In late August, a 22-year-old named Hardik Patel brought the Indian city of Ahmedabad, in the prosperous western state of Gujarat, to a complete halt. He was addressing a rally of people who shared his last name, "Patel," members of a Gujarati caste known as “Patidar” (literally, “landowner”). Half a million people turned out on the streets—a spectacle of public support never before witnessed in Gujarat, even though the state has produced two of modern India’s most popular leaders, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the father of the nation, and Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister since May 2014. Yet the young man responsible for this feat was, until a month ago, completely unknown in Gujarati or Indian politics.

This week Hardik Patel announced the launch of a new political party, the Patel Nav Nirman Sena. He claims to represent the sentiments of his community, the Patels, and Patidars, a caste that makes up about 12 to 13 percent of Gujarat’s population more generally.  The Patels are demanding to be included in the state’s program for affirmative action in education and employment, a system of positive discrimination that in India is known as “reservations policy." Reservations in schools, universities, and government jobs are designed to counteract the manifold inequalities historically caused by the caste system. The primary beneficiaries of reservations are supposed to be the groups that are socially the weakest. The Patidars have traditionally been among the most powerful groups in western India, but they claim that the reservation system drastically and unfairly limits their own access to education and jobs.

The Patidars' protest is a worrying development for Modi. The Patidars, both in Gujarat and among the diaspora communities in the United States and elsewhere, have been some of his most enthusiastic supporters. Their protests represent a major obstacle to his economic modernization program and demonstrate that the supposed miracle of economic growth that he conjured as chief minister of Gujarat—which was the centerpiece of his nationwide appeal—may not have been all it appeared to be.

CASTE-BOUND

The caste system originates in the oldest Sanskrit religious treatises and philosophical texts and has existed in some form or other for nearly 3,000 years. From the beginning of the twentieth century, both the British rulers of India and educated Indians increasingly involved in the nationalist and anticolonial movements sought to introduce reforms to curb the worst excesses of the caste system, such as “untouchability,” the practice of ostracizing certain communities. The foundations of reservation policy were already outlined in the Government of India Act of 1935, the first step toward India’s freedom from British rule. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, prominent Indian leaders such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India, discussed reforming caste-based social inequality alongside the principal political project of decolonization and independence. In 1950, reservations were introduced at the inception of the Indian constitution for those groups that had historically faced discrimination: outcastes, formerly known as "untouchables" and now known as Dalits, or Scheduled Castes; tribal or indigenous peoples, known as Adivasis, or Scheduled Tribes; and to some extent religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians.

The founding fathers of the modern Indian nation, such as Ambedkar and Nehru, recognized that the political revolution that brought about independence from colonial rule in 1947 had to be accompanied by a profound social transformation. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalits who was himself born into a so-called untouchable community, wanted what he called “the annihilation of caste,” which in his mind was the only way to achieve true liberty, equality, and fraternity. But a centuries-old system of identity, differentiation, and hierarchy could not be dismantled overnight, and so Ambedkar and his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly both made untouchability unconstitutional and inscribed a system of compensatory justice and positive discrimination in the statute books. 

Reservations were meant to bring about a level playing field within a decade or so, after which, it was anticipated, they would be removed. But after independence, social inequality in the postcolonial Indian state proved to be as difficult a problem to solve as colonialism had been in the preceding century. And so reservations policy not only remained in place, its ambit continued to grow, as it became clear that more and more groups were not just socially discriminated against because of their lower caste status but also materially disadvantaged in their access to basic education, employment opportunities, health services, public institutions, and channels of upward mobility. Since the early 1990s, reservations have expanded to what were called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), groups whose “backwardness” was determined using a complex calculus of economic, cultural, and educational criteria grafted onto the traditional taxonomies of ritual status and caste-based social hierarchy.

Hardik Patel smiles at a conference in New Delhi
Hardik Patel smiles during a news conference in New Delhi, India, August, 2015.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

As a caste, Patidars, and especially Patels, have never suffered social or economic discrimination in Gujarat. On the contrary, they have enjoyed the high social status of so-called upper castes and benefited from the wealth of their ancestors, who both owned and tilled the land and were successful at trade and commerce as well. Naturally, some sections within the Patidar caste are better off than others. But Hardik Patel comes from the most prosperous Leuva Patel subcaste, whose members, in addition to doing well within Gujarat, have been highly successful immigrants to East Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Over the past three to four generations, they have built up a vast and wealthy Gujarati diaspora.

Because of their place of privilege, in the early and middle 1980s the Patels led movements against reservations policy, arguing that, at least in Gujarat, the state should stop coddling weaker groups and throw the economy and society open to competitive self-interest and free enterprise. They wanted merit, not state protection, to decide the fortunes of any community.

