The Patel agitation and the ‘paradox’ of demanding OBC status: Rita Kothari

Guest Post by RITA KOTHARI

Not long ago, a Gujarati film, Kevi Rite Jaish (“How will I go?”  dir. Abhishek Jain, 2012) provided to its viewers a rare fare. It was, unlike Gujarati films of the past, based on the life of urban Ahmedabad  and told the story of a young man whose dilemma was similar to that of scores of aspiring youth in Gujarat. Harish Patel, the protagonist, is obsessed with the idea of migrating to the United States and becoming, like many members of his community of Patels, a ‘motel-king.’ Harish Patel’s room is decorated with Statue of Liberty and Obama – deities that he needs to propitiate. However, his inability to answer satisfactorily the questions  asked by the visa officer at the US embassy leads to his failing to get a visa. The film builds up in comical vein the “trauma” of this event,  which prevented Harish Patel from  fulfilling his dreams in the promised land.  Several abortive attempts, including one involving fake sponsorship papers, bring to the viewer the satirical picture of a community that in the film at least, cannot see beyond motels and United States. The title poses  a real and rhetorical question for Harish Patel, who finally realizes that there are opportunities in his motherland  and this self-realization, certainly not a profound one, is suggested by signifiers of home-made food made by his mother.  A thoroughly ordinary film that this was, its success lay in striking a chord among young viewers who may also have been the chief patrons of such an economic venture.

To my knowledge, there was no counterview to the film contesting the stereotype of the Patel community, for this is indeed the dominant image of an urban Patel in popular imagination—affluent, enterprising and obsessed with the United States. Then there are ‘essences’ of the Patel identity expressed in  idiomatic expressions, for instance,  referring to the rough-hewn language  “Patel nee jeebh” (a Patel’s tongue)  or their generosity (Patel nu dil) and so on. The  legacy of their rural and farming origins makes other upper-castes in Gujarat look upon the Patel community with a mixture of mockery and affection.  There is also a popular view, again evident in the saying, “P for P”,  that a Patel would always support a Patel, making the community a close-knit one.

It’s interesting to note that the present agitation both reveals and refutes this view; its mobilization of the community being as true as the fragmentation within. At the time of writing this piece, the Indian Express (16 September, 2015) carries the news of the banishing of Patel functionaries in the government from entering certain colonies in Vadodara and Surat.

Myriad narratives surround the motivations as well as the shifts of power underlying the agitation. However I do wish to underscore a general perception regarding the community. For better or worse, the Patels are seen as occupants of upper strata in terms of caste and class. This ‘fact’ embedded in popular imagination remains unshaken, present claims notwithstanding.

 As noted by the sociologist Ghanysham Shah (2015), who says :

In the ritual hierarchy of caste, Patidars are Shudras, a peasant community like the Marathas in Maharashtra. But they benefited from capitalist agricultural development, right from the 19th century. From the early 20th century, they started prospering. They invested the surplus capital from agriculture in industry. Their levels of education increased. Many of them migrated, first to Africa and Britain, then to America. They also played a leading role in the freedom movement, Sardar Patel being one of the prominent Patidar leaders. As of today, they identify as Banias. Their ritual status may be that of a middle caste. But their social status has been elevated to that of Vaishyas, an upper caste. (Also see Yagnik, 1995)

 By now we have heard enough on the subject of the invisibilization of the poor among Patels  by the focus on the rich and affluent.  We have also moved beyond what in the wake of the agitation appeared to some as a “puzzling paradox” – how could a community that rose from its humble origins to the upper echelons wish to re-claim the label of “OBC?” For by now it is clear that demands for inclusion in reservations in this case, and the community’s past opposition to reservations, do not mean two different things.  No point flogging the dead horse here; the sutradhar of the event made it clear that the demand for inclusion was but a ploy. The dropping of the prefix “anti” from the present agitation does not make the two positions oppositional, or paradoxical, but exactly the same in spirit, if not in strategy.

Language here is not mobilized to reveal or hide un/truth, but remains incidental to a widely held consensus among upper-castes who simply know that the lower castes have no business reaping the benefits of reservation. And should they still do so, there is no reason why those benefits should not be available to the rest. The demand for inclusion, and therefore implicitly claimed grounds of exclusion, is entitlement for the privileged and resentment at others. The “others” in all the three categories of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backwards Classes (making up for 49% reservation quota) are collapsed in ‘e loko’ who are now, much to the chagrin of the upper castes, becoming rich. The validity of such perceptions is of course contestable, so is my own homogenization of the ‘upper-castes’ and implying that they are all privileged. “Why, we don’t have poor amongst us?” asked Jagruti, a beautician who lives in Ghatlodia, a predominantly Patel locality in Ahmedabad which also witnessed considerable violence. Jagruti visits women like me at home and provides salon-like services. She claims to visit the homes of what she calls “medium class, with two bedroom and a kitchen” and also the families that may have Mercedes and BMWs. “Everyone dislikes these  ….” She uses the most pejorative term for the lower castes, now legally banned. During the week of agitation, she had an opportunity to understand ‘properly’ the issue at hand, and she heard a Patel explaining the Indian caste system and the ill-begotten gains of the lower castes. In her commonsense, there was injustice done not to the lower castes, but to ‘people like us.’ The distinctness of tribals was not a part of the story. “Who are they?” she asked me, when I pointed this out to her.

As someone interested in politics of the spoken word, the Patel agitation (or whatever that was)  has struck me by its ability to make language so misleading.  What is “said” neither adds to nor subtracts from the ‘truth’ upon which this hegemonic discourse is founded.  In the way that Jagruti saw truth, Muslims and Jains have a minority status,  those “others” get admissions with ‘pistalis takka’ (45%) and become doctors, why should ‘we’ not? Resentment has its own logic which is resentment.   The  entitlement and  commonsense that provides a bulwark to expressive forms such as ‘agitations’  is now out there; never mind the social reforms that took place in some far-away era. Gujarat is not the ‘usual suspect’ on the list of casteist societies in India; its casteism  not easily manifest in ideologically recognizable terms such as ritual purity and pollution. However it remains comfortable in its divisions. The comfort with social hierarchies and entitlements appears on most days as a placid, matter of fact dimension to life. Hence agitations seem sudden and out of the blue. Commentators seek to ‘discover’ the reasons of the agitation, but fail to theorize the old normal that slips out in conversations and rumours which on some days masquerade as ideas. So this is how Harish Patel, our protagonist would normalize his resentment. The fact that in his motherland things are not that easy : he has to complete with even the “…..”  and he must live with a feeling of emasculation and frustration at seeing, in his mind, the undeserving flourish. He must make his bed to live comfortably, since now the question is not Kevi Rite Jaish, but rather, Kevi Rite Rahish (How will I stay/live?)

Chakravarty, Ipsita   “What explains the Gujarat deaths and violence: the underlying tensions between OBCs and Patidars” In Conversation with Ghanshyam Shah, Scroll, August 30, 2015.

Yagnik, Achyut “Hindutva as a Savarna Purana” in Ashis Nandy, Shikha Trivedy, Shail Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik (eds.) Creating a Nationality: The Ram Janmabhoomi Movements and Fear of the Self, Oxford University Press. 1995.

3 thoughts on “The Patel agitation and the ‘paradox’ of demanding OBC status: Rita Kothari”

  1. I hope Rita’s reading of the patidar andolan (‘or whatever that was’) would inspire scholars to explore the nuances of linguistic and cultural codes hidden in quotidian transactions in our gross domestic lives. It is in those transactions are the myths about the ‘other’ get reproduced unremittingly. We have seen the lethal consequences of those transactions already…

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