Attack on caste quota sparks debate in India

Mr Hardik Patel at the rally that he organised in Ahmedabad last Tuesday. He hit out at the entrenched quota system that leading Indian politicians have spent decades defending and expanding as a means to win votes from one caste or another.
Mr Hardik Patel at the rally that he organised in Ahmedabad last Tuesday. He hit out at the entrenched quota system that leading Indian politicians have spent decades defending and expanding as a means to win votes from one caste or another.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AHMEDABAD (India) • The resentment built slowly in Hardik Patel. It took root when he watched his younger sister lose out on a college scholarship because of India's version of affirmative action, a system of strict quotas that reserves nearly half of government jobs and public college slots for those who come from disadvantaged castes or tribes.

It deepened as he talked to other young Patels from his farming village, where it seemed as if everyone had a story of a job lost, a door closed, or a dream thwarted all because the Patel clan is considered too well off to qualify for inclusion in India's quota system.

This year, with help from a loose network of friends, Mr Patel began organising Patels all over Gujarat, a western state of 63 million people, including roughly 10 million Patels.

Meeting at farmhouses and restaurants, connecting on Facebook and WhatsApp, they quickly turned their shared resentment into an audacious plan that culminated last Tuesday when the 22-year-old Mr Patel stood on a stage here before 500,000 wildly cheering people, almost all of them young Patel men, and took aim at an entrenched quota system that India's leading politicians have spent decades defending and expanding as a means to win votes from one caste or another.

He demanded that the Patels, who belong to the Patidar caste, be included in the very quota system they despise - knowing that if the wealthy and politically powerful Patels of Gujarat can qualify for special quotas, then so must every other caste in India.

It was not just the enormous size of the Patel rally, or the swiftness with which it came together, that left India's political and media elites universally stunned. It was also the depth of the rebuke it represented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to national prominence because strong support from the Patels helped elect him chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

The point of the protest, Mr Patel explained in an interview on stage afterwards, was to confront Mr Modi and his allies with a brutally difficult choice - either side with the Patels who had brought them to power, or earn the Patels' political wrath by siding with the castes and tribes that benefit from the quota system.

The protest, initially peaceful, rapidly took a violent turn.

Not long after the interview, hundreds of police officers swarmed the stage to arrest Mr Patel and break up what remained of the rally. They beat peaceful protesters with bamboo canes, threw chairs into the crowd and manhandled journalists there.

That night, and over the next two days, police officers were repeatedly caught on camera smashing cars and beating unarmed civilians, even some with hands raised.

Across Gujarat, mobs responded with equal fury, burning buses and police stations and targeting the homes of Gujarat's ministers. By last Thursday, 10 people were dead.

The impact of last week's events is still being absorbed across India.

Taking their cue from the Patels, other prosperous castes have begun talking about holding similar protests. In editorial pages and TV news programmes, debate is raging over the nation's quota system, first codified in India's Constitution 65 years ago.

The Indian Express called the Patel protest "an eruption against growth that has not been inclusive". The Hindu called it a "rude awakening" for Mr Modi.

Meanwhile, Mr Patel has begun plotting new ways to spread his rebellion. And that is triggering alarm.

In a poor, crowded neighbourhood across the Sabarmati River that bisects Ahmedabad, Indians who have benefited from the quota system, including Mr Narayan Parmar, 51, say they feel profoundly threatened by the demands of the Patidars. Thanks to the quota system, he landed a job 28 years ago at the city's sewage plant that helped lift his family out of abject poverty.

Many Patels, Mr Hardik Patel included, readily agree the government should give extra help to poor families, regardless of caste. They object, however, to India's quota system precisely because it is built around caste, not economic status.

Even so, in this neighbourhood the Patel protest is seen as an act of monumental selfishness - just one more way for the haves to have more. If the Patels succeed, Mr Parmar said, the implications for this neighbourhood are obvious: "We will grow poorer." NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Attack on caste quota sparks debate in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe