Ahmedabad’s Parting Gift: Patel Agitation and OBC Politics

By Cally Hardy, MURP ‘16

I have left Ahmedabad and am spending a few weeks travelling before heading home to finish my last year at UCLA. And, in true India style, my last week in Ahmedabad was not to go by without fanfare. News of last week’s mega rally and ensuing riots has finally started hitting mainstream Western news outlets. So now is an appropriate time for me to weigh in on what it was like in Ahmedabad during this time.

The politics are complicated, but after a number of conversations with my co-workers and reading some particularly great op-ed pieces, I think I am starting to unpack the situation a bit more.

Knowing that the rally would take place, our office organized an impromptu screening the night before of a great documentary, India Untouched, which helped me to contextualize the depth and complexity of caste relations in the country. Like racism back home, many people here are quick to say that untouchability and caste no longer exist here. The documentary then goes on to show just how pervasive it truly is, showcasing stories not just of Hindu Dalit communities, but “untouchable” communities across nearly every religion, region, and socioeconomic status in the country.

It was with that in mind that I observed the politics of the Patel rally unfold. Led by the young Hardik Patel, the Patel community in the state of Gujarat is organizing for recognition as an Other Backward Class (OBC), which would give them access to reservation quotas for things like university admissions and government jobs. Making up 27% of the total seats for each category, the OBC reservation is essentially an affirmative action policy intended for people of lower castes and marginalized communities.

Most would argue that the Patel community, which numbers close to 15 million, is by no means a marginalized community. In fact, they were among the most vocal opponents of the OBC system when it was first implemented. And yet over 2 million supporters were reported to have attended the rally, where they demanded that the state confer them OBC status or else abolish the system altogether.

And yet, I did not directly encounter any significant physical indication of the rally and ensuing violence, which I chalk up to further evidence of the incredible segregation among communities in Ahmedabad. Shops were closed throughout the city for a few days, but the streets were all but empty in my neighborhood. The most significant impact for me, and every other person living in the state of Gujarat, was the week-long government shutdown of mobile internet and text messaging services.

The latest news has suggested that Hardik Patel plans to bring his movement to Delhi next. I am not sure if there is the same groundswell of support there as there was in Gujarat. If he does manage to bring the movement here at a similar scale, the rallies might be able to follow me all the way until I depart from Delhi International Airport next week. A bit of my own farewell parade, if you will.

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