In early 2011, I met a young Muslim man in Ahmedabad who was keen to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. The previous year, he had watched the BJP field a Muslim candidate in the city’s municipal elections and he was inspired by the change he noticed in the party. Growing up, he saw his father attempt to scale the ranks of the Congress party only to be told by its leaders that he could not obtain an election ticket because he was not wealthy or well known enough.
A few months later, the young man called to tell me that he was giving up on the BJP too.
“No one cares that I am a Muslim. In fact, the BJP needs Muslims for their image. But when I go to a meeting, it is only Patels, and Patels only respect other Patels. Even a Mehta or a Thacker is not welcome. Forgot about being a Roy or a Lakhani,” he said.
I did not make much of his comment at the time. After all, there are many prominent leaders in the BJP—Amit Shah, for example—who are not Patels. A few weeks later, he asked to meet again.
“Can you make sure that you do not use my name or my school name when you write about what I said about Patels?” he said, trembling.
I experienced this again earlier this year when I interviewed a senior leader in the BJP who was once a close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We met several times and on our last meeting, after I turned off my digital recorder and headed to the door, he told me that the reason Modi did not select him to move to the Centre was because he was not a Patel. Perhaps more telling is that he said I could use his name when I quote him on his belief that Modi was complicit in the 2002 riots but I could not use his name when he spoke about Patels.
Both of these individuals may be paranoid (and perhaps prejudiced) and there might be other factors as to why they did not advance in the BJP. But their stories testify to a widespread and unspoken feeling that some castes have been more privileged that others by the BJP government in Gujarat.
Silence on caste
The trouble is that caste is the one issue that we cannot talk about, in the same way that Americans cannot stomach a conversation about race. In a brilliant interview, the Dominican American writer Junot Diaz articulates the reasons why white supremacy endures its lasting power.
“The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels,” Diaz says. “And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction.”
It is this type of logic that explains the distressing number of Americans who believe that the US President Barack Obama is the most racist president in US history precisely because he talks about race.
And it is a similar mindset that dominates Gujarat today. The person who is the most casteist is not the one who discriminates based on caste but the person who speaks about caste. Patels enjoy their dominance in Gujarat, in part, because of our refusal to address the structural reasons why some castes advance while others do not.
How then do we make sense of the grievances of Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old clad in army fatigues who wields a gun and suggests that all Gujaratis carry one too?
Two things stand out. In Arjun Appadurai’s moving book Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, he writes that “Numerical majorities can become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers precisely when some minorities (and their small numbers) remind these majorities of the small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethos. This sense of incompleteness can drive majorities into paroxysms of violence against minorities.” If a group has 99 out of a possible 100 seats, for example, it may hate and even fear the person occupying the remaining seat because it will feel that it cannot reach its potential unless that one person is removed.
Certainly not all Patels hold this view and many Patels do not gain from the economic benefits that Hardik Patel’s sub-caste of Patels enjoy. We have also seen many Patels come out this week in opposition to Hardik Patel.
But Hardik is a fascinating case study because instead of articulating a nuanced view of the economic policies of Modi, he believes that what is preventing his caste’s rise is because there is one group—the OBCs—that are blocking his and his community’s progress. In short, he feels vulnerable because his group’s dominance is not absolute.
Second, the brashness of Patel’s views should be understood in the context of the suppression of civic discussion in Gujarat.
Achyut Yagnik, the co-author of the outstanding Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity told me in 2013 that one of the consequences of Modi’s style of governance is that it is has made self-reflection almost impossible. “Modi is not just the number one. He is the number one through eleven and if you want to voice your opinion here, then you have to be prepared to be called anti-national,” Yagnik said.
Taking on the government
One of the reasons why Hardik Patel is popular is because he does not care about upsetting the government, a rare quality in Gujarat. In the past few days, he has said that “India is basically for Hindus,” and that “If somebody touches our women, we break their hands. Kitne haath tode maine, maloom?”
His views are unsurprising. Patel is the byproduct of a state that has paralyzed discussion to such an extent and for so long that when the youth voices gets its rare chance to articulate itself, it has to scream to be heard.
Earlier this year, I attended a memorial for Arvind Nagani Dharaiy, a 21-year-old cotton farmer from Gujarat who committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Some of his last words, which have been recorded on video, were “Modi is Hitler.”
I interviewed Dharaiy’s former roommate, (who also asked that I not mention his name) who said that weeks before Dharaiy killed himself, he tried to hold a forum in Ahmedabad at his college to discuss the condition of farmers. Dharaiy was ridiculed for his suggestion and told that “this anti-Gujarat talk is not productive.” “In Gujarat, because of the climate here now, you have to do something extreme to be heard,” Dharaiy’s roommate said.
I think of Dharaiy’s roommate when I see Hardik Patel.