Reservation for Patels – what it shows about our politics and society

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A 21-year-old guy named Hardik Patel hogged headlines in the mainstream media and trended on social media today. He addressed a rally that was reportedly attended by over 4 lakhs Patels – who wanted to be declared “backward”.

This guy is demanding that Patels – who are traditionally considered socially and politically ahead of other castes in Gujarat – should be included in the list of OBCs and given the benefits of the reservation policy.

The demand sounds like trolling, but since it is taking place in the offline world, it’s some serious business. And when it comes to reservations, it’s always serious business in India.

Reservations are about politics and are about society.

Let’s first talk about the politics.

Hardik is from Gujarat, the home state of Narendra Modi. And Modi alone defines entire politics for various groups – his admirers and haters included – in India.

Modi has always been a fascist dictator for his haters and thus he is someone who is supposed to impose another Emergency in India. You must have heard “undeclared emergency” thousands of times ever since Modi became the Prime Minister.

Modi’s haters are waiting for Emergency just like Modi’s fans are waiting for Achchhe Din.

And both these groups will latch on to anything that gives them a hope that their respective dreams – Emergency or Achchhe Din – are being realized.

Emergency was preceded by a student movement called “Nav Nirman” in Gujarat. People were out in the streets protesting against the government of that time, and protests would often turn violent.

Hardik, who looks like a student unlike the FTII guys, has been able to repeat those scenes in Gujarat today. He gives Modi’s haters a hope that history will repeat itself, and their dream of Emergency returning would be realized.

This is the reason his demand of putting Patels in the list of OBCs – however illogical or unfair – will get support from Modi’s opponents. The Surat unit of Aam Aadmi Party had already supported him. Nitish Kumar has also supported him today.

All the nuances that were visible and audible prominently when Jats demanded reservations or when Gujjars went full Rambo on railway tracks will be missing when discussing Patel’s agitation, because this is something that is supposed to weaken Modi’s fort at his home. Nothing else matters.

Obviously, there are other factors like domestic politics of Gujarat, but Modi factor is largely the politics around Hardik Patel becoming a trending figure today. The reservation issue is just incidental here. He could have as well taken out a rally demanding ice-cream, or something like Lokpal, and he’d still have trended and hailed as the next big thing if the crowds were as massive.

But when it comes to the society, the reservation issue is not incidental.

Disregarding whatever is the politics behind Hardik Patel’s rise, it is interesting to see the kind of arguments he had put forward while demanding reservation benefits for his community.

Most of the news articles about him quote him saying, “A Patidar (Patel) student with 90% marks does not get admission in an MBBS course, while SC/ST or OBC students get it with 45% marks.”

One of the many stories published in Gujarati newspapers showing how meritorious students of Patel community were getting raw deal despite good marks (click on the pic to see larger size)

One of the many stories published in Gujarati newspapers showing how meritorious students of Patel community were getting raw deal despite good marks (click on the pic to see larger size)

This argument, not put forward by anyone for the first time, is supposed to have drawn a resonance with many, with many local newspapers publishing reports on similar lines. You can find one such report on the right side.

What is interesting that this argument has often been put forward by those who oppose caste based reservations, not by someone who is demanding the same.

In yesteryears, demands of reservations, till the Mandal era, were based on how one’s community was oppressed and the others – mostly the Brahmins – were the oppressors. That was the only injustice claimed and thus “social justice” was demanded.

But Hardik Patel has come up with the “post-Mandal injustice”, which is measured by the admission cutoff marks.

This post-Mandal injustice comes up each time IIT cutoffs, DU cutoffs, or any other competitive exam results are announced. Invariably there are jokes on reservations – not all of which make me comfortable – and there are demands to remove caste based reservations.

So how can the very definition of injustice, which is considered to be the biggest argument against the caste based reservations, be the basis for demanding the same?

The tragedy is that due to the Modi factor, this issue will be glossed over, and only the politics will be discussed.

It is important to understand that this sentiment of post-Mandal injustice.

The fact that Hardik Patel has been able to organize such a big crowd, which only likes of Modi could manage in Gujarat earlier, shows that this feeling of injustice is real.

This is because the socio-political landscape of urban India has rapidly changed since the Mandal days. OBCs are not really “backward” as they were. Nor do they lack the self-esteem and confidence.

This self-esteem and confidence was gained as they got political power and clout. Today a person with “Yadav” surname has no reason to feel diffident. We have actors, cricketers, and entrepreneurs (no jokes on Rahul Yadav please, he’s really a smart guy!) with that surname and they represent “merit”.

And this is not only about top cities or only about Yadavs. Even in tier-II cities or in some rural pockets, the OBCs are catching up. They are doing almost the same things that “forward castes” are doing.

There is also this trickledown effect. The probability of a taxi driver or watchman in Mumbai being a Mishra is as good as him being a Yadav. And when this Mishra and Yadav go back to their villages, the boundaries increasingly blur.

That is why, for a 21-year-old brought up in urban India (no, I’m not hinting at Hardik Patel; I don’t know his socio-economic background), caste based reservations sound unfair and the post-Mandal injustice sounds very real.

The pro-reservation lobby often drowns out the anti-reservation lobby by branding them casteist and rejecting this feeling of post-Mandal injustice. But the young urban Indian is not really casteist. They earnestly believe that caste based injustices are a thing of the past and thus they oppose caste based reservations.

Yes, some of them are blind to some privileges they have due to being born in some particular castes, but that doesn’t render them casteist per se.

The way I see it, the real takeaway from Hardik Patel’s rise is not the politics around it, but that the next round of caste politics could come not from the old “Brahminical injustice” plank, but the “post-Mandal injustice” feeling.

This could either lead to more reservations (as Hardik Patel is demanding) or abolition of caste based reservations (as the anti-reservation lobby demands).

Both are tragic.

Many ask me what merits I find in caste based reservations. Almost 9 years ago, I had written this blog post, which kinda explains why I am not in favor of abolishing caste based reservations in entirety.

Even though 9 years are long time, I still stand by what I had written. I’d still support caste based reservations, especially for Scheduled Castes.

You might find it ironical that I say that OBCs have caught up after Mandal, but I support caste based reservations for SCs, who have been getting benefits of reservations since independence.

Probably because you missed one thing I said – OBCs have acquired political power and clout, which SCs have not been able to. Social change comes through political change, and SCs have not been too lucky on that count.

It will be tragic if this feeling of post-Mandal injustice is extended to SCs. And there is this risk because the cutoffs, the barometer of post-Mandal injustice, for SCs are usually much lower.

Awareness and compassion about why caste based reservations should stay for SCs, despite those low cutoffs, need to be communicated. Young urban Indian has to be realized that SCs still have to face a lot of caste based prejudices, and thus caste based compensation is needed.

So do I favor doing away with caste based reservations for OBCs but retaining the same for SCs? I will not be politically correct here, and say that yes, to an extent, I believe in that solution.

I’d propose that in case of OBCs, the primary criteria should be made economical i.e. 27% seats are reserved for economically weaker sections, with preferential allotment on the basis of caste. So a cutoff is created not based on caste, but based on economic status, but preference is given to OBCs (because you can’t wish away castes in entirely yet) in that list.

This will still be effectively an OBC reservation, but will assuage this feeling of post-Mandal injustice to a large extent. It might sound too early right now, but this is what I believe we should be moving towards.

And apart from that, political empowerment of SCs so that the same can be done with their reservations. The left and the “liberals” have failed in their designs, so I hope the “right” does it, even if it means Manjhi as the Bihar Chief Minister. Umm… yes.