A march organised by Hardik Patel’s Patidar group on Monday had to be called off as no one turned up. In a week, it will be 200 days since the self-styled leader of the Patidar quota movement was sent to jail on sedition charges. Keeping him out of the picture appears to have helped the Gujarat government deflate some of the momentum of a movement it struggled to control.
The absence of Hardik and five of his key associates has deflected the protest to more immediate issues such as withdrawal of the cases against them, and led to emergence of different power centres.
Hardik’s lawyer Rafik Lokhandwala argues that there is not enough evidence to keep him in jail for so long. “The theoretical views of the applicant may or may not be possible, but the applicant can’t be termed an enemy of the state for raising his voice for his caste,” he says.
Dharmik Malaviya, co-convenor of the Hardik-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in Surat, says they have been lying low “because the government has been telling the court that if Hardik and other leaders are let out on bail, there will be more riots”. “Our first concern is getting them out on bail, only then we can push our quota issue further.”
With Hardik gone, Malaviya adds, PAAS leaders have got confined to their centres. “People love Hardik. When he said something, the community listened.”
The Sardar Patel Group (SPG) led by Lalji Patel held a successful, and violent, Jail Bharo Andolan on April 17, seeking Hardik’s release. However, PAAS and SPG remain distant from each other.
Malaviya told The Indian Express, “The violence at the Jail Bharo Andolan could have been a reason for nobody turning up for Monday’s march. Also there is a leadership crisis in the community.”
This rift between the SPG and PAAS stays despite the fact that the 33-day Ekta Yatra held in Saurashtra to unite the Leuva and Kadva Patels in February-March saw a good turnout.
The 22-year old Hardik had shot to limelight on August 25 last year, when he addressed a massive crowd of about seven-eight lakh Patidars from across Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, to push for OBC status for the community. Nine Patidars and a policeman died in violence following the Ahmedabad rally. Subsequent peace talks with the government failed.
On October 18, Hardik was arrested for trying to stage a demonstration outside a stadium in Rajkot where an ODI was on between India and South Africa. This was based on phone transcripts purportedly between Hardik and other Patidar leaders, where he reportedly discussed plans to block all highways “by breaking empty soda bottles, parking trucks on the way and burning tyres” on the evening before the ODI.
In the case, besides Hardik, Dinesh Bhambhaniya (Patel), Ketan Patel and Chirag Patel are in jail, while Katheriya and Amrish Patel are absconding.
The next day, an FIR was lodged against Hardik at Amroli in Surat, charging him with creating disaffection, abetment and destruction of evidence. The Surat case was based on a TV grab showing Hardik purportedly advising a supporter who had threatened to commit suicide, “to kill four-five policemen” instead. The Surat police termed the remark part of a “conspiracy” to create “hatred and disgust among people against the lawfully established government”.
In the Surat case, along with Hardik, Patidar leaders Vipul Desai and Chirag Desai are under arrest. Alpesh Katheriya, who was also booked in the case, is absconding.
Since his arrest, Hardik’s bail applications have been rejected by sessions courts in Ahmedabad and Surat. Initially, it was on the ground that the offences were grave in nature. Later, after filing of chargesheets, the courts again refused to grant any relief to Hardik, “in the larger interest of people”, stating that he may commit the “offence” again.
The government has cited telephone transcripts of Hardik allegedly threatening to “burn the whole of Gujarat in an hour”, “topple the government” and “burn trains”, to support the case for sedition.
Hardik has since been booked in two other cases — for “possessing SIM cards and a phone” while in custody and over “finding of a phone charger near his barrack”.
In its order of October 27, Gujarat High Court Justice J B Pardiwala said, in connection with the Surat case, “A speech or a statement, in which the speaker exhorts the persons, who are listening to him, to resort to violence, prima facie, could be said to be intended to excite disaffection towards the established government