India: The country where everyone wants to be backward

India: The country where everyone wants to be backward

Race to the bottom, here everyone wants to be backward. By and large, Homo Sapiens wish to progress – become, so to speak, better, brighter, faster, higher, smarter and eager to race to the top. But in India, it seems, it’s an aberration. It is a regressive race, racing to the bottom!

Even before Charles Darwin scientifically expounded the theory of evolution and established that not only human beings, but all living species evolve over a period of time, over millennia and survive by becoming fitter than the rest, many sages and rishis both in India from our Vedic past and from Greco-Roman times have shown ways to their fellow men how to become superior beings and souls.

But here in India, after independence, we are bemused to find every one is falling over each other to prove that they are backward and claiming they are going backward as every year passes. The rest of the world must be wondering at this streak phenomena of Indians, proving Darwin and others wrong. While the Prime Minister is chest thumping and claiming at every opportunity he gets, that India is now a developed nation or is speeding in that direction and is set to join the rest of advanced nations, his kin are claiming otherwise and are even proud to be retarded.

The Jats, the Gujjars, the Gowdas, the Lingayats, and so forth, and even the temple priests and some Brahmin sub castes, and the shocker of shockers the powerful and rich Patels are now demanding that the government declare them backward.

There was a time when you didn’t want others to know you were backward and behind the times, lacking in education and social graces but pretended with the pretenders that you too belonged with them. Now everyone is rushing to flaunt and wear their backwardness on their sleeves!

The ‘poor Brahmin‘ is now an accepted phrase. He got behind in the race to backwardness and was excluded by the entire reservation quota and found himself unable to get adequate seats in government medical and engineering colleges, and consequently in government jobs.

I heard this interesting hypothesis once from a well known hotelier. He ran a Udupi hotel chain – the ubiquitous Brahmin vegetarian fast food ‘Idli -Vada – Masala Dosa‘ restaurant, no McDonald’s can compete with – the kind you find in every street corner in all of South India. He said it was a blessing in disguise, this denial of college seats, usurped by the backward classes. Because there were no government jobs for them, the starving Brahmins from the Udupi and Mangalore area set up a vegetarian hotel and soon acquired the sobriquet ‘Udupi Hotel’ that became synonymous with South Indian veg fast food and propelled them to prosperity. He said if they too were entitled to reservations, they would have ended up as clerks and officers in banks mostly or would have found themselves in other government pen pushing jobs. South Canara is the home of five major banks, he reminded.

Hardik Patel forgets, that though there be Patels who may be poor and ‘backward’ in the classic sense of the word to fit into the reservation class, as in many economically forward communities, in the main, in the absence of reservations, luckily, the Patels surged and forged ahead with their sheer enterprise, drive , hard work, tenacity and courage to occupy the forefront of various businesses both here and overseas and dominate many trades. They may be conservative and traditional in their way of life, holding on to their cultural moorings but they are forward looking in their pursuit of their careers and in creating wealth whether they are Africa, the U.S., UK and parts of Europe notably Antwerp and Amsterdam. In India too, they are dominant not just in Gujarat but many other parts of India.

I think it was 1994 when I first met Japanese scholar Takashi Shinoda, an Indologist, during my routine visit to the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, Ahmedabad, at that time still known for some quality research. Once headed such academics of highest order such as DT Lakdawala and YK Alagh, the institute has since collapsed – at least this is what I learn from Gujarat’s academic circles, with whom I had developed good rapport before I was shifted to Gandhinagar to report on government affairs for the Times of India in 1997.

Unassuming, Shinoda took me to the institute canteen for tea, and told me of his latest area of interest – social mobility and occupational diversification of different castes over several decades. What he told me was indeed of great interest to me – that Gujarat’s “enterprising” Patels, who I thought till then were mainly a farming community, had still not overtaken the Banias in business. However, he underlined, “The way things are happening, they will soon overtake Banias.”

