NEW DELHI -- Mahatma Gandhi wouldn't have shrunk away from violence to achieve his ends if he was alive in contemporary India, said Patel-agitation leader, Hardik Patel. “Agar Gandhi ji aaj hote to, woh apni lathi chalne ke liye nahin, chalane ke liye use karte,” he told HuffPost India on Tuesday. “The British did not come into your house, drag you out or take away your daughters. That is the kind of India in which we are living today.”
He, however, emphasized that his ongoing stir demanding reservations, within the OBC category, for the Patidar caste would continue on a peaceful track.
In the explosive fews weeks since he became the face of the Patel community, the 22-year-old leader's statements reveal conflicts about the future course of the Patidar-reservation movement. For instance, a few days after exhorting his followers to take up swords, Hardik took a leaf out of Mahatma Gandhi’s book, and announced that he would lead a ‘Reverse Dandi March’ in Gujarat, this month.
“We want ahimsa like Gandhi, but it is very difficult. We tried to be peaceful, but then see what happened. The state attacked us,” he said, referring to his arrest on the day he led a massive rally in Ahmedabad, and the outbreak of violent clashes which claimed nine lives.
During his civil disobedience movement against British rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers from his Sabarmati Ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi, where he broke the salt law on April 6, 1930. Hardik plans to walk from Dandi to Ahmedabad in ten days.
The goal of the “Reverse Dandi March," Hardik said, would be to galvanize the Patel community in Gujarat around his demand for reservation, and then organise similar marches in several states including Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan." A child from our community gets 90 percent but cannot get admission, but from a reserved group gets in with 45 percent. Is this not injustice?” he queried. “This will become a nationwide movement.”
Patel's overnight emergence and audacious criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his own turf has stunned the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Gujarat as well as the NDA government at the centre. Hardik has also warned the BJP government in Gujarat that they would be defeated in the 2017 polls if his demands are not met. But the Patel quota movement isn’t a well-oiled machine, and its leaders are voicing different opinions on how to take the movement forward.
But the question now is whether Hardik’s movement is a flash in the pan or can it transition into a wider movement for social justice. Although it has just been two weeks since the mega rally in Ahmedabad, observers have pointed out that the young leader has failed to organise another big event, and the Patiadar-quota movement is in danger of waning quickly if the young leader doesn’t have a plan to sustain it.
His recent visit to Delhi to gather support from Kurmis and Gujjars communities exposed the factionalism which can exist within a caste-quote movement: the Gujjars, for instance, objected to Hardik’s call for Jats to be included within the Other Backward Castes category.
Hardik is now engaged in an outreach program with the Patel community in Gujarat, especially lawmakers, to figure out their stand on being included in the OBC category. But BJP leader Vallabh Kakadia didn’t even meet him on Monday.
The ‘Reverse Dandi March,’ however, could turn out to be a highly explosive affair since the Gujarat government has denied permission to hold the march on law and order grounds, but Hardik insists that he proceed with his plans if the state has not reversed its order by September 13.
Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, said that the Patidar-quota movement should not be viewed in terms of events, but a movement in which the dominant castes were consolidating to make reservation work for them. “Hardik Patel is only a symptom of that movement. This will be a political battle, a court battle, it will take time,” he said.
On the issue of factionalism within the castes, Visvanathan said, “There will always be tensions within castes, but this is an instrumental use of caste for the one goal of reservation.”
Meanwhile, the Patidar community is planning to field candidates in the civic polls and considering the withdrawal of Rs50,000 from bank accounts held by members of the community in Gujarat, The Economic Times reported on Tuesday.
“There are about 1.40 crore Patidars in the state with approximately 70 lakh bank account. So you can imagine the impact of simultaneous withdrawal of Rs50,000 or more. We would hit them both at financial and political front. We are also discussing the possibility of fielding independent Patidar candidates in the next civic elections. If we are pushed the way we are being pushed, such steps are within the realm of possibility,” said Varun Patel, spokesperson of the Sardar Patel Group, an organization which is also fighting for reservations of the Patel community.
Patel was part of SPG until he fell out with its chief Lalji Patel, and then formed his own group, 'Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti.’
Responding to SPG’s plan, Hardik said he would stay away from politics, and that he did not back the idea of a run on the banks.
Political analyst Dipankar Gupta pointed out that the Patel-quota movement isn't likely to succeed because the Mandal reservation scheme is geared in favor of those living in rural areas, but 50 percent of the Patel community live in urban locales. He also noted that this movement is born out a traditional rivalry between the Leuvas and Kadva Patels, and the former group's opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"They want to create as much as havoc as they can in Modi's backyard," he said.
An opinion piece in The New York Times on Tuesday dubbed the agitation over the Patel quota as a ‘middle class revolt” which essentially reflected a crisis of unemployment.
When HuffPost asked Patel whether the underlying reason for his agitation is the impact of reservation on employment and education, he said that it was a question of “injustice” which had permeated every institution and the way of life in India. “Look at the thousands of farmers who are committing suicide,” he said. "We will continue this movement until we are able to create a just society.”
Political analysts however say that Patel's agitation isn't any redefinition of Indian politics but opportunism repackaged, and comparisons to Arvind Kejriwal, who is responsible for one of the biggest upheavals in India's political history, as misguided.
"Kejriwal was about redefining politics, but this is about cutting the cake with the same electoral politics,” said Visvanathan.
Contact HuffPost India