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Above: Patidar and OBC groups clash in Ahmedabad/Photo: UNI

Even as Maharashtra handed out reservation sops to Marathas, Gujarat came out with a list of 69 castes and sub-groups among Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Jews, defined as “unreserved classes”

By RK Misra in Gandhinagar

The caste conundrum has burnt the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and is set to singe it in Gujarat. It was caught in a cleft stick following the 2015 Patidar agitation and nearly toppled from power in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections. In fact, successive BJP governments in Gujarat find themselves lost in the reservation alley, sinking farther every time they seek to thrash their way out.

Gujarat’s latest move came on December 8 when it put out a list of 69 castes and sub-groups among Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Jews who will be defined as “unreserved classes”. Officially, the list is designed to provide caste certificates to those from the unreserved castes so that they can get benefits under the Gujarat Unreserved Educational and Economic Development Corporation scheme of 2017.

A top political leader told India Legal: “This means the government has created a new category called ‘unreserved castes’.” A Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader said: “This is nothing new, except that there is an urgency gripping the BJP as it realises its support base is slipping. These are attempts to inject new life into an old issue for publicity’s sake.”

The fact is that the Vijay Rupani government found itself handicapped after its own party government in Maharashtra founded a new “socio-education backward class” to grant reservation benefits to Marathas. Post-Narendra Modi governments in Gujarat have been battling an intransigent Patidar community led by a youthful Hardik Patel, heading PAAS, who has been demanding reservation in education and government jobs for his community. The issue has seen heightened political passion, violence and state-wide agitation which continues to simmer. It continues to blight Rupani, especially after Maharashtra’s announcement of a special category for Marathas.

Patel pounced on the issue and asked: “If it is possible constitutionally in Maharashtra, how come Gujarat failed, stating that beyond 50 percent reservation was not possible?”

In 1981 Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki introduced reservation for socially and economically backward classes (SEBC) based on recommendations of the Bakshi Commission. But the anti-reservation agitation, in which the BJP was also a silent participant, put paid to the effort.

Though simmering on the backburner, the issue came to the fore in July 2015 when the Patidars held public demonstrations in support of their demand for OBC status. A rally in Ahmadabad on August 25, 2015, led to state­wide violence after a police assault on peaceful agitators. Subsequently, on September 24, 2015, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel announced a scheme which offered scholarships and subsidies to general category students.

On April 30, 2016, her government followed it up with a new 10 percent quota in jobs and college admissions for the economically backward among upper classes in a bid to defuse the Patidar agitation. The decision was taken at a core committee meeting of the Gujarat BJP at which national president Amit Shah was also present.

The new quota took the state past the 50 percent reservation limit set by the Supreme Court. Gujarat then had 48 percent reservation, which included seven percent for Scheduled Castes, 14 percent for Scheduled Tribes and 27 percent for OBCs. PAAS rejected the move as a lollipop. The 10 percent reservation for EBCs was predictably quash­ed by the Gujarat High Court in August 2016.

Former Chief Minister Suresh Mehta sees the genesis of the present problem in the rising frustration among the youth caused by soaring unemployment. “Blinded by the extravaganza unleashed by then CM Narendra Modi through the Vibrant Gujarat summits that promised an upsurge of jobs, the youth were led into a blind alley and were frustrated when not even a fraction of these materialised. When parents pay through their nose for costly education and thereafter the children sit idle at home with degrees in hand, the result is an explosive mix which spills over in society, causing incalculable harm,” he said.

The present delineation of the “unreserved groups” is an exercise which was launched in September 2017 in the run-up to the Vidhan Sabha elections in the shape of the Gujarat Unreserved Educational and Economic Development Corporation (GUEEDC). Under the scheme, the government intended to grant monetary benefits to youth for education, including foreign education, food bill assistance, tuition fee assistance, coaching assistance, aid for competitive exams, self-employment assistance and bank loans for professionals training for competitive examinations.

Of the total budgetary allocation of Rs 500 crore, the state government has sanctioned Rs 100 crore for GUEEDC. But it has so far received a mere Rs 7.25 crore and in-principle approval for another Rs 2.74 crore, according to official sources. Until November this year, only 433 applications were rec­eived, of which 146 were approved, 109 rejected and 127 are under processing.

Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said: “This government is only interested in making grand announcements, but when it comes to implementation, it is a big zero. Moreover, this is an election announcement. The scheme was announced before the Vidhan Sabha elections and now as the parliamentary ones are nearing, along come ano­ther set of announcements. The actual allocation is a minuscule amount.”

The setting up of the Corporation came as PAAS threatened to start another stir after the Maharashtra Bill was passed. PAAS recently submitted a memorandum to the State OBC Commission stating that the Maharashtra Commission for Backwards had accepted that the Maratha community belongs to the backward caste. It said that on similar lines, Patidars too should qualify in Gujarat.

Patel is also in talks with the Congress on the issue and the quota stir is expected to get a push in the coming days. This is more so following the release of PAAS leader Alpesh Kathiria from jail on charges of sedition in connection with the pro-quota stir. He was released on bail recently and got a hero’s welcome. Patel said that he would be the next face of the stir.

“The BJP is playing with fire as it aims to play one set of people against the other. This base politics will eventually sink it,” said former Chief Minister Shankersinh Vaghela. “The recent election results in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are proof of this.”

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