July 04, 2020
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With Reservations

In the storm that Hardik Patel has whipped up, will reservation become a farce that will have nothing to do with the really deserving?

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With Reservations
With Reservations

What was the basis of reservation for OBCs?

Poverty was not the sole criter ion for reservations for OBCs, which was granted to communities that were at once s ocially, educationally and economically backward.

Criteria for OBC inclusion

Education, labour, access to water, housing, irrigation, loans, etc.

Do OBCs occupy 27 per cent of central jobs?

57 per cent of all central govt jobs are held by ‘general’ candidates; 17.7 per cent posts held by OBCs in 71 out of 91 central govt departments held by those on central OBC list.

Do patidars, jats et al deserve reservations?

The backward classes commission had turned down the jat demand in 2013 as it found them well-represented in defence services, government etc. likewise, for patidars and marathas.

Are BJP and RSS opposed to caste-based quotas?

The sangh parivar was at the forefront of the anti-mandal agitation in 1990 and in gujarat in 1985. But modi government endorsed both jat and maratha reservation notified by UPA.


India’s “most famous and feared 22-year-old” is how a report in The New York Times chose to describe Hardik Patel last week. Between July, when he was practically an unknown, and August-end, when he has become a household name in at least urban India, the boyish ‘leader’ with a strut in his walk has managed a bit of a bull run, taking Gujarat by storm, reviving the sagging debate on “jobless growth”, exposing the prime minister and his much-vaunted ‘Gujarat model’ and, yes, demanding the end of the “reservation regime” for the depressed, disadvantaged and backward classes.

Ask him specifically about reservations, though, and he does not seem to have much clue. Ask him whether he has petitioned the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), and his initial response was that he did not trust it. To his credit, though, the young man did travel to the commission’s office at Bhikaji Cama Place when he paid a short visit to the national capital. And if sources in the commission are to be believed, he admitted that he was not aware of the constitutional position and procedures involved in determining ‘backwardness’.

On his return to Gujarat this week, he seemed to hold a more nuanced view. Unlike the previous week when he had belligerently demanded that if the Patidars of Gujarat could not be included in the OBC list, caste-based reservation should be abolished, the seemingly more mellowed Hardik told Outlook that he no longer wanted an end to caste-based reservation, possibly persuaded also by the Modi government’s spirited defence of reservation for Jats and Marathas, a la the UPA.

But he retains much of his arrogance and attitude. Asked if he has ever met Amit Shah, he raises an eyebrow and asks, “Amit Shah, who?” The question is reframed politely, for his benefit. Has he ever met the BJP national president and the former home minister of the state? “I don’t meet anyone,” he comes back again, “especially politicians. People come to meet me.”

The first spark Rajiv Goswami self-immolating himself during the 1990 Mandal agitation. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 14 September 2015)

The importance of being Hardik Patel is borne out by the several calls he receives while talking to this correspondent. One of them is apparently from Nitin Patel, a cabinet minister in the state. Several others are from New Delhi where he had been for a day-and-a-half. The ‘news’ that the Intelligence Bureau in the national capital was quizzing people he had met brings the hint of a smile to his lips.

“The support the Patidar agitation has received is strange because Patidars are otherwise a prosperous lot.”
D.L. Sheth, Former OBC panel member

It is not very clear whether he is helping or harming the BJP government in the state. The state government had allowed him to use the GMDC ground in Ahmedabad for a token fee of one rupee. It has never showed such generosity to trade unions and other organisations, says activist Nirjhari Sinha. Commercial organisations, however, were allowed use of the ground on payment of several lakhs of rupees.

Not only this, the state government had also allowed the organisers of the rally to issue toll-free passes. The rally itself was a well-organised affair, with packets of food and water appearing out of thin air. Hardik himself refers to Anandiben Patel and Narendra Modi as ‘Fai’ and ‘Fua’ (paternal aunt and uncle in Gujarati) and insists that they ought to take note of the ground reality.

Of the affluence of the Patel or Patidar community, there has never been any doubt. In the United States, as many as 22,000 hotels and motels are estimated to be owned by Indian-Americans, 70 per cent of them Patels from Gujarat. So much so that ‘motels’ have long been referred to as ‘Potels’ in America. Enterprising Patels have been quick to migrate to Africa and the UK, where they run a disproportionately large number of corner stores.

In Gujarat itself, the group dominates the textile, diamond polishing, real estate and pharma sectors. Chief minister Anandiben, seven of her cabinet colleagues, as many as 40 BJP MLAs and seven MPs also hail from the community. Patels also run a large number of educational institutions, in one of which Hardik himself has studied. He also seems to take perverse pride in declaring that he could pass out of school only because he was granted ‘grace marks’ in four subjects and that he graduated with less than 50 per cent marks.

