On the night of August 25, 2015, Dinesh and Geeta Patel sat watching television in the small living room of their ground floor home in India Colony, a middle-class neighbourhood in suburban Ahmedabad. In another room, their two teenage sons were fast asleep.
Ahmedabad was in a state of turmoil that day after Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s protest rally – demanding reservations for his caste group – ended with police lathi-charge and mob rioting. Because of the tense situation and police curfew, Dinesh claims he hadn’t ventured out of the house all evening.
Suddenly, at around 11.30 pm, the couple heard loud knocks at their door. There were nine or ten policemen outside. “As soon as I unlocked the door, they just stormed in and started beating me with lathis,” said Dinesh Patel, who works in a tool-making factory. “I told them I hadn’t done anything, but they kept saying, ‘It was you’ and dragged me out.”
Geeta Patel, meanwhile, was forced to watch helplessly. “They cornered me at gun point and I could not even call out to my sons till they had taken him away in their van,” she said. “We were targeted only because our lights were still on, while the rest of the colony was dark.”
Even six months after his detention, memories of police atrocities in the aftermath of the Patidar rally continue to haunt Dinesh Patel. “They beat us relentlessly in the police van – me and two other Patels they picked up,” he said. “In the lock-up, we saw that many more Patels had been arrested. They interrogated us for hours in the middle of the night, without giving us any water. Three days later, they moved us to Sabarmati Central Jail.”
After a month in prison, Dinesh Patel was let out on a bail bond of Rs 10,000. For another month, he was forced to live in his father’s village because bail conditions didn’t allow him to enter Ahmedabad. “I was lucky to get my job back after all that, because my family was bankrupt,” he said.
But like hundreds of other Patels who were temporarily arrested in August, Dinesh Patel is now stuck, indefinitely, with the humiliating tag of being an accused in a criminal case. He has been booked for attempt to murder under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, for allegedly attacking a constable from a police station 3 km away from his home. “During my 32 days in jail, that constable wasn’t brought even once to identify me as his attacker. They booked me in the case anyway,” said Patel. “They still haven’t filed the charge sheet, so I don’t know how long I will have to live with this false case.”
‘We are still afraid of the police’
According to leaders of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, a total of 457 First Information Reports were filed against 1,482 Patels across Gujarat in the three days after the August 25 rally. Their alleged crimes ranged from unlawful assembly and rioting to attempted murder and murder. Around 90 cases have now been withdrawn. Like Dinesh Patel, the majority say they have been made accused in FIRs for crimes they claim they did not commit.
Meanwhile, almost every attempt by Patidars to file criminal cases against the police has hit a dead end. These included allegations that the police barged into Patel colonies, smashed cars and windows, beat up residents and made sexualised threats to women on the nights of August 25 and 26.
With Hardik Patel and at least three other top leaders of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti still holed up in jails on charges of sedition, the Patel community across Gujarat is now bitterly disenchanted with the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government and increasingly distrustful of all state machinery, including the police and the judiciary.
“It’s been six months since the police violence, but till today, all residents in our area are afraid of the police,” said Maheshbhai Patel, a diamond polisher from Bapunagar, one of the Patel-dominated neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad that bore the brunt of the reported police atrocities in August.
Thirty-year-old Shwetang Patel died in police custody after he was picked up on August 25 from his home in Bapunagar’s Matrushakti housing colony and beaten severely. An FIR was lodged against Bapunagar police officials only after the Gujarat High Court ordered the city’s crime branch to take over the case, but several Patel residents believe the investigations are being compromised. “Till a month ago, police officers were patrolling the lanes of Matrushakti colony, serving as an indirect threat to residents who may have wanted to become witnesses in the Shwetang Patel case,” said Maheshbhai Patel.
Shot right through the head
The widespread fear of the police is palpable in Patel-dominated pockets even outside of Ahmedabad. In Mehsana city, for instance, the family of Pratik Patel has given up hope of filing a complaint against the local police, even though 30-year-old Pratik Patel was shot right through the head when the police opened fired at a crowd on August 26.
“That day, he stepped out of the house only to get petrol for his bike, before the curfew started,” said Ganpatbhai Patel, Pratik Patel’s uncle. Around 30 minutes later, the family got a call from a stranger: Pratik Patel had been shot at while standing with a crowd of Patels protesting near the petrol pump. The bullet hit the right side of his forehead and came out through the left side of his scalp.
Miraculously, Pratik Patel survived. Six months after undergoing multiple surgeries, he is house-bound, semi-paralysed and oblivious that his family is steeped in debt worth almost a crore. He used to help his father in their transport business and now that he can’t work, the business is struggling to stay afloat.
“I don’t remember anything,” said Pratik Patel, sitting between his mother and uncle with a vacant expression in his eyes. He speaks with a heavy lisp and has trouble remembering anyone beyond his parents, wife, 4-year-old daughter and other immediate relatives. “He goes through physiotherapy every day, but the doctors have no idea if he will ever get better,” said Ramilaben Patel, Pratik’s mother.
The family attempted to file a case against the police in the weeks after the shooting, but claim they were turned away. “The police is not allowed to shoot above the knee while controlling a crowd, and they claim Pratik got shot accidentally when he fell down,” said Kirit Patel, a Mehsana district court lawyer representing several Patels in rioting cases. “But that crowd was completely unarmed, so why was the police firing shots in the first place?”
Despite several attempts, Scroll.in was unable to reach JT Sisodia, the inspector at Mehsana’s B-division police station in whose jurisdiction Pratik Patel was shot at.
‘Congress is taking advantage of this moment’
If Patels in Ahmedabad and Mehsana are to be believed, the police-Patidar animosity has only grown worse in the past six months.
“We are not being given any permissions to hold rallies or public meetings,” said Lalbhai Patel, the Mehsana president of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti. “We are being needlessly discriminated against. In this district at least, Patels get fined more than others for basic traffic violations. Sometimes our youth are detained without proof simply for gathering in a group. This never used to happen before.”
In response, Patidar activists have banded together more strongly than before, to put together a support system for those discriminated against within the caste group. The Patidar Samiti has been collecting funds to finance the medical expenses of injured youth like Pratik Patel. The organisation has also created an informal directory of Patidar lawyers across Gujarat who are willing to fight cases for accused Patels without a fee.
The community’s frustration with the police force and the state government has also translated into political polarisation, with Patels seeking support everywhere outside the BJP. Patel leaders have recently been vocal about the BJP’s promotion of communal politics. Not surprisingly, the Congress has been at the forefront of trying to cash in on growing Patidar resentment with the BJP.
At the High Court in Ahmedabad, for instance, two of the most prominent lawyers representing arrested Patidar Samiti leaders and other accused Patels are also Congress members – Babubhai Mangukia and Rohit Patel. “The Congress is definitely taking advantage of this moment,” said advocate Rohit Patel.
‘It’s time for a change in government’
On the ground, Congress party workers are already busy campaigning for the state assembly election scheduled in 2017. Sonalben Patel, vice president of the Congress in Ahmedabad, makes daily visits to housing colonies across the city, mobilising residents to support her party.
“If it is a Patel colony, it’s easy," said Sonalben Patel, who has been a Congress member since 2003. “If it is others, then I tell them, ‘If this is how BJP treats its long-time supporters, what would it do to you? All this while, most Patels supported the BJP, but after what happened in August, I would say 50-60% of them are supporting the Congress out of khunnas [spite]. This is particularly true in the villages and towns, if not so much in the cities.”
More than anything, the Congress hopes to ride on a growing anti-incumbency sentiment expressed by Patidars like Maheshbhai Patel. Oblivious to the ironic parallels with the sentiment that brought the BJP to power at the Centre, Maheshbhai Patel said, “Having one government in power for too long is not a good thing. Gujarat has been with the BJP for two decades, and now it’s time for change.”