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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Caste order: the Patel is the new ‘shudra’

A few years ago, the scholar and politician Yogendra Yadav was in a TV studio. It was one of those shows with a large number of people from the audience participating. The subject was reservations and the show was in Hindi. The audience was urban and, as may be expected, inclined to the arguments of “merit" over “reservation".

Caste is today jati and class, and divisions that Manu swayambhu himself would be flummoxed by. And so at one point Yadav took the tack of trying to locate the audience’s views in their caste and background. He asked them to raise their hands if they were from a backward community. He then specified this, eliminating Brahmin, Vaishya and Kshatriya.

How many here are from the communities that remain, he asked, adding, “those whom we refer to as Shudra." Like Yadavs, he explained. If I remember it right, not one hand went up, though Yadav had explained something fundamental that many middle-class and anglicized Indians do not know. This includes, to my surprise, most of those who consider themselves part of the new Hindu right, who should presumably know the fundamentals of the faith they are setting such great store by (I always enjoy having a chat with this sort of individual).

The conflation of “shudra" with “untouchable" is so common as to have almost become fact. But all shudras are of course savarna, meaning possessing of varna (caste). They are the only real “lower caste" because those below them actually do not have caste. Someone becomes untouchable, according to our great texts, when they do not have varna. This includes those who may be otherwise considered Hindu, but whose work puts them outside the pale. And by default it naturally excludes all those of other faiths.

The majority of Indians are shudra because the grouping includes all our great peasant castes (Yadav, Jat, Patel, Patil, Gowda, Reddy, Kurmi and the lot). And it is the shudra who comprises entirely the Mandal category of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). These being sub-castes who are either not landed to any great extent or lack access to mobility. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s community is No.23 on the Mandal list from Gujarat. It reads “Ghanchi (Muslim), Teli, Modh Ghanchi, Teli-Sahu, Teli-Rathod, Teli-Rathore". On 27 October 1999, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government expanded the Mandal list to include Teli and Modh Ghanchi in a Ghanchi OBC category that hitherto had only contained Muslim Ghanchi. It was only at this point that Modi became an OBC, so it is surprising that he claims backward status when it is politically opportune. Ghanchis have successfully managed and monopolized the oil and grain business to the extent that for most Gujaratis, including my mother, “ghanchi" is synonymous with “kirana shopkeeper".

And now, in 2015, the Patels are insisting that they too are backward and should be given reservations under Mandal. “‘Patel rap’ gets louder, stronger over OBC quota", The Times Of India reported on 4 August. The story said that this demand was “a direct challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his close aide and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) national president Amit Shah who have so far remained silent on the issue." I disagree with this formulation and will explain why presently.

The story said the Patels claimed they were “following Gandhiji’s principle of non-violence to demand their rights, but will not hesitate to go on the path chosen by Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekar Azad during freedom struggle."

Patels took out simultaneous rallies in the state capital Gandhinagar, Navsari, Bagasara town in Amreli district and Himatnagar town in north Gujarat. “The aggression shown by the leaders of the reservation movement is giving sleepless nights to chief minister Anandiben Patel, herself a Patel, and her government’", the paper said. It had earlier reported (30 July, “Patidar Patels from Vadodara to join agitation for OBC reservations") the reasons why the Patels were agitating: “Our sons and daughters are not getting admissions to good colleges despite scoring well. If Patels are included in OBC quota, future of our next generations will be secure."

So there we have it. Patels want to be OBCs because their children cannot get into colleges. They have never been backward or helpless. David F. Pocock’s classic sociological survey Kanbi And Patidar: A Study Of The Patidar Community Of Gujarat, opens with the lines: “Patidar is the name of a large and influential caste which has its home in central Gujarat. Until 1931 members of the caste were known as kanbi. The change of name was, for the majority, a mark of improved status."

It will be ridiculous if this privileged community, which is landed, politically powerful, wealthy and has had access to the world for two centuries, thinks of itself as needing state support to get its children into medicine and engineering. The fact that Gujaratis are not represented well in these sectors is their own doing, particularly that of the Patels.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s decision to deny the children of Gujarat’s poor citizens access to English till age 10 was supported by Patels. For the entire period of Modi’s chief ministership, the majority of his cabinet comprised Patels.

I have written in Mint Lounge before about how many of those convicted after the 2002 riots are Patels. Having totally and absolutely aligned themselves to the BJP and its actions, the Patels cannot now claim that they are marginalized.

My guess is this agitation will fail, because Patels cannot rebel against the BJP. They surrendered their options long ago when they enthusiastically hitched their lot to Hindutva.

Where will they go today if the BJP tells them, as it will, to get lost on the OBC issue? Hardly to the Congress, which they hate. It is true that they are backward educationally but that’s from lack of inclination, not from lack of opportunity.

The one good thing that this agitation will do is that it will make more of us Patidars rethink the way we see our culture and identity. I guarantee that it will come as a shock to many Patels, particularly the highly communalized group in the US that backs Hindutva, that they are in fact shudra.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

Also Read: Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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