Now, Patels want the OBC tag!


One of this year’s prominent images has been of a young Gujarati Hardik Patel leading his community in violent agitation for a slice of the reservation pie. How valid are these protests? And what is the ground reality of reservations in India? P.M. Kamath examines the issue.

Hardik Patel, a young man of 22 years, a hitherto unknown name, shot into prominence not only in Gujarat and all over India, but throughout the US and the western world: He kept the reservation pot boiling for Gujarat state and the Centre, both under the BJP, at a time when it was fighting an election in Bihar state. He was asking for a quota for Patels within the OBC (Other Backward Caste) quota of 27%. This brings to a complete circle what began with former Prime Minister (PM) Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s survival step that misfired for him in 1990! Hence, the questions under consideration in this article are: What drove Hardik Patel to launch such a movement? How is it going to affect the OBC reservation within the country? Will there be radical changes in the concept of reservation per se in the post-Hardik period?

Growing clamour for reservation
Originally, the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, provided for reservation to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Tribes (ST) for a period of 10 years purely on the ground of their social backwardness; past oppression of the community and denial of humane treatment. The Congress and various factions of the Republican Party of India asked for the extension of reservation as the age old, socially discriminated sections could not get fully liberated in ten years. As a matter of fact, by the 1960s, leading leaders of SCs and STs had developed a vested interest in keeping: (a) the benefits of reservation limited to families and their extended families; and (b) the SCs and STs perpetually backward, so that they could use them as their vote-bank. Now it has become a holy cow. No one can get rid of it, at least in the near future!

Movement for OBC inclusion
The movement for reservation quota for the OBCs is an outcome of the post-independence compulsions of developing vote banks in parliamentary democratic politics. Lord Hutton who conducted the last census of castes in India in 1931 mentioned about upward mobility of the new castes/classes like car drivers. Will they call themselves as Fiatwala or Ambassadorwala? But the 1931 census did not mention the OBC. Is it other backward castes or classes? Who are in it? Is it decided by birth or is it by social conditions at a given time? What are the criteria to get included in it? Many such questions arise. But we may say that the OBC is a collective term used by the Government of India to classify castes which are socially and educationally disadvantaged.

In 1989, V. P. Singh, the then PM, stirred a social revolution by which he could consolidate and make his caste-based coalition, MAJGAR (Muslims, Ahirs, Jats, Gurjars, Adivasis and Rajputs) win him political power in the next election. He was facing internal threat from Devi Lal. The BJP whose external support was crucial for his survival in power was concerned with Singh’s attempts to divide Hindus on caste lines. As a politician, Singh had his roots in the Congress Party, which has the reputation in the country for making winning caste-coalitions in different states, e.g., Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM) in Gujarat. It is Singh who granted in 1990, 27% reservation for the OBCs to strengthen his caste-coalition. But he left people of his ilk like Mulayams, Lalus and Nitish Kumars to build winning coalitions dominated by the OBCs. Since then, all over India, OBCs have reaped educational benefits, acquired political power and risen in social hierarchy.

Since then, every community that is left out from the benefits has been demanding their inclusion under OBC. Thus in Rajasthan, Rajputs and in Haryana the Jats, succeeded in getting included to enjoy a sub-quota within the OBCs. In Maharashtra, the Marathas along with Muslims were also given the benefits of reservation by the Prithviraj Chavan government. On an all-India basis, continuous efforts are being made to add Muslims in OBC. To avoid the legal hurdle of ‘no religion-based reservation’, a broader concept of ‘minorities’ was floated to include other religious minorities like Christians, Parsees, Buddhists etc.

Patels as OBCs?
After different dominant caste groups like Rajputs and Jats succeeded to get themselves included in states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana etc., in a sense it is natural for Patels in Gujarat to demand the benefits of reservation. As everyone knows, there is a Supreme Court ruling which prohibits governments from exceeding reservation beyond 50%, hence all dominant castes like Jats, Marathas and now Patels are demanding a sub-quota within the OBCs quota of 27%.

But what is interesting is the fact that at least on two occasions, the Congress governments in Gujarat had offered the benefits of reservations to Patels, which was rejected by them as they hated to be branded as ‘backward’. Patels all over the world are an affluent community. In the US, 22,000 hotels as of 2012 are owned by Indians, 70 percent of these are controlled by Gujaratis, of which three quarters are held by the Patels. The OBCs cannot be said to have suffered caste-based discrimination and humiliation as in the case of untouchables in the Hindu society. But untouchability was not a characteristic of these so called backward classes/castes — they are backward because of their mediocrity, and not because any forward caste has kept them under chains!

The Patels’ grievance is that a Patel candidate even with 90% marks cannot aspire to get a medical seat, while a SC/ST or OBC candidate can get through even with 45% marks! But if one becomes a doctor/ engineer with 45% marks, irrespective of whether he is SC/ST/OBC or from a forward community, he is likely to fail to make a name in his profession even if he is able to make a living. What the reservation has done today is to deny young aspirants from a non-reservation category, admissions they deserve in medical or engineering.

Time to review reservations
However, it is the OBCs turn now to become another holy cow. Several intellectuals have suggested that it is time to review the issue of reservation. They belong to all political backgrounds, and not necessarily to the BJP or the RSS. Thus, for instance, the Congress Party General Secretary, Janardhan Dwivedi had suggested while the Congress was in power at the Centre, to end all reservations and quotas except for the economically weaker sections by bringing all communities under its ambit. But this was contradicted by Congress President, Sonia Gandhi when she said: “Congress is of the firm opinion that the system of reservation for SC, ST and OBCs must continue. This is essential to deal with the discrimination imposed by centuries of subjugation and oppression.” This was also reiterated on behalf of the then government in February 2014 by Union Minister of State, Rajiv Shukla, when he stated in the Rajya Sabha that the “reservation for SC, ST and OBC will continue as per the Constitution.”

Patels are thus recent converts to favour reservation policy as a panacea for social and educational discrimination, and also use of these instruments to rise in the socio-politico-economic hierarchy in the society. Still, many say these are not the real motives of Hardik Patel in initiating the agitation to promote Patel’s cause for reservation. There are many theories doing the rounds. First, it is politically instigated with the likely aim of diminishing the high popularity of the BJP under Narendra Modi leadership in the country generally, and in Gujarat particularly, as the current Chief Minister Anandiben Patel is from the BJP. Second, Patels have been generally against reservation. And Hardik Patel intends to oppose that line and has maintained the stance of, ‘give us reservation or abolish reservations altogether’.

Though in the Bihar campaign, PM Modi had said that reservations will continue indefinitely, it is not inconceivable that in the future the BJP might think of gradually limiting the benefits of gains without pain to the OBCs, and keep reservation only for the SCs and STs. The government has valid grounds that these communities have really not gained benefits as originally envisaged.

If that is not done, OBCs’ drive for easy crumbs would make them seek reservations in the private sector, multinational companies, and academic institutions run by minorities.

What is the ultimate outcome of Hardik Patel’s movement to secure the benefits of reservation to Patels within the OBCs, only time will tell. But Hardik Patel will find a place of honour in the pantheon of leaders who fought for OBC reservation. Hardikbhai, Hardik Badhai!


P.M. Kamath

Dr. Kamath, formerly, Professor of Politics, University of Bombay, is currently, Hon. Director of VPM’s Centre for International Studies (Regd.), affiliated to Mumbai University. He is an Adjunct Professor in Department of Geopolitics and International Relations. While teaching in the University, he guided a Ph. D dissertation on Terrorism as an instrument of Foreign Policy and an M. Phil thesis on Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis.