Education, employment and marriage – when all three stages of social evolution in the typical Indian set-up come under threat, you get an Annamat Andolan. Brought to you by 24-year-old Hardik Patel, the agitation is as much for reservation as it is against the idea. An aide close to the new-found Patidar hero says Hardik knows it is politically and constitutionally untenable for the community to get reservation.
But that is not to say there exists no solution to the Patidar problem. Take education for example – why can’t a government, whose policies deny a meritorious student his rightful seat, provide scholarships for a private education that may be beyond his financial reach?
It’s one of many proposals that will be discussed with a government that’s willing to sit across a table and talk to the Patidar Annamat Andolan Samiti, he says.
Perhaps the lack of nuance in the demand for reservation helps give voice to the aam Patel aadmi sentiment of unfairness and inequality.
“Not all Patidars are well-to-do. True, a lot of them have gone abroad and many of them are now businessmen, but Patidars are historically an agrarian community and though it’s not aspirational any more, many of them continue to work on their farms,” says Mafatlal Patel, an RSS leader and the husband of former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel.
“The focus on education is such that these Patidars will sell their land, take a loan, do whatever they can to educate their children,” says Mafatbhai, who also is the editor of Dharti – a monthly Gujarati magazine that caters extensively to the Patidar community.
“But despite that, if they are unable to get into an institution on the basis of merit, or are unable to get jobs, they are bound to be angry and frustrated.”
The general perception of Patidars is shaped by villages like Dharmaj in Anand district. There are about 3,000 Patidar families in this tiny village with a total population of 11,333. Almost all of them are NRIs settled in Britain, United States, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. The tiny village, which has about 13 banks, had almost Rs 1,000 crore in NRI deposits in 2015.
My classmate Malik scored 57% in school. But he got through Dhirubhai Ambani Institue of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT), which is Gujarat’s Number 1 engineering college. I scored 98%, but I did not get in. Why is there so much difference? We were in the same school in Bhavnagar, which is one of the most expensive schools in the state. It’s not as if his family could not afford higher education. Our fathers paid the same fees. In fact, he owned more branded clothes and shoes than me. Yet, he got in and I did not.
My friend scored 90% in his MBBS entrance examination, but he did not get a seat. His father was a farmer and owned seven bhigas of land, of which he sold five to afford tuition. But guess what, his neighbor, a Dalit student, got through despite scoring just 67%.
I got 73% in Class 10, but I did not get through the Government Polytechnical Institute. Finally, my name appeared in the third list of RC Technical Institute. I spoke to students from other castes, who’d scored 60% and they got in with ease. This is what is happening with those who fall in the ‘General’ category.
In 2015, the state government’s recruitment drive for permanent jobs was seen as the immediate catalyst that led to the massive support to Hardik Patel’s Patidar Annamat Andolan Samiti.
Since then, the state government has held mega job fairs at the district-level and released data to show that it has given employment to 13 lakh people through its employment bureaus. But both Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor have disputed the official figures and claim there are roughly 50-60 lakh unemployed people in Gujarat.
It’s not just about jobs, it’s the quality of work that’s available, argues Mafatlal
“In my village Unja in Mehsana district, there are boys who’ve completed their graduation and are forced to return to the village because they are unable to get jobs,” says Mafatlal Patel.
They have no option but to start farming. They may have decent income, but farming is no longer aspirational.
And this is a major obstacle when it comes to marriage among Patidars.
Since the 1980s, child sex ratios in India have become increasingly weighted towards males. Historically, the Patidars marry their daughters into an upper or more superior caste. This centuries-old practice of hypergamy has resulted in a skewed sex ratio among the Patidars.
A Hindustan Times report elaborates on how this skewed sex ratio manifested itself at a match-making ceremony organised by the Samast Patidar Samaj in 2015.
The 42 prospective brides brought by the SPS got to choose from a huge pool of 5,000 Patidar boys.
Over time, Patidar women, too, have progressed. Literacy among Patidar women is high, even if they don’t necessarily choose a professional life. Picking a Patidar boy who’s an NRI is a natural choice for many.
An over-qualified, under-employed candidate is less likely to be picked.
As a result, the practice of buying an adivasi bride is not completely unheard of in areas like Amreli and Panchmahal. Some are even going as far as Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, besides Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra for brides. Socio-economic, cultural and even linguistic barriers are no longer a hurdle.
The growing influence of the lower castes who have “snatched their rightful place in educational institutes and workplaces” and the “dreadful reservation system” – is the common narrative among the Patidars of Gujarat this election.
Will it be enough to impact the end result? Perhaps not. But if Gujarat is to be the starting point of an anti-BJP trend, then it could well be the birthplace of a consolidated anti-reservation movement as well.