Sociologist Gaurang Jani points out that Patels are the largest group of shareholders in the Bardoli sugarcane factory, the largest in the state. “In the ’70s,” he points out, “each share was valued at Rs 500 whereas the current valuation is Rs 2.10 lakh per share.” Still, in some ways, it’s not the latter figure but the former that holds the real clue to historical privilege. The Patidars’ aggressive demand for quota, therefore, has baffled observers. If this affluent section can be so dissatisfied, what is the plight of the others? While the Patels seem wedded to the BJP, Hardik and his aides seem to have taken the sheen off the PM’s Gujarat model.

By the government’s own admission, 48,000 micro, small and medium industries are sick. Decisions like the one to inv­ite the Tatas to set up a Nano factory at Sanand and to lend the industrial house a Rs 10,000 crore interest-free loan are being questioned increasingly. For the rot runs deep. Half of Gujarat’s government colleges do not have permanent principals. As in the rest of India, a large number of schools depend on lowly-paid para-teachers hired on 11-month contracts. Real estate is in a slump and the diamond polishing industry has received a setback in recent years, with hundreds of units in and around Surat shutting down.

“Liberalisation and economic growth are fine but the system has not been not able to provide jobs.”
Surinder S. Jodhka, Prof of Sociology, JNU

This kind of distress, say sociologists, is relatively new to the Patels. Jani, who teaches sociology at the Gujarat Uni­versity and who is a member of the state’s OBC commission, says government jobs are hard to come by. It is almost impossible to get one without paying bribes, he says. Hardik himself endorses the fact when he points out that you need to pay Rs 25 lakh as bribe for a policeman’s job.

Another sore point with the Patels is the reservation the subcaste of Anjana Patels enjoy. Alternatively called Kachhia Patels, they were vegetable-sellers and have been recruited in the state police in large numbers, causing envy among other Patel groups, especially the Kadvas, who feel marginalised.

Data from the department of personnel and training, made available on June 30, 2015, reveals that in 71 of the 91 central government departments, OBCs form only 17.7 per cent of the workforce as against the quota of 27 per cent set aside for them. In other words, confides an NCBC member in New Delhi, while candidates from the general category constitute less than 25 per cent of India’s population (excluding SC+ST+OBC and some other castes), they hold 57 per cent of central government jobs.

Officials of the commission do say that there seems to be a competition to be declared “backward”, with communities vying with each other to showcase their victimhood. However, there is no mechanism in the country to ensure that OBC reservations are implemented efficiently.

Minority retort Muslims demanding reservation in central govt services. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

“The exit clauses dictated by the Supreme Court from time to time and the annual ceiling of income, which stands at Rs 6.5 lakh, have ensured that the OBC quota is never filled up by OBCs,” says a former member of the commission, who admits that there is very little clarity on reservations in the country. “I have stopped accepting invitations to go to TV studios because nobody seems to understand what this is all about.”

The way he explains it, the NCBC is at the central level, and states have their own backward class commissions. The former finalises central lists while the state commissions finalise the state lists. The central list is also not one uniform list for the entire country; it is different for each state. As a result, there are castes which figure in the state list but not in the central list and some which figure in the central list in some states and not in the others!

The ‘weaver’ community (Ansaris, Tantis, Bunkars or Koris), for example, are deemed Dalits in some states, OBCs in others and excluded entirely in others. Then the so-called forward castes like Kshatriyas or Rajputs are included in the OBC list in some states. Fake caste certificates only add to the already complicated situation.

“Politicisation of the issue is unfortunate. A committee should look at how long reservation should be extended.”
Manmohan Vaidya, RSS

“There should be uniformity in the benefits accrued from reservations,” says Ashok Saini, a member of the NCBC. “But, in reality, ruling classes are the beneficiaries of reservations in several states because of the political clout they exercise.” Some of the Yadavs and Kurmis in Bihar and UP have come to experience that in the last 20 years, post-Mandal, dominating politics and also cornering jobs in the police and government departments. There have been chief ministers, judges, DGPs and chief secretaries from these communities. But while Yadavs and Kurmis are on the OBC lists in Bihar and UP, Patels are now clamouring for it in Gujarat. “It is certainly getting bizarre and completely out of control,” admits the former NCBC member, who is also a Congress politician.

While the national commission had rejected the Jat claim to be treated as ‘backward caste’ in 2010, the UPA government amended the rules the following year to allow the commission to review and revise its own advice and factor in the pressure put on it to allow reservation for Jats. The commission first asked the Indian Council of Social Science Research to conduct a study and after a year asked it to execute a sample survey. Finally, it suggested that icssr form an expert committee to study existing material and make a recommendation. In early 2014, the commission finally rejected the Jat claim for inclusion in the central list once again—though Jats are in the OBC list in several states. With the general elections drawing close, the UPA government notified reservation for Jats in March 2014. The Supreme Court turned it down in March 2015. The Modi government argued before it that the commission’s advice is not binding on it and that it can exercise its discretion in adding castes to the list. The apex court, however, rejected that appeal as well in July.

