Caste Quotas in India Come Under Attack

David Barstow and Suhasini Raj, New York Times, August 30, 2015

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 spring, with help from a loose network of friends, Hardik Patel began organizing 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 on Tuesday when Hardik Patel, a baby-faced 22-year-old, stood on a stage here before 500,000 wildly cheering people, almost all of them young Patel men, and took dead 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.

In an act of political jujitsu, Mr. Patel 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.

“We are not begging,” he defiantly told the crowd. The roar of a half-million Patels chanting “Hardik! Hardik!” echoed off nearby apartment buildings, where still thousands more Patels lined rooftops and balconies. The adoration was all the more remarkable since almost no one had ever heard of Hardik Patel before last month.

It was not just the enormous size of the Patel rally, or the underground 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. Mr. Modi came to national prominence because strong support from the Patels helped elect him chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

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Hours after his speech, as dusk settled on Tuesday, Hardik Patel sat cross-legged on a mattress on the stage, wondering if Mr. Modi had gotten the message. To make sure, he had announced his intent to fast on the stage. Shoes off, shirt untucked, Mr. Patel seemed drained from the day’s drama. Only a few thousand equally spent supporters remained near the stage.

The point of the protest, he explained in an interview, 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 else earn the Patels’ political wrath by siding with the castes and tribes that currently benefit from the quota system.

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Ninety minutes later, 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, tossed chairs into the crowd and manhandled journalists.

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Yet by then the damage had been done. 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. “Police Unleash Terror,” read the headline in one Ahmedabad newspaper.

Across Gujarat, mobs responded with equal fury, burning buses and police stations and targeting the homes of Gujarat’s ministers. Rajanikant Patel’s home was burned. By Thursday, 10 people were dead, including a police officer, the army had been called in, and Mr. Modi had gone on television to appeal for peace.

The impact of the week’s events is still being absorbed across India. Taking their cue from the Patels, other prosperous castes have now begun talking about holding similar protests. {snip}

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