Almost out of nowhere, a violent agitation has engulfed Gujarat. Over the last week, lakhs of people from the Patidar caste marched to rallies held by 22-year-old Hardik Patel, face of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti. Their demand: quotas for Patels. This sudden turmoil has opened up dormant questions of caste in the state and beyond.

As the army keeps vigil and the prime minister appeals for calm, Ghanshyam Shah, social scientist and Gujarat watcher, tries to make sense of the past few days. Shah is the author of Untouchability in Rural India, Development and Deprivation in Gujarat and Social Movements and the State, among other booksHe has also edited and contributed to several volumes on caste, social justice, land reforms and Gujarat.

Where would you locate the Patidars in the social context of Gujarat?
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.

What is the current demand for reservation rooted in?
All upper castes are against reservations. They don’t want benefits to pass to the lower strata of society. So they put forward the merit argument, that by having reservations you deny those who deserve a good education and sacrifice merit. The Patidars were the first to start a movement against reservations, in the 1980s. This is its continuation.

Interestingly, now they want reservation. They are saying give us reservation or abolish the whole system. They do not like to see those who were traditionally lower than them in the social hierarchy gain from quotas and become somewhat equal. There is an element of jealousy.

Another reason for the demand is the scarcity of jobs. In spite of all the promises, increasingly, the only jobs available are in the informal sector. Even in the informal sector, employment is handed out on a contractual basis. So there is growing insecurity in society. The only permanent jobs are with government and even these are very limited. What we are seeing is competition for a scarce resource.

Patidars, like all other communities, are also the victims of the present market, which creates aspirations and a demand for certain lifestyles. But the same market is unable to provide the remuneration to afford those lifestyles. Wages in Gujarat, both for skilled and unskilled labour, are lower than in most other states.

Do you see a change in caste politics and the idea of Other Backward Class status? How does a community travel from protesting against reservation to demanding it?
Traditionally, those who belonged to OBCs were considered to have a low status in the caste hierarchy. But now people don’t mind that low status if it gives them economic advantages. The traditional hierarchy of caste has been weakened by the hierarchies of economic status.

Many suggest that this agitation is really a demand for reservations based on economic criteria rather that a caste based quota.
In 1983, the Rane commission had recommended quotas based on economic need rather than caste. IP Desai, a member of the Second Backward Class Commission of Gujarat, wrote a long article supporting this. I wrote a rejoinder to his piece in the Economic and Political Weekly.

The gist of my argument was that if you have economic criteria and ignore caste, you end up helping only the upper castes. Because all castes are poor and jobs are limited. Say there are 100 jobs and 1,000 applicants, out of which 500 are poor. Of these 500, say 80 are upper caste poor and 400 lower caste. There is a strong possibility that 60 out of the 80 will get jobs. Only 20 or 30 of the 400 lower caste poor applicants may get jobs. This is how we reinforce the status quo. That was my argument then and I stand by it.

Could this flag off a new phase of caste struggle in Gujarat?
I would not like to use the words caste struggle. But yes, the Patidars want a share of the 27% reservation for OBCs. Other OBC communities want them to seek quotas outside it.

Numerically, the Patidars can never win. According to the 1931 caste census, they form 12% of the population. About 3% to 4% of the Patidars, made up of groups known as the Anjanas and Matias, are already in the OBC category. So the demand comes from the influential Leuva and Kadva Patels, who form just 8% to 9% of the population.

The single largest group that can put up a fight to the Patidars is the coalition of Kshatriyas or Thakores and Kolis, who also identify as Kshatriya in some places. Together, these castes account for 24% of the population, going by the 1931 census. The early claims for OBC status were dominated by Kshatriyas.

If you map out the places where the violence got ugly in the last few days, about 70% were areas that already had underlying tensions between OBCs and Patidars. So the day-to-day conflict between castes came into play. In Patan in north Gujarat, Patidars attacked Thakore property and the Thakores retaliated. Similar incidents were also seen in Surat.

For some years after the 1985 agitation, this faultline became more stark. It still exists, though in more subtle forms. You see it in election time, in the distribution of tickets. Panchayat elections will get more aggressive now. In political parties like the Congress and the BJP, there could be factional fights between the Patidars and the Kolis and Thakores.

Could this be the first cracks in the BJP’s support base in Gujarat?
This is the first time such a protest has happened in the last 10 years. It will affect the BJP support base and there will be intra-party fights but I am not yet clear about how this will help the Congress and other parties. It could help the BJP faction that is against Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. There is a theory that this BJP faction was instigating the agitation until it lost control over it. I wouldn’t rule it out.

What do you make of Hardik Patel?
He’s an average angry youth. I’m not convinced that he can articulate what he wants or that he has a vision. So far, he has not shown any capacity. He is not really ‘popular’, as projected by media. He raised the issue and meticulously worked towards mobilisation. People who responded to him did so for their own reasons. For me, it’s too early to say much about him.