India’s Quota System and Patel’s Middle-Class Revolt
Marina Forti 11 September 2015

The revolt erupted on August 25th when half a million people (the figure reported by all of the Indian press) took to the streets in the city of Ahmedabad, capital of the western state of Gujarat, one of the most industrialised and developed in India. The protesters were members of the Patel caste and demanded to be included among the “disadvantaged” social groups that have the right to privileged quotas in state employment and in access to higher education.

The protests made headlines well beyond India’s borders, also because the oceanic (and peaceful) protest was followed by the arrest of the movement’s young leader, Hardik Patel. There was also a wave of violence that spread throughout the state, and for a number of days the press reported on screaming crowds, cars and homes set on fire, police raids and indiscriminate arrests. When things calmed down the many dead were counted and large font headlines spoke of a “caste revolt” followed by a series of controversies that reawakened a trace of “orientalism” never far from the surface in the Western media. It is true that the protest in recent weeks in distant Gujarat has reopened the debate on quota policies and their paradoxes. India boasts the world’s broadest system of “Reservation” and only the United States is comparable.

Furthermore, the Patels’ revolt is the first significant social conflict in the country governed by Narendra Modi, appointed in May 2014 promising India would ‘get off the ground’ thanks to his good governance, investments, jobs and growth, just as he had done in Gujarat, the state he governed during the 2000s. Now it is precisely in his Gujarat that social conflict has erupted and, this “revolt of the middle classes” as the New York Times described it, is an explicit criticism of the premier and the promises he has not kept.

Let us analyse these events in the correct order. The Patels are not the first social group in India asking to be included among the “disadvantaged ones.” The difference is that this time the group is a prosperous one and anything but alienated. The Patels (or Patidars) amount to about 14% of Gujarat’s population, but are overrepresented among the political and economic elites. Gujarat’s chief minister (head of government) is Mrs. Anandiben Patel (in this case the surname indicates her belonging to this caste). Seven of the minister are Patels as is the secretary of the ruling political party (the BJP, or Indian Peoples Party, the nationalist right), and so are numerous members of the state assembly and the Indian parliament.

No other caste is so well-represented both in the rural and the urban economy, observes the sociologist Dipankar Gupta. The Patels, a caste of rural origin, were among the first to make the transition to the cities; land owners who, following independence in 1947, invested in various industries. They now dominate the diamond cutting sector and are visibly present in many professions and in entrepreneurship.  About 70% of “micro, small and medium-sized business “in Gujarat are Patels (according to Gupta’s figures). They own some of the brand names known all over India. The Patels have a foot in the villages, one in the cities and another in the diaspora in Africa, in Great Britain and in the United States, where there are 1.7 million members of the caste (probably the majority of Indians in the United States and employed mainly by hotels and motels). Gujarati politicians have cultivated relations with these expats who send money home, helping local Patels to become even wealthier, as explained by the political analyst Christophe Jaffrelot in The Indian Express.

Hence the revolt of the Patels is paradoxical. A caste that enjoys social consideration, which includes minsters and entrepreneurs, is now asking to be considered “disadvantaged?”

Of course a caste is not a social class, and not all Patels are wealthy (bearing in mind that such a large group also has sub-groups each with animosities). While at one end of the spectrum there are high-ranking state officials, ministers, diamond company owners and entrepreneurs, at the other extreme there are low ranking employees, diamond cutters, small farmers, the unemployed and a rising number of well-educated young people unable to find jobs suited to their qualifications.

The point is that Narendra Modi’s “vibrant Gujarat” is indeed a state in which the economy has grown more than the Indian average, but this success has not helped small businesses. During his years as the state’s chief minister, Modi supported the large Indian and foreign industrial groups. He successfully courted petro-chemical industries and refineries as well as car manufacturers and ensured large investments thanks to tax relief, benefits, simplified bureaucracy and good infrastructures. But large capital-intensive industry does not create as many jobs as those lost by smaller companies. Nowadays at least one third of the 260,000 “micro, small and medium-sized businesses” (in which Patels are so involved) are officially “sick”, experiencing a crisis or on the verge of bankruptcy.

