The first priority of the Gujarat administration has to be to restore order in the state, convulsed by the Patel agitation for reservations. The lawlessness following the arrest of the protest leader Hardik Patel on Tuesday, August 25, forced the police to fire in several places. Nine people were killed, including two policemen. Tension prevailed in some parts of the state, though Patel was released after a few hours. Even if the agitation peters out in the next couple of weeks, it should serve as a stern warning to the policy-makers to have a good second look at the entire reservation policy.
Yes, Patels or Patidars are a relatively well-off group. Constituting fourteen percent of the state’s population, their presence in politics, industry, business, professions, etc., cannot be ignored. Indeed, in the ruling BJP in the state their dominance remains unchallenged. The diamond-cutting and polishing industry in Surat is top-heavy with Patel businessmen. Yet, there is unrest in the community because a vast majority has shrinking agriculture holdings, low incomes and little option for finding productive employment either in government or private jobs. The rising tide of aspirations sweeping the youth throughout the country thanks partly to the penetration of the audio-visual media adds to the frustration of the Patel youth at the paucity of economic avenues.
Since agriculture fails to sustain the growing numbers of land-owners, and government employment is hard to secure, it is natural for Patels, as a group, to seek preferential treatment the OBCs, SCs, STs and a few other disadvantaged groups are given by governments. The demand that either Patels too get the benefit of reservations in educational institutions and government jobs or the reservations be scrapped altogether, thus, has become a common rallying point for the community. In one word, the Patel agitation is a backlash against the self-serving policy of reservations dished out by opportunistic politicians who have failed to privilege merit over caste, despite growing resentment among those denied their due share in the national cake.
Given the fifty percent ceiling on reservations, the Gujarat Government could not have entertained the demand of the Patels for inclusion in the reserved category. But what it can do is to take the lead in enforcing the most sensible recommendations of a central panel which had suggested that the benefit of reservations to each family must be limited to one generation alone. Children of OBC legislators, for instance, should not be automatically entitled to the preferred treatment under the reserved category. In short, reservations cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. Remember the founding fathers had scheduled reservations for the SCs-STs only for the first ten years of the Republic. If these are still in place, and there is no likelihood of these being phased out in the foreseeable future, it signifies the multifaceted failures of the Indian State. Poor education facilities, limited employment opportunities and corruption at every level have made reservations a blunted instrument of affirmative action.
Yet, those who have acquired a degree of economic and social status due to reservations, from the descendants of a Jagjivan Ram to a Mulayam Singh Yadav, for example, should be by law disallowed to seek preferential treatment in educational institutions and government jobs. This crux of the Patel agitation in Gujarat ought to be addressed. The sharp fault-lines in the society between pro-and anti-reservation groups can no longer be repaired by band-aid solutions. The young Hardik Patel, an unknown till a couple of days ago, now signifies a backlash against the policy of caste reservations. More likely than not, after the appeal of the Prime Minister on Wednesday, normalcy will return to Gujarat. But it will be a mistake to ignore the time-bomb pushed into the centre stage by the Patel protest. Because the vote-bank politics is inextricably linked to the reservation policy, it is imperative that a national consensus be evolved on resolving the vital issues raised by the Gujarat agitation.
Indeed, as a first step, a reform of the current policy ought to be widely canvassed to deny the benefit of reservations to the children of those who have gained educational and employment benefit under the reserved category. Simultaneously, the government should approach the apex court for it to have a second look at its 50-percent stipulation for reservations. Indeed, the court can do what no political party will ever do, that is, prescribe a socio-economic criterion alone for reservations in educational institutions and public sector employment. Let us hope something positive would emerge from the sudden eruption of the Patels on the streets of Gujarat.