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