The young Patels are certainly not the only social group experiencing economic uncertainty. There are now 600 million Indians, over half the overall population, who are under the age of 26. Every year between 10 and 12 million young people enter the labour market. Growth is needed in order to create jobs and that is what Modi had promised. Nowadays the frustration of many young Indians has started to surface, all the more so due to the high expectations created by the Modi government. It is the Patels movement that now expresses this frustration.

It is here that Reservation policies become relevant. The Reservation system is part of the Indian Constitution. The constituent fathers thought it was the means for correcting discrimination and social apartheid linked to belonging to certain groups. The caste system is the strictest of social hierarchies (one belongs to a caste by birth just as one’s skin is white or black or yellow), and no one is as despised as those who do not belong. Hence, well before India’s independence, the first ‘reservations’ were reserved to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Dalits or those not belonging to a caste (the words “pariah” and “untouchable” are no longer used nowadays) and “tribe members”, the native people of the Indian subcontinent (or Adivasi, “first inhabitants”).

Over time the quota system has been extended to “Other Backward Classes”, OBC, both lower castes particularly alienated and other minorities (such as some Muslim groups that are 12% of the Indian population but overrepresented in statistics on poverty and social exclusion). Some believe that the importance of caste in political choices is overestimated and it has recently been mentioned that estimates concerning the number of people belonging to OBC are debatable – the most recent census on castes dates back to 1931 and is therefore useless, while current estimates have fallen from 52% of the overall population (1976) to 41% (in 2007, when a social-economic census showed that 60% of rural Indians experienced serious poverty).

It was, however, starting in the 1980s, that “Reservation” based on caste or disadvantaged groups increased, also because a number of social movements led to a rise in the list of “Other Backward Classes” and nowadays almost half of all public administration jobs and as many university scholarships are reserved to those entitled to “Reservation.”

On the other hand, in the 1990s in northern India, parties representing the interests of the lower castes or the Dalits became successful. It was thus that collective caste membership became a bargaining tool for votes.

In the meantime, the concept of “Reservation” also changed from being a means to eliminate social discrimination and to promote inclusion, to become a form of welfare accorded by the state to groups having sufficient electoral power to make themselves heard.

Let us return to the Patels in Gujarat. They had already played an important role in two waves of very violent street protests in the 1980s. At the time, however, they were demanding the abolition of quotas for the OBC denouncing them as privileges. Yet another paradox in the current protests.

Now Hardik Patel, the young man (aged 22) who in just a few months has literally created from nothing a social movement, says that quotas are “the problem behind everything”, because if his people cannot access universities or get a public administration jobs, it is because that job is given to someone who does not deserve it, but “steals it” thanks to Reservation. In the same interview he then, however, said, “Reservation cannot be abolished in the country because our country works on it. It even forms the base of politics. So we cannot bring an end to the quota system. Instead we want to be part of it because if we are included in it, our community will also get the benefits like others.” He speaks in anger. Hardick Patel comes from a very middle class family in the province of Ahmedabad and was unknown to most until two months ago. In his speeches he talks about increasingly expensive education, fewer state jobs, and of those who “steal our jobs” thanks to Reservation privileges.

There are also aspects of internal politics in these protests. The Patels are part of the social block that supported Modi’s ascent and that of his party to governing Gujarat and later to central government, and now they want their votes to count. Perhaps behind this young leader there are others ready to exploit the protests he has started. It is not, however, easy to manoeuvre 500,000 people and this unknown young man has impressed many of the young Patels as he expresses their same frustrations.

These young Patels are the “victims of neo-middle-class syndrome” says Jaffrelot. They believed the slogans about India ‘taking off’  but they remained on the ground, aspiring to belong to a new affluent society but finding it hard to do so since there are few jobs, education is expensive and buying a car and a house is impossible. These are the signs of the failure, for the moment, of the “Modi model”. They have created a narrative of “victims of the system” and in caste politics it is the best way for demanding power, quotas and privileges.

Translated by Francesca Simmons