Nothing prepares you for the disappointment of meeting Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old leader of the Patidar reservation movement.
You go to meet him expecting an anti-reservation crusader, a fiery orator who plans to unite "27 crore" Patidars under his leadership and an ideologue keen to dismantle the existing caste-based quota system and replace it with a new idiom of social justice.
But, after interacting with him for a few minutes, the image that lingers is of a young man inspired by violence, street-vigilantism, parochialism and contradictory, confused notions of injustice. He comes across as a disturbing mix of his idol Bal Thackeray's politics and Raj Thackeray's methods. Maybe, his movement is the precursor to the launch of the Gujarat model of Shiv Sena.
Hardik Patel, however, argues he is inspired by Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. "The day we find out who is the General Dwyer of the Jallianwallah Bagh of Ahmedabad (the man who ordered police action against Patidars on August 25), we will kill him," Hardik Patel says, revealing the principles of his politics.
Just a day before the Ahmedabad rally, which, he claims, was attended by more than 20 lakh Patidars, Hardik Patel had not ruled out violence as an option. "But, it will not come to that," he had told Ahmedabad edition of DNA. So, his post-event craving for retribution isn't a reaction to the alleged brutality by the state. It is the basis of his movement.
Hardik Patel owes his rise to the vigilantism of the Sardar Patel Group, aptly called SPG, an organisation that claims to protect members of his community from lukkhas (bullies and petty criminals). "If somebody touches our women, we break their hands. Kitne haath tode maine, maloom?" he asks. Obviously, pictures of Hardik Patel moving around with a double-barrel slung on his shoulders are perfect posters for his persona.
Hardik Patel was born and brought up in Viramgaon, nearly 120-km west of Ahmedabad. His father sells submersible pumps to keep the family afloat; his younger sister, who failed to get a scholarship even after "topping her matriculation exam", is believed to be the inspiration behind his own struggle.
But, I met him in Ahmedabad's Bopal suburb on Friday evening (August 28). "When you see him, you will wonder, is this what India has come to? You will be underwhelmed," Jumana Shah, executive editor of DNA Ahmedabad, had warned me earlier in the day. Ergo, the scale of expectations was already adjusted.
Yet, it is disappointment at first sight. While on our way to his friend's flat, we spot him in the parking lot, seeing-off a few friends. He is dressed in a sky-blue shirt, pale yellow trousers, loose sandals worn over socks; several sacred threads and a watch with a large dial are competing for space on his slim wrist and the gun is missing from the shoulder. I almost glide past him, ignoring the anti-Mandal messiah completely. But, thankfully, I am stopped from starting on an embarrassing note by a fellow journalist, who pulls me back and says, "Meet Hardik Patel."
Soon Hardik is slouched on a sofa placed in the middle of his friend Chiragbhai Patel's second-storey flat. So, what will be his next move? "I am going to Delhi," he replies. Is it to scale up the movement, interact with leaders of Gujjar and Jat communities, Patidars from other states? "No, I have been asked to appear in Aap Ki Adalat (a TV show). So, I will go when they send the tickets," Hardik Patel reveals his next move.
What happens to the movement? "We will first help families who have been affected by the violence that followed the rally. Ten persons died because police attacked peaceful agitators without provocation or warning. Our focus is now on raising money for them, healing the wounds of the community."
And then the interview is seemingly over. Hardik buries his head in a mobile phone and gets busy doing what most of the youth his age do: chat with friends on WhatsApp. "You speak to Chiragbhai," he says and starts punching the keypad furiously.
Chiragbhai, who owns a shop in Bopal, starts with politics before explaining his philosophy. He denies any link to Narendra Modi, labels Amit Shah the perpetrator of Tuesday's violence, asks, ''Kejriwal who?", calls Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu fellow Patidars, argues there are 27 crore Patels in India and their influence decides outcome of 118 Lok Sabha constituencies and, when asked if the RSS is behind the movement, jokes that Mohan Bhagwat calls him daily.
Then he holds forth on the anger within his community because of the inability to compete with OBCs who enjoy quota benefits. He talks about how the Patidars have become desperate because of acquisition of their agriculture land for urbanisation and industrialisation, and the failure of traditional businesses because of competition from online retailers.
Chiragbhai's spiel is standard Indian narrative; his grievances could have been the story of a Bania in Uttar Pradesh and a Gujjar in Rajasthan. The story of diminishing opportunities in rural areas, sale of agriculture land, either under distress or for government projects, and the rising competition for government jobs and admission to professional courses can be heard in almost every corner of India.
But, why have only the Patidars risen in protest? The query distracts Hardik Patel, perhaps he find it worthy of a reply. So, he tosses aside the mobile and breaks into a monologue: "Patels know they have run out of options. Agriculture can't sustain them. Education under Gujarat's self-finance system is expensive, admissions cost money and many Patels are forced to sell their land for it. But, in the end, spending a fortune on education doesn't help either. Admissions to good, job-oriented courses is tough, government jobs can't be secured without bribes. The entire system is unjust, it leads to financial misery and ruin," he says.
Hardik Patel is now drawn into the conversation, the phone is forgotten. He speaks in a mix of Gujarati and Hindi, in staccato, short sentences to enthusiastically explain why the Patidars follow him.
The essence: "People are selfish. When we break the hands of people who touch our girls, everybody supports us because they know their family could be next. It is the same with reservation. Patels have begun to realise that today it is their neighbour's son who is getting destroyed by the system; tomorrow it could be his son's turn. So, they have united."
Once upon a time, a great man from Gujarat had started a revolution in India with his ability to inspire moral courage in his followers, fight for the under-privileged and the social pariah. He achieved this with the help of politics based on non-violence and a philosophy that was the anti-thesis of the principle of an eye for an eye.
Hardik Patel's politics, steeped in violence, retribution and the philosophy of "breaking up every hand that attacks the dignity of Patel women and future of Patidar men" is a counter argument to the pre-Independence legacy of Gujarat. Is this what India has come to?
Hardik Patel has left now, whizzing away in an swanky, expensive SUV.
Men will be men. And, in politics, boys will be boys!
Updated Date: Aug 31, 2015 10:36 AM