It is ironic, then, that 30 years later, Patidars are asking to be listed as an OBC group. They believe that the protected castes monopolize seats in schools and colleges and jobs in bureaucracy and industry, all thanks to affirmative action. In fact, despite totaling only 12 to 13 percent of the population, Patels hold nearly 32 percent of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seats in the Gujarat state legislature and 23 percent of Gujarat’s seats in the Indian Parliament. The state’s chief minister is a woman named Anandiben Patel. Six Patels are ministers in her cabinet of 23.

Patel protesters demand reservations for their caste in Gujarat
Members of the Patel community display placards as they attend a protest rally in Ahmedabad, India, August, 2015.
Amit Dave / Reuters

THE JUSTIN BIEBER OF INDIAN POLITICS

The protests are even more surprising given that, until recently, the Patidars have been some of Modi's most enthusiastic supporters. They helped him to rise from Gujarat’s chief minister (three times elected) to India’s prime minister within the span of 15 years. Gujaratis and especially Patels in the United States, who invest significantly in the state's industry and deposit some of their money in local banks, came out in huge numbers to canvass votes for Modi during his April 2014 election campaign in India and then to cheer for him during his public appearances in the New York–New Jersey area in September 2014.

Hardik Patel’s sudden rise to mass popularity is the first sign that things are not as they appear in Gujarat. Modi has used several slogans—“Vibrant Gujarat,” “The Gujarat Model,” and “Gujarati Asmita” (“Gujarati Pride” or “Gujarati Consciousness”)—to emphasize that in Gujarat, he created an unstoppable growth machine that, thanks to a burgeoning middle class and its growing purchasing power, could serve as a model for a “Shining India.” This vocabulary made the BJP India’s most popular party after years in the political wilderness, helping it to mask its core ideology of majoritarian Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, and antisecular social conservatism, at least during election campaigns.

Hardik Patel’s sudden rise to mass popularity is the first sign that things are not as they appear in Gujarat.

So loudly did Modi project the idea of the “Acchey Din” (“Good Times”) to come under BJP rule that the country was even willing to overlook the bloody sectarian violence of spring 2002 in his home state of Gujarat, which left hundreds of Muslims dead and the beleaguered and terrorized Muslim minority reduced to a condition of second-class citizenship. But now his main constituency appears to be turning against him. In pursuit of reservations, Hardik Patel threatened to stage a “reverse Dandi Satyagraha” on September 12—referring to the famous “Salt March” led by Gandhi in March–April 1930, from his ashram outside Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi, in protest over the British salt tax and to symbolically reclaim India’s salt from the sea as well as from its colonial masters.

Police clash with Patel protesters demanding reservations in Gujarat
Indian policemen use batons to disperse the members of the Patel community during a protest rally in Ahmedabad, India, September, 2015.
Amit Dave / Reuters

Patel’s implication is that the current state administration of the BJP is as exploitative and undemocratic as the British government was in Gandhi’s time and must be resisted through the very techniques of mass unrest and civil disobedience that the Mahatma perfected during the anticolonial struggle nearly a century ago. After frantic negotiations with Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, the march was called off, but on September 19, on the eve of another rally, Hardik Patel was taken into preventive custody. The urban areas in Gujarat were then placed on high alert, and cell phone and Internet services were blocked. Patel was released on bail, but the atmosphere remains charged.

Although Patel is not averse to positioning his protest as Gandhian, he is no believer in nonviolence. He likes to be photographed carrying a gun. He is extremely young, at 22, and has been described as “a Justin Bieber of India’s political pop.” Patel has drawn parallels between himself and Modi, too: whereas Modi called himself “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (“emperor of Hindu hearts”), Hardik goes by “Patidar Hriday Samrat" (“emperor of Patidar hearts”), a slightly less resonant title, perhaps.

Hardik’s indiscriminate, superficial, and opportunistic mixing of Gandhi’s and Modi’s entirely dissimilar types of charisma, as well as his stark political inexperience, make it tough to predict the eventual outcome of his unexpected rise. Nor is it clear, according to the political scientists and Gujarat experts D. L. Sheth and Ghanshyam Shah, who his backers and handlers really are. But his message is clear: not all Patidars are rich, Gujarat is not prospering uniformly, its much-touted model of development is broken, economic change has not been inclusive, Modi’s promises are hollow, frustration and resentment are rampant, and the castes favored by reservations policy are milking the system for all it’s worth, leaving the once well-off Patels far behind. Hardik’s people, too, want a piece of the only pie that’s on the table—not growth, but reservations.

Whatever happens to Hardik, or even to Modi, this episode illustrates a conundrum at the very heart of India’s project of building a participatory, egalitarian, and just society. India's founders thought of quotas as a temporary measure, medicine for the persistent disease of “casteism” that had debilitated India’s moral vigor and social health for millennia. They could never have imagined that almost 70 years after independence, Indians, rather than enjoying more equality, respect, dignity, and rights for themselves and their fellow citizens, would instead be demanding more reservations for their particular castes and communities, to circumvent the nation's ever-growing social, economic, and political inequality.

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  • ANANYA VAJPEYI is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and a Global Ethics Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, New York. She is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • More By Ananya Vajpeyi