NEW DELHI (AP) — The head of a west Indian farming community vowed Wednesday to lead India's poor in challenging the country's decades-old quota system meant to make up for centuries of caste discrimination.
Hardik Patel, a 22-year-old firebrand from Gujarat state, said he wanted to represent the 270 million Indians being left out of quota benefits, including guaranteed government jobs or university spots. He has already captivated millions in Gujarat with his demand that quotas be eliminated or extended to include his own Patidar caste, also known as the Patel community for the last name they share.
"I am fighting for the Patels. But we want to include all other backward castes in our battle for justice," Patel said at a news conference, where he was mobbed by hundreds of supporters and a wall of television cameras and photographers.
Patel's ongoing campaign, drawing millions of youths and farmers to rallies over the past three months, has challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi's assertions of being a champion of the poor. Before becoming prime minister, Modi had served 12 years as Gujarat's chief minister, and held the state's development as a model for the nation to emulate.
Patel said Wednesday that he was holding talks with the leaders of other discontented castes within India's ancient system of social hierarchy. Because quotas offer access to government jobs, schools and universities, they've become a huge political bargaining chip in this country of nearly 1.3 billion people. In the last decade, several groups have led violent protests to demand that they, too, be counted at the bottom.
He noted that, initially, his demands had been met with skepticism, as critics believed many Patels were affluent businessmen who owned shops and other ventures across the country. But Patel said that was wrong, and many in Gujarat are living in abject poverty. Patidars make up about 20 percent of Gujarat's 63 million people and rely on seasonal farming for their livelihoods.
"Ninety-five percent of Patels are poor and struggling," he said, blaming decades of being passed over for jobs and other opportunities while other groups were favored.
India's constitution, adopted soon after the country's 1947 independence, sets out a system of affirmative action for those belonging to the lowest rungs of the country's caste hierarchy to help them overcome centuries of discrimination. Over decades, the government has expanded the number of groups qualifying for quotas, called reservations.