From left to right: Jignesh Melvani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore. (Photo: The Quint)

The New, Young Avatar of Gujarat’s Caste Politics VS Modi’s BJP

In December 2010, the Arab Spring set in motion a series of youth movements across the world led by ‘millennials’, and the fire seems to have spread to India.

In July 2015, a 22-year-old Hardik Patel captured the public’s attention when he led a protest of 5 lakh Patidars in Gujarat demanding reservations. In July 2016, the baton to rally for the ‘cause of the masses’ was picked up by 35-year old Jignesh Mevani in response to the flogging of dalits in Una in July. In the backdrop, Alpesh Thakore (35) has been leading OBCs to protest against weak prohibition laws and other reservation demands.

The trio has become the new face of caste politics in India and has done considerable damage to ruling party BJP.

From left to right: Jignesh Melvani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore. (Photo: The Quint)
From left to right: Jignesh Melvani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore. (Photo: The Quint)

Jignesh Mevani, 35

Gai ki dum aap rakho, hame hamari zameen do,” was the resounding cry of 20,000 dalits in a protest rally on 31 July 2016. The protest was organised by the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (UDALS), convened by Jignesh Mevani, an Arts and Law graduate and an activist by profession. The protest ultimately led to the resignation of former Chief Minister, Anandi Ben, and a disturbance among the party’s top ranks.

Their demand is simple: You keep the cow’s tail; give us our land.

People attend a protest rally against what they say are attacks on India’s low-caste Dalit community in Ahmedabad, India, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Reuters) 
People attend a protest rally against what they say are attacks on India’s low-caste Dalit community in Ahmedabad, India, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Reuters) 
“When one reads Ambedkar and Marx in the context of atrocities, land reforms emerge as the key issues. In India, land determines the caste system,” explains Mevani in an interview with Livemint.

The leap the masses made from the Una incident to demanding what they are constitutionally allotted is what Mevani needs to be given due credit for. In other words, had the Gujarat Land Ceiling Act been implemented by the government, the dalits who were flogged in Una would not have been skinning a dead cow to make a living in the first place.

On 5 August, Mevani began a protest march attended by thousands from Ahmedabad to Una, with dalits taking an oath to not engage in any menial work. To take on a centuries-old social construct without any political or institutional backing is no small feat; that his protests actually moved Modi to break his silence with not one, but two statements condemning dalit oppression is an achievement in itself.

Mevani has given the government one month to allot surplus land to landless dalits, failing which he plans to organise a ‘Rail Roko’ protest on 15 September.

Hardik Patel, 23

Miffed by his sister losing a scholarship to an OBC student, Hardik Patel, 23, orchestrated a rally in July 2015 which drew half a million Patidars across Gujarat demanding OBC status and de facto reservations, as promised by Modi in his electoral campaign.

Members of the Patidar community attend a protest rally at Mahesana town in Gujarat, 28 February 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of the Patidar community attend a protest rally at Mahesana town in Gujarat, 28 February 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

A commerce student and small businessman by profession, Patel formed the Patel Amanat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). Not only was the size of the PAAS-led movement impressive, a young Patel managed to pull off a convincing 180-degree flip in the Patidars’ stance, who have historically been against reservation for dalits and OBCs.

The visibly ruffled government booked Patel for nothing less than sedition and forbade him from entering Gujarat for six months; he has left, but not without doing damage. According to social scientist Ghanshyam Shah, the BJP’s vote bank among the Patidars in Gujarat is “likely to dip by 50%”.

Hardik Patel brandishes a sword presented to him by Gujjars in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)
Hardik Patel brandishes a sword presented to him by Gujjars in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

Patel, currently in Udaipur, plans to mobilise the Kurmis, Gurjars, Marathas and Patels of the area in the coming months.

Alpesh Thakore, 40

Alpesh Thakore, 40, is leading another movement in his community, the OBCs, against liquor addiction. Unlike his two contemporaries, Thakore does not deny a larger political goal. “Come 2017, we will decide who the Chief Minister of Gujarat will be,” he says.

Son of a local Congress leader, Thakore is using a social cause to rally the masses, at the same time holding the government accountable for thousands of deaths caused by the state’s booming illicit liquor market.

Since the launch of his Vyasanmikhti Abhiyan (de-addiction drive) in January 2016, his Thakore Sena has claimed to have raided hundreds of illegal liquor dens across the state. When Patel’s agitation was gaining momentum, Thakore began to mobilise OBCs, SCs and STs together to protect their reservation interests, as well.

This is a rally to fight addiction indeed, but also for empowerment and unity of people neglected in Gujarat. Though dispersed without a support structure, the OBCs are aggressive here, and if the Thakore community opens a third eye, it could be lethal.
Alpesh Thakore, 40, Chief, Thakore Sena to Zee News

In this rising tide of caste-politics in Gujarat, Thakore’s OBC-led combined front with SCs and STs may prove to be the new caste grouping which, when correctly mobilised, has the potential to send shockwaves across the BJP.

With the state assembly elections coming up in December 2017, the BJP has been grasping for straws as Patel, Mevani and Thakore lead the revolution that may seriously damage its vote bank among dalits in the state and across the country.

People  reflected on a phone as they attend a protest against what  attacks on the  dalit community in Mumbai, 12 August  2016. (Photo: Reuters)
People reflected on a phone as they attend a protest against what attacks on the dalit community in Mumbai, 12 August 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Until now, dalits have been too downtrodden to revolt, and their unions too easily swayed. In the information age, Marxian theories of social change have become irrelevant and it seems as though the educated, middle-class youth has now taken on the responsibility of mobilising lower-caste opposition against BJP’s Hindutva.

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