Shinoda gave me the text of the draft report, which he had prepared in English for those “interested” in the subject. “I find that the lowest level of occupational diversification is that of the scheduled castes (SCs), particularly the Valmikis. In fact, they have virtually seen no social mobility”, he said, pointing towards how occupational diversification is “a little higher” among the other backward class (OBC) communities, and was “still highest among the Shahs and other Bania surnames.”

At that time, I had never heard that Patels were slowly proving to be equally enterprising, if not more. All that I knew about Patels was Chimanbhai Patel, who, mobilizing Patel farmers, occupied the gaddi in Gandhinagar in early 1990s, first with the help of another Patel, BJP’s Keshubhai Patel, before coming back to the Congress fold.

Yet, the fact is, in 1993-94, there wasn’t much talk about how Patels were diversifying into trade and business in a big way, as Shinoda had tried to prove in his draft. “I will finalize the report and send it to you”, he told me. Recently, during the Patel upheaval, I decided to read through his paper again. Titled “Institutional Change and Entrepreneurial Development: SSI Sector”, the sub-heading of the paper is interesting: “The small scale sector in Gujarat has formed a fairly steady base of industrial activity. Yet there have been few attempts to study the caste and social background of small entrepreneurs.” I believe the situation hasn’t changed a bit.

It adds, “This paper using state compiled data sets analyses entrepreneurial development among different social groups in the state and derives interesting results.”

As Shinoda had told me, what he had done was to take data of the names of owners of functioning manufacturing units from whichever “authentic” sources he could, such as the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) and the Gujarat government industries department’s propaganda wing, the Industrial Extension Bureau. The data that he collected isn’t just of the small scale units, but also of medium and large-scale industries, and consists of enterprise name, name of the entrepreneur, type of industry, and address. He fed all of it in the computer, and with the help of software, separated well-known surnames of different castes, identifying the industrial units these surnames owned.

While there could be some error in correlating surnames with castes – Patels could also be Dalits, for instance – he possibly presumed that the error would be negligible, arguably because there were (and are) very few Dalits with Patel surname, and even among them the chance of their becoming businessmen was (and is) negligible.

While in 1994, Shinoda had told me that Patels were about to overtake Banias, the paper he published in EPW in 2000 declared that they had in fact already overtaken Banias. Pointing out that the title Patel “has become widely accepted among the populous and powerful Patidars since the 1930s”, he said, the surname denoted “a village head, a governmental functionary before independence… irrespective of his religion or caste”.

Things had changed. The rural Patel was no more just rural. Giving a complicated analysis, which is what all good scholars would do, at one point Shinoda explains, “Examining the distribution of major surnames in the list, the name Patel occupies the top position in all industries, except hosiery and garments. The dominance of Patel is overwhelming. Shah follows Patel, occupying either second or third place in most of the industries.” Then follows Panchal, an OBC caste, which is “not only very frequent” but ranks second to Patels in metal and machinery-related industries. As for Brahmin or Kshatriyas, he says, one does not find any industries with a high concentration of their surnames.

The scholar elaborates, the name Patel accounts for 22.3 per cent of all manufactured products in the sample. Its share is particularly high in food products (53.6 per cent), wood products (45.4 per cent), and non-metallic mineral products (34.1 per cent). To quote him, “These same agro-based and rural-based industries have played a very important role in the entrepreneurial development of the Patidars. Wood products and non-metallic mineral products are closely linked to the construction industry, which the Patidars have dominated in recent years.”

As is visibly clear to any keen observer, the pattern has continued. Patels have further diversified over the last one-and-a-half decades into other areas. They currently own India’s biggest diamond polishing units in Surat and Amreli, for instance, and they “import” polishing workers from different parts of Gujarat, mainly Amreli in Saurashtra. Many of them are sons of Patel farmers.

