”

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