Gangapura village in Mehsana is a brown huddle of 13 homes and a cattle shed, barely conspicuous to anyone driving by on the Gujarat state highway right next to it. On a stuffy Sunday afternoon, Jeshangbhai and other village men were half-napping in the shade of a tree when the mention of Patel reservations made them sit up.

“You want to know about our situation?” Jeshangbhai asked. “Well, we find it very difficult to get admission in colleges. We own land but agriculture is not doing well. We have to work on other people’s farms all the time.”

Puffing beedis nearby, 65-year-old Athajibhai suddenly spoke up. “Do you know how hard it is for us to get government jobs? They ask for lakhs in donation. And even if our sons are educated, they only get low-paying labour or contract jobs.”

These complaints are not unique to Gangapura. Patels from several parts of Gujarat have been mouthing these complaints to news reporters ever since young Hardik Patel rallied members of his caste – the Patidars – to demand reservations under the Other Backward Class quota.

But one thing makes Gangapura unique: it has no Patidar residents at all.

Jeshangbhai, Athajibhai and every other member of the village are Thakors, a Kshatriya clan that is listed as OBC and is eligible for reserved quotas in education and government jobs. Athajibhai works as a farmhand on land owned by Patidars; his neighbour Amrat Thakor works at an iron goods factory also run by Patels. Amrat could have been a graduate, but says he was forced to drop out of college. “I got in through the OBC quota, but I simply could not afford the donations,” he said.

Jeshangbhai Thakor of Gangapura. 

A matter of perception

For Hardik Patel and many other Patidars, the Thakors have become an object of resentment along with other OBCs. These caste groups, the Patels claim, have been reaping the benefits of reservation for more than one generation, eating into merit-based open category seats in higher educational institutes and taking over most available government jobs.

Like the Jats in Haryana and the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Patidars are now feeling cheated of their share of the reservation quotas. They were all traditionally lower caste groups that gained economic and political dominance in their states from the ownership of land and success in agriculture. Patidars, in particular, came to be known for their business acumen. Today, Patels dominate the diamond, ceramic and textile industries in Gujarat, control around 40% of the state’s small and medium enterprises and, as the stereotype goes, run chains of motels in the US.

In interviews, Hardik Patel insists that these perceptions hold true only for a small section of the Patidar community – the majority of Patels in Gujarat’s villages are poor, disadvantaged and keen on education, but are unable to find employment despite the glittering promises of the Gujarat development model.

The young Patel leader isn't entirely wrong. Declining agriculture, dwindling land holdings and slowdowns in business have impoverished many Patidar families, and both private and government jobs are in short supply.

But Patel’s analysis is only a fragment of the whole picture. Most Patels may not be wealthy or successful, but as the Thakors of Gangapura indicate, Patidars are certainly not the only victims of corruption in education, or of the failure of the economy to generate meaningful jobs.

‘You won’t find a Patel with a government job’

In rural Gujarat, where Hardik Patel believes the truth of his claims can be found, the world of the Patidars is not uniformly bleak.

Take, for instance, the environs of Sidhpur, a town in Patan district where several acres of Patidar land were bought by the central government in the 1990s to set up a unit of the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.

“Our village has suffered a lot since then,” said Kamuben Patel, a 60-year-old widow from Shujanpur village, where two-thirds of its 2,500 residents are Patidars. "We have very little land left, and all the jobs at IOCL went to outsiders." Kamuben earns Rs 50 a day as farmhand to a wealthier Patidar, while her son polishes diamonds in Mehsana. Her grandson wants to do a Master’s degree in computers, but cannot afford the Rs 50,000 donation he will have to make to the institution.

As Kamuben narrated her story, other Patels of Shujanpur lined up behind her to list their grievances. “I have just three acres of land left, and three sons,” said one old man. “How can they depend on agriculture?”

“I got 88% in my medical entrance exam, but got no admissions in Gujarat,” said 17-year-old Yash Kumar. “My OBC classmate not only got the college of his choice but also a scholarship.” From amidst a crowd of Patels, the said classmate was pushed forward. “It’s true, I did,” he said with a meek smile.

“At the age of 31, the government let me sit for the Teachers’ Entrance Test, and I did very well,” said Harshad Patel. “Then when I sought a job in a government school, they said there was an age cap of 30 years for merit applicants and 33 years for quota walas.”

Harshad Patel failed to get a government job as a teacher.

Government jobs, they claimed in unison, are routinely “given off” to OBCs like the Thakors, Rabaris or Parmars. “Try anywhere in these parts,” they said. “You won’t find a Patel with a sarkari job.”

The Patels with government jobs

Just a three-minute drive away from Shujanpur, however, is the home of Asha Patel, a teacher at a Sidhpur municipal school for the past17 years. “I’m glad I have this job because the income is good. But I’ve noticed that my reservation quota students get scholarships even if they can afford school, and our Patel kids get nothing even if they’re poor,” said Asha, sitting on a sofa in her spacious bungalow where she lives with her husband, a chemical business owner.

The bungalow is in a Patel-only housing society, where several cars were smashed by riot police on the night after Hardik Patel’s Ahmedabad rally.

Also holding a government job is Pravinbhai Patel, a senior supervisor at the Industrial Training Institute of Palanpur. He has been tracking the fates of his students for years, and claims the Patidars are not getting jobs in proportion to their population. (The Patidars comprise an estimated 12% to 20% of Gujarat’s 6-crore population).

Pravinbhai Patel is among those who benefits from a government job.

“It was good of Modi to bring in big companies like Tata Nano and Ford to set up manufacturing units here,” said Pravinbhai. “But these companies are exploitative and haven’t generated the jobs they promised.” The Nano plant in Sanand, launched in 2008, is his favourite example. “When it came, they took in 800 apprentices every year, at Rs 3,300 a month. But they remained trainees, never employees. Then the plant shut down for a long time and everyone lost their jobs, and now the unit is barely functional.”

The fizzling out of Nano’s operations is, in fact, a telling symptom of the ways in which Narendra Modi’s much-touted Gujarat model of development through industrialisation failed to deliver. All through his term as chief minister, the Patidars had been ardent supporters of Modi, but since the reservation agitation broke out, many Patels are not holding back their disillusionment and criticism.

“The jobs we were promised never came,” said Mahesh Patel, a diamond polisher from Ahmedabad. “The Gujarat model was all phekumbaazi (tall tales).”

A dull time for business

Many of Pravinbhai’s friends are Patel businessmen from Patan and Mehsana districts, Patidars who have kept their small-scale enterprises floating despite growing competition. Local kirana stores, for instance, are now competing with supermarkets like D-Mart and V-Mart that have mushroomed in the past few years. “They offer discounts that our small shops cannot match, and our educated youth wouldn’t want to take up low-paying private jobs in those kind of stores,” said Kalpesh Patel, who runs an agricultural produce store in Sidhpur.

(In Gangapura, Jeshangbhai Thakor had a very different experience. “Our boys tried to get jobs in D-Mart, but they were all taken up by the Patidars,” he said.)

For the average Patel businessman in Gujarat, however, the lure of government jobs is getting increasingly strong. In the textile and diamond sectors, the Patidars who populate the industry are largely in the middle and lower rungs of the workforce, earning an average of Rs 15,000 to 20,000 a month. And in the past three or four years, business has not been going well.

Sinking ships

In a poorly-lit embroidery factory room in Ahmedabad, 24-year-old Jignesh Serasiya says he no longer knows what to do with his business. A college drop-out, Serasiya moved to the city from his village in Amreli in 2010, and decided to get into the cotton textile industry because “there was no hope of getting a government job”. With a Rs 4 lakh loan, he bought a second-hand embroidery machine, rented a factory room and hired a Bihari workman, and managed to pay off his loan within two years.

Jignesh Serasiya in his embroidery factory.

“But for the past two years, there has been a mandi [downturn] that has drained out my profits,” he said. The government, he claims, has been hoarding raw material to keep it in short supply for the “small people”. “They want the big industries to benefit. Otherwise why don’t we get subsidies on electricity and other help from the government?”

In Surat’s Rs 90,000-crore diamond sector, Patidar diamond polishers claim the recent downturn has left thousands of workers unemployed as businesses have shut shop. Many of those slugging it out in the industry have faced pay-cuts.

“My salary was cut down by half last year and I have to support three people at home,” said Kishore Patel, a diamond polisher in Surat. “The government has done nothing to help our industry.”

Of scissors in the stomach

Instability in agriculture and business has led to unemployment across all caste groups in Gujarat; the problems of corruption and the creamy layer in education and government jobs has disillusioned youth all over. But at the heart of the Patels' restlessness are two other factors: a dearth of brides and a hardening of traditional caste prejudices, triggered by anxieties over the uncertain nature of jobs in an increasingly privatised economy.

“Marriage is becoming a huge problem for Patidars,” said Dinesh Patel, an auto parts businessman from Unjha, Mehsana. “Parents don’t want to give their girls unless the boy has a secure government job. There have been cases where Patel girls have eloped with boys from other castes too.”

When Patidars speak of “other castes”, they typically mean OBC groups whom they consider inferior to themselves. These are the “45% students” who Hardik Patel claims take up the college seats and job opportunities that the “80% Patel students” ideally deserve.

Almost every other Patidar spoke to explained this situation with one tired refrain: When a 45% student from a halki” (low) caste becomes a doctor, he will end up leaving his surgical scissors in the patient’s stomach.

“Have you ever noticed how the queues in a private bank are always longer than the cues in a public sector bank?” asked Kalpesh Patel of Sidhpur. “And have you noticed that the longer line actually moves faster? It’s because the man behind the public bank counter is a halki caste wala who got in through reservation, not merit. If Patels got those jobs, even the public banks would be popular.”

Why not aspire to the private bank job, though? Because, says Kalpesh, the public bank would pay better. “Private jobs have no security and they make you work so much more!”

Even among the Patel minority – the class that can afford to send their children to study and work in first world countries – the desire for reservations and government jobs is cloaked in the rhetoric of patriotism.

“As an engineer, my son couldn’t find any well-paying private job in India, and government jobs only go to those who pay donations,” said Devshri Ghelani, a Patidar pharmaceutical businessman from Ahmedabad who eventually sent his son to Canada. “It’s better to earn in dollars than pay donations here. But when will our government allow Patels to serve India?”

This is the first part of a series on renewed demands for caste quotas across the country.