Photo Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP
On August 25, 2015, even as Rahul Desai joined thousands of Hardik Patel supporters in a rally demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars, he could never have imagined that he would be spewing venom against the Bharatiya Janata Party one day.
But six months after the infamous Patel rally, which led to rioting and vandalism in Ahmedabad and reported police atrocities on Patidars across Gujarat, Desai cannot contain his bitterness against the party ruling both the Centre and the state. The 31-year-old Desai is the Ahmedabad West convenor of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, and has been actively mobilising community members ever since Hardik Patel and other leaders of the organisation were arrested on sedition charges in October.
“In all my speeches, I remind people that we Patels have supported the BJP for years, not just through votes but also through notes,” said Desai, speaking to Scroll.in on a busy street in Ahmedabad’s Bapunagar suburb. “Patidar money helped BJP rise to power, and now look how they are treating us. We cannot let them win in the state election next year.”
Police atrocities unpunished?
Like many of the Patels around him, Desai’s grouse isn’t merely that the BJP is refusing to grant Other Backward Class status to the Patidar caste. The more immediate complaint, he says, is that the state government of Anandiben Patel has so far allowed the Gujarat police to get away with impunity with the many crimes it allegedly committed in the days after August 25, 2015.
For two days after the rally, in Bapunagar, Naroda, Ranip and other Patel-dominated neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad, army and Gujarat police personnel reportedly assaulted residents in their homes, vandalised their windows and cars, and made sexualised threats towards women. Similar allegations were made by Patidars in Surat, Mehsana, Patan and other parts of Gujarat.
Six months on, hundreds of Patel men have been slapped with what Desai calls “predominantly false” charges of looting, rioting, murder and attempt to murder. “But not a single FIR has been lodged against the police for breaking into our homes, beating innocent men and women, and destroying so much of our property,” he said. “We have gone to file complaints several times in the past few months, but none of it gets formally lodged as an FIR.”
The only case filed against the police so far has to do with the custodial death of Shwetang Patel, a 30-year-old from Bapunagar, and it was lodged only after the Gujarat High Courtordered the Criminal Investigation Department to take over the case. “All these months later, the CID’s investigations are going nowhere,” said Desai, one of the many Patidar Samiti members who pursued the registration of the First Information Report in Shwetang Patel’s case. “Only two policemen have been suspended so far, and they are both constables with desk jobs who could not have been involved in the beatings that led to Shwetang’s death.”
‘Congress did well because of Patels’
For many Patels, the outrage at such police “harassment” and the lack of media sympathy for their plight has led to a compounded frustration with the BJP government and its leaders.
The Patidar demand for OBC reservation was born out of growing unemployment, corruption in higher education and the alleged failure of Narendra Modi’s famed Gujarat model of development. Six months ago, the criticism of the BJP, which has ruled the state for 20 years, was guarded and hesitant. Now, as Patels struggle to cope with a newfound fear of the police and the perceived indifference of the state and Central governments, the anti-BJP sentiment has been pouring out.
When Gujarat had its local body elections in December 2015, the Congress won an unprecedented 21 district panchayats out of 31, even though the BJP retained its hold on civic bodies in urban areas. “The Congress did so well in rural Gujarat because of us Patels,” said Maheshbhai Patel, a diamond polisher from Bapunagar. “We could have made the BJP lose in urban areas also, but the names of at least five lakh Patels were taken off the voters list.”
Despite these allegations, Maheshbhai Patel is relieved that in India Colony, a neighbourhood within Bapunagar, all four civic corporators who won the election are from the Congress. In Mehsana, the local Patidar Samiti president Lalbhai Patel states with pride that the new chairman of the Mehsana municipal corporation’s town planning department is a Muslim woman from the Congress – Allahrakhi Belim. “This is the first time in years that a Muslim has held a post of authority at the municipal level in Mehsana, and the Patels are in a way responsible for that,” said Lalbhai Patel.
‘Godhra train burning was a BJP plan’
Six months ago, Patidars were uncomfortable bringing up the obvious parallels between the police atrocities they faced and the Muslim victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. But today, Patidar Samiti leaders like Rahul Desai and Lalbhai Patel are candid enough to raise the communal question themselves as they lash out against the BJP.
“The BJP is fundamentally a communal party that has been planting its ideology of fearing Muslims for years now,” said Desai. “I can tell you with certainty that Modi would never have been re-elected as the chief minister in 2002 if it had not been for the Godhra train burning.”
In February 2002, a mob at Godhra railway station killed 59 commuters of the Sabarmati Express by setting fire to its coaches. Thirty one Muslims were later convicted. The arson was followed by intense communal riots across Gujarat in which more than a thousand people died. Desai, who was in school at the time, remembers being shown videos of the Godhra train burning in class.
“They were doing it to propagate the idea that all Hindus need to come together or else the Muslims would kill us,” said Desai. “I don’t know if the men who burnt the train were Muslims or not, but I know that the Godhra train burning was a pre-planned political stunt by the BJP to win the state election later that year.”
When communal thinking takes root, says Desai, it is very difficult to get rid of. “Because of the BJP’s propaganda, all of us began to think communally, and I feel kind of cheated now,” he said. “Even today, people are afraid that Muslims will riot against them, but honestly, even if they don’t, the BJP will get it done.”
‘Such politics leads to Naxalism’
Desai acknowledges that he may not be speaking for all Patidars in Gujarat, but he is certain that all other members of the Patidar Andolan Samiti share his views.
In Mehsana, Lalbhai Patel could not agree more. “Of course, Godhra and the 2002 riots were orchestrated by the BJP. It is obvious to us now, but back then it wasn’t,” said Lalbhai Patel. “Last time they targeted Muslims. Now they are allowing the Patels to be persecuted. This is exactly the kind of politics that leads to the creation of Naxals.”
For now, Patidar leaders are in no mood to support the party they were once loyal to in the state Assembly election next year. But even as the community accepts help from the Congress to fight various cases against Patidar men, Desai and Lalbhai are firm that Patel allegiance will not blindly bend towards the Congress this election.
“We will vote for whoever gives in to our demands – both reservations and justice for the police atrocities,” said Lalbhai Patel. “The Patidars are already now building connections with OBC Thakors and Miyas [Muslims], so you never know – even a third front might come up.”