The NCBC is required to review the central list once in 10 years. But the exercise has not been undertaken even once in the last 20 years in the absence of census data on castes for all these years, and this set of data is now curiously being withheld by the government. As a res­ult, not a single group has ever been dropped from the list.

Quota unquote Med students in New Delhi raise anti-reservation slogans in 2006

“A nation cannot be built on a jiski lathi, uski bhains formula, which Hardik seems to have adopted,” says an officer in the commission. “Reservations, enabled by Article 15(4) and Article 16(4) of the Constitution, are the reason why right to equality is possible. But it cannot be given to all who demand it. The agitators don’t even know what it means to be backward—constitutionally and legally.”

Says another senior official, “Those who are backward within the community should be given the benefit of reservation. But the whole community definitely doesn’t deserve it. It is the same case with Jats. There are provisions to ensure that occupational groups, such as daily wage and agricultural labour, rickshaw pullers etc may be granted reservation and backward class status, but not entire caste groups.”


Craig Jeffrey, who teaches Development Geography at Oxford, once called the army of educated unemployed in India as the “timepass generation” for whom waiting, he noted, had become a profession. His quip that “in the past India was seen as the country of the bus conductor with a BA, now it is the country of the manual labourer with an MA” is often quoted at well-meaning seminars on the subject. The professor, who has studied unemployment in Uttar Pradesh extensively for several years, wrote several years ago in The Guardian that he found it was not uncommon for 10,000 applications to pour in for a single government job in Meerut. To secure that elusive job, the unemployed confided to him, they needed both ‘source’ as well as ‘force’, the former in the form of social and political contacts and the latter indicating their ability to bribe and use violence.

“Reservations for upper castes by birth should first be abolished. Reservations for others can be abolished later.”
Udit Raj, Dalit leader, BJP MP

Many of the unemployed in the Indian hinterland have turned into what Jeffrey called ‘political entrepreneurs’ or ‘fixers’, taking part in rioting, mediating bribes and transfers, postings and contracts. With government jobs shrinking and the government withdrawing from the ‘business’ of even health and education, the situation has become even more grim.

In 2000-01, there were 12,806 colleges in India. By 2013, the number had gone up to 35,539. During this same period, the number of universities has swelled from 256 to over 700, churning out five million new graduates every year, half a million fresh engineering graduates among them.

Statistics released by the Labour Bureau, Chandigarh, under the Union labour ministry reveal that as many as 435 per one thousand ‘employed’ youth continue to find employment in agriculture, forestry and fishery. But these are the areas that have received scant attention from the government in the past. There are 54 agriculture universities in the country. A figure that may surprise or disappoint.

But while jobs remain elusive and the government remains clueless about the elephant in the room (the private sector sits on a pile of cash and ignores both jobs and investment), agitation in the more affluent states for reservation seems politically motivated. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana have the least number of households with unemployed adults. But powerful groups in these states seem hell-bent on embracing backwardness.


Nothing Accidental About It?

The huge turnout at his rallies and the methodical organisation of his public appearances has sparked speculation on who is behind the dramatic rise of the 22-year-old


The Anandiben Patel govt waived toll tax for vehicles to facilitate their moving to the rally ground, charges for using the GMDC ground itself were also waived for the PAAS (Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti) rally.

Possible Motive

To test the waters in Modi’s backyard for a long shot at doing away with ‘reservation and quotas’.

Amit Shah

The BJP president would have followed closely the 143 rallies PAAS organised before converging at Ahmedabad. But the BJP state unit did little to rein in PAAS in July and August.

Possible Motive

Amit Shah’s relations with Anandiben are frosty. He may not be averse to returning to the state as CM.

Patel Ministers & MLAs

The buzz in Gandhinagar-Ahmedabad  is that Nitin Patel, a powerful state cabinet minister, backed PAAS to consolidate his own hold over the community. In fact, all Patel MLAs seem to be behind it.

Possible Motive

State-level politicians, the powerful Patels, want Modi to stop meddling in state politics and imposing his nominees as CM.


While they have formally maintained a distance, both have strong roots in the Patidar community and may have lent support. Praveen Togadia may have used Patels to cause discomfiture to Modi ahead of Bihar polls.

Possible Motive

RSS has long advocated reservations on economic criteria or abolishing it altogether in favour of meritocracy.

Upper Castes Like  Brahmins, Kayasthas

While small in number, they seem to have lent their shoulder to the agitation in Gujarat in the last two months.

Possible Motive

The ‘forward castes’ have always resented the quota system for the depressed castes and have been in favour of  quotas on the basis of ‘poverty’ to all. They may see an opportunity to get rid of quotas eventually.

By Ushinor Majumdar in Ahmedabad and Pavithra S. Rangan in New Delhi with Bula Devi in Delhi

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