Forming one of the most formidable NRI communities in the US, Patels gained a lot in 1990s after the Gujarat government, under a Patel chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, abolished the law which barred farmers to buy agricultural land beyond eight km limit. This has apparently helped many Patels to turn to real estate in a big way. Patel NRIs and their relatives took advantage of this, and have bought huge pieces of land across, a former senior official, a Brahmin, told me bitterly once.

The Patels’ concentration is not just high in industry; it is also pretty high in the government. While there is no authentic figure, at least two senior Gujarat government officials – one of them is a Patel – have told me that Patels form between 18 and 22 per cent of all government officials, though admitting that the concentration is “not so high in the police.” Patels are said to be forming 12 per cent of Gujarat population.

According to these officials, in the police Patels would be “less than eight per cent” – and as one goes down the ladder, it would be even less, “about five per cent”, to quote one of the most knowledgeable journalists. The officials agreed, the lower police order is filled with OBCs, such as Thakores, who formed the foot soldiers during the pre-Independence era, and Bharwads, the cow breeding community, apart from the “warrior class”, the Rajputs.

“This”, added the top Gujarat-based journalist, “explains the reason why one can possibly call the recent unprecedented police attack on Patels after the rally in Ahmedabad on August 25 a sort of caste revenge. Of the nine Patels who died during the agitation which turned violent on August 26, police hit four on the head.” After all, Patels want a slot in the OBC quota of 27 per cent, or alternatively no quota at all – which would be simply unacceptable for the numerically strong Thakores, Kolis, Bharwards and other OBCs, who form about 42 per cent of Gujarat population.

Given this framework, why are Patels agitating, and whether they will face more retaliation, particularly from OBCs, is something that needs expert explanation. While there are conspiracy theories taking rounds – some say RSS began it all, pointing out to how Patel agitation flared up after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly met Surat’s Patel diamond barons – this doesn’t seem to explain things.

More than five lakh Patels gathered in Ahmedabad to demand reservation, which cannot happen because of a conspiracy. Is Gujarat economy, especially the small the medium sectors which are heavily dependent on Patels, in crisis? Did the Patels fail to get the share which they had expected from Narendra Modi’s biennial Vibrant Gujarat world business meets? Is there a higher degree if underemployment among the educated youths, a large section of which forms Patels? Do Patels feel that their erstwhile supreme leader, Keshubhai Patel, currently in the US, was slighted by an OBC Modi, as is the visible perception? Though Gujarat has a Patel chief minister – Anandiben Patel – she isn’t considered a Patel leader, like Keshubhai Patel was. In fact, one well-known Modi biographer informally called her a “dummy chief minister”!

The Patel demand for OBC status shows that such ‘backwardness’ has become a social and economic cachet in India, thanks to the assorted freebies like quotas and reservations which come with the OBC tag. This being the case, not only will more and more castes and sub-castes raise similar demands, but people of so-called ‘high’ castes, like brahmins, might resort to subterfuge or legal loopholes to get themselves ‘demoted’ to OBC status.

It could be argued that if the Constitution guarantees the rights of individuals to elect to belong to any religion or faith system of their choosing, shouldn’t the right be extended to include the choice of caste as well?

The right of free association – such as the forming of trade or labour unions – is also enshrined in the Indian polity. Many sociologists say that the origins of the caste system are based on the division of labour, and as such castes are the precursors of labour unions. By this reasoning, people should be allowed to choose which caste they want to belong to. So, how do I become a Patel?

If everyone wants to be backward and wants reservations, the only way out of this dilemma for PM Modi would be to declare on the next Republic Day or if the crisis looms and brooks no delay, then in his forth coming foreign trip to the U.S., he can announce that every community, nay the whole of India is backward. The Supreme Court be damned. The justices are out of times.

If Bob Dylan, were to come to India now, 50 years since he wrote that famous lyric and sang that great tune, he would again be happily singing – “The times they are A-changing…”

~ Dr. Bikram Lamba, a political and business strategist, can be contacted at