Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old firebrand leader, has successfully brought the subject of the Gujarati peasant into national debate in India with his agitation seeking reservations for Patidars. The historic role of Gujarat’s peasants has long been recognised in leading MK Gandhi’s satyagraha and in the formation of agrarian capitalism. Hardik Patel’s campaign, however, shifts the debate in a new direction.

He frequently begins his interviews and speeches by discussing a nameless poor Patidar kisan from Saurashtra who has scored 90% marks in his exams but can’t gain admission in any university. From talking about the lack of educational opportunities for Patidars, he often switches to discussing the links between poor peasants and farmer suicides in Gujarat. “Who will take responsibility for these poor peasants?” he rhetorically asked in a recent interview to NDTV.

The answer was delivered at the spectacle in Ahmedabad on August 25 to a live audience of 5 lakh and to millions others watching on television: Hardik Patel and his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti.

Hardik Patel’s choice to speak in Hindi at the rally in the Gujarati-speaking heartland was to ensure that his message about the Gujarati peasant went national. The implication of message was clear: the government at all levels had failed to protect one of India’s most famous agrarian communities – the Patidars. If this failure could happen in Gujarat, it could happen anywhere in India.

Gujarat model of development

This was not only a serious indictment on the many Patidars in power – especially Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel – but also on the political and economic policies of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

For Hardik Patel, the success story of Gujarat was simply a myth that was repeated enough times till it was assumed to be truth. He argued that there has been a steady decline in the agriculture sector for the past 15 years in Gujarat, a period mostly overlapping with Modi’s reign as the chief minister. The ascendancy of Modi from chief minister to prime minister, Hardik Patel appeared to be warning, means that the policies that had marginalised Patidars were likely to continue.

At another level, Hardik Patel set out to establish a critique of the idea that all Patidars are dominant in Gujarat. Whenever he is asked to explain the discrepancy between the many success stories of Patidars in agriculture, diamond trade, government, banking and education, he simply retorts, “The truth is found in the villages of Gujarat.”

Yet, his argument about the condition of Gujarati peasants is met with distrust, especially among urban elites and in the news media, who oddly cite the high number of motels owned by Patidars in the US. As one interviewer asked Patel, “Which truth about Patidars should I believe? Your truth or the truth that I see?” Patel replied, “Have you been to the villages? There is silent corruption everywhere.”

Governmental support

Patel may be correct in arguing that there is a rural context within Gujarat that remains invisible to those unaware of the class and caste dynamics in the countryside. The idea of the “Patidar kisan” at the centre of Patel’s argument is a relatively recent formulation, dating to the 1931 Census of India. Throughout the 19th century, the peasant cultivators identified themselves as Kanbis: Lewa Kanbi, Kadwa Kanbi, and Anjana Kanbi.

Among Lewa Kanbis, those who started to collect land revenue and abandoned actual tilling of the land rose to the status of Patidar, especially in central Gujarat. British officials favoured the Kanbis to other peasants in Gujarat by providing them special loans, access to land and natural resources, and the ability to control the labour of other peasants. For nearly a century, agrarian policies helped Kanbis establish their dominance in the countryside.

The participation of Kanbis in mass nationalism with Gandhi meant a further consolidation of power and control of the region’s political economy. In 1925, even Gandhi stated, “Patidars tyrannize over lower communities, beat them and extract forced labour from them.” By the 1930s, most Kanbis in Gujarat had adopted the title of “Patidar”. The celebration of Patidars as inspired nationalists became the mantra in the public sphere for an entire generation following independence.

'Truth' about Gujarat's peasants

Hardik Patel’s invitation to take a closer look at the dynamics of the agrarian society in Gujarat may well lead to the dismantling of his own claims about the marginalisation of Patidars. There has been a rejection of Patel’s arguments from other Other Backward Clases in the countryside, who maintain that Patidars cannot be considered as worthy of reservations due to their comparative advantage over communities already classified as OBCs.

There is also a long history of Patidar domination that simply cannot be forgotten. Alpesh Thakur, a leader of the Thakur Samaj who has been a vocal opponent, says that Patel’s real desire is to reassert Patidar domination in the countryside in the 21st century.

But Hardik Patel is undeterred. He continues to focus on marginalised Patidars for his arguments. Since Anjana Patidars are already classified as OBCs by the Gujarati government, he wants the same rights for all Patidars now. Yet, in the same breath, he suggests that if all reservations were abolished, he would be willing to forego his claims for Patidars.

The modern history of Patidars suggests that they have long been the beneficiaries of governmental support in colonial and post-colonial India, even if Lewa and Kadwa Patidars were not included on the OBC rolls. Patel correctly believes that the truth about Patidars is to be found in villages, rather than in the motels of Hollywood, Surat’s jewellery shops, or Delhi’s government villas. Gujarat’s peasants certainly confront major problems today: indebtedness, water scarcity, farmer suicides and loss of land. But if Hardik Patel wants to know the truth about Gujarat’s peasants, he won’t find it with singular focus on Patidars.