India's prosperous Patels seek change in caste status. Why?

Crowds of up to 500,000 have rallied in Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi's home state, to press for affirmative action. Riots left nine dead and led to curfews and the deployment of paramilitary troops.

Amit Dave/Reuters
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard in a street in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, August 28, 2015.

For the past week the western Indian state of Gujurat has seen a prominent community known as the Patels holding mass rallies led by a charismatic 22-year-old political activist. 

The Patels are a farmer caste that has risen to become synonymous with entrepreneurship and trade. Now they are seeking affirmative action in the form of inclusion in a category of “backward” class designation that would give them government benefits. And that demand is playing out as a challenge to how modern India has adjudicated its still-existing caste system.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat, called for peace this week as violence erupted after authorities tried to arrest Hardik Patel, the young activist. Nine people were killed and many injured during violent clashes in the state's largest city Ahmedabad. A curfew was declared there and in four other towns or cities, and Delhi-based paramilitary troops have been deployed. 

In the United States, Indian-born Patels are some of the most successful immigrants. Americans know them best for their dominance of the motel industry and running convenience stores and Indian buffet restaurants. 

In India, especially in Gujarat, the Patels are a politically and economically influential set with centuries of access to global technology and ideas. They are estimated at 14-15 percent of Gujurat’s population.

This background is part of what makes the Patels' demand for reserved places in Gujarati colleges and government jobs so surprising, and to some, so absurd. 

'The slave of reservation'

On Thursday, Mr. Patel, the leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, the organization spearheading the current movement, warned that if their demands were not addressed, his community might next “stop the supply of milk and vegetables” in the state.

“Either free the country from reservation,” Mr. Patel declared, using the Indian term for affirmative action, “or make everybody the slave of reservation.” The phrase has been widely repeated on India media, with various interest groups taking very different readings on it.

India's traditional caste system is a hierarchy of class status whose historic discriminatory features has been the subject of several reform efforts, some more successful than others.

Affirmative action or reservations in colleges and government jobs were first introduced to help “untouchables,” or Dalits, and tribal groups. Such quotas were later expanded to include a range of other marginalized or disadvantaged castes and classes. 

Now the Patels want to be included in the category of “Other Backward Class.” In Gujarat this already includes 147 communities – some of whom this week opposed the Patels' demands. 

Genuine discontent

Few Indians would call Gujarat’s Patels “backward.” The community controls the state’s textile, diamond and groundnut oil industries among others, and is more than proportionately represented in the government. The state’s chief minister is a Patel as are seven cabinet members.

Yet there is genuine discontent in Gujurat, say sociologists, that explains the size and scope of the rallies.

Mr. Modi's move to Delhi to become India’s prime minister has created a political void that is allowing tensions to emerge, notes Shiv Visvanathan, a professor and vice dean at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy. “There are many layers to this issue,” he says. 

Some see in the unrest a failure of the much-touted “Gujarat model of development.” When Modi was chief minister of the state, he emphasized big business, foreign investment, and infrastructure development over the small-scale enterprises that have been the mainstay of many Patels, and that are now struggling.

And while Patels have historically ignored college education for trade, that is changing. Affirmative action in education is suddenly important to the community, as sons and daughters wish for advanced schooling.

There has always been a contradictory attitude to affirmative action, Mr Vishvanathan says. “If it works for us we want it, if it doesn’t, then we don’t want it."

Change of political loyalties

Ironically, it was the Patels that spearheaded anti-affirmative action protests in the 1980s in Gujarat. The issue even contributed to the community switching loyalties from the Congress Party to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has since dominated the state and today controls the federal government. 

The Patel community was among Modi’s staunchest supporters in last year’s general elections.

Hardik Patel is too young to remember the upheaval of the 1980s protests. But he does recall their power. "In 1985, we uprooted the Congress from Gujarat. Today there is the BJP," he has warned.

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