Caste move­ment joins main­stream pol­i­tics in Gu­jarat



In the sec­ond half of last year, Maharashtra saw a mas­sive spon­ta­neous move­ment. It was an upris­ing of the Maratha caste, trig­gered by the rape and mur­der of a young woman al­legedly by two Dalit boys in July 2016. Don’t we have rights? Why shouldn’t we as­sert our­selves? asked an ag­grieved com­mu­nity, band­ing it­self as a vic­timised caste. The move­ment staged silent marches criss­cross­ing 57 towns and cities and no politi­cal lead­ers were al­lowed to speak or come on the stage at any of the meet­ings. It es­chewed the con­ven­tional trap­pings of power pol­i­tics. Its so­cio-eco­nomic de­mands: Jus­tice for the dead girl and reser­va­tions in jobs and ed­u­ca­tion. Anec­do­tally, around 300,000 peo­ple con­gre­gated in the fi­nal mook mor­cha in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in Au­gust. Every politi­cal party backed the mor­cha but no one was able to cap­ture it. The com­mu­nity gave a me­moran­dum to Chief Min­is­ter Deven­dra Fad­navis and dis­persed.

Since then, noth­ing more has been heard about it. Has it gone un­der­ground? Or has it run aground?

In neigh­bour­ing Gu­jarat, three young men started three move­ments with dis­parate aims. Hardik Pa­tel started some­thing that un­seated one chief min­is­ter. Al­though seek­ing reser­va­tion in ed­u­ca­tion and jobs for the Pa­tels, it turned into a move­ment for the politi­cal as­ser­tion of the caste. Jig­nesh Me­vani sought jus­tice for his com­mu­nity, the Dal­its (who are tar­gets of the other backward classes and up­per castes, like the Pa­tels). And Alpesh Thakor sought to bring about a coali­tion of the lower sub-castes of OBCs with Sched­uled Castes and Sched­uled Tribes: Three strands, ap­par­ently at cross-pur­poses with each other, that the Congress is seek­ing to unite, segue­ing into the Assem­bly elec­tions in Gu­jarat in Novem­ber.

The first strand is in place. Alpesh Thakor has joined the Congress. Who is he? Why is he im­por­tant? And would he have had greater clout if he had stayed out­side the politi­cal power struc­ture, threat­en­ing it from the out­side?

Thakor emerged as an OBC leader in his own right when he led a cam­paign last year against liquor ad­dic­tion in North Gu­jarat. It helped that his fa­ther, Khod­ab­hai Pa­tel, was a Congress mem­ber. He floated the Ksha­triya Thakor Sena six years ago, which has more than 700,000 reg­is­tered mem­bers. Later, he floated the OBC, ST, SC Ekta Manch (OSS), and claims th­ese com­mu­ni­ties un­der one um­brella rep­re­sent about 70 per cent of the elec­toral pop­u­la­tion of Gu­jarat.

Gu­jarat is as casteist as any other part of India. Add eco­nomic frus­tra­tion and per­ceived loss of self-es­teem to the mix. Re­spected Ahmed­abad-based politi­cal an­a­lyst Achyut Yag­nik is quoted as say­ing it is a po­tent mix. “Ev­ery­body is protest­ing. The youth are dis­il­lu­sioned. The jobs that were promised have not been cre­ated, small and medium in­dus­tries are badly af­fected by de­mon­eti­sa­tion and the poor im­ple­men­ta­tion of the GST, and agrar­ian cri­sis also pre­vails to add to that,” he is re­ported as say­ing.

So will Thakor’s “de­fec­tion” help or hin­der the BJP? The cam­paign against liquor ad­dic­tion in North Gu­jarat is just the prox­i­mate rea­son to band to­gether. The real mo­ti­va­tion is a fight for as­ser­tion, self-re­spect and iden­tity — not un­like the Maratha mook mor­cha ag­i­ta­tion, ex­cept that in Maharashtra noth­ing more has been heard of the move­ment, while in Gu­jarat Thakor’s strength (and that of his col­leagues) is yet to be tested.

As so­cial mo­bil­i­sa­tions, which work bet­ter — in­side the tent look­ing out (the Thakor model) or out­side the tent look­ing in (the mook mor­cha model)?

In some ways, we will know this on De­cem­ber 18.


Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi ( right) with OBC leader Alpesh Thakor at a pub­lic meet­ing in Gu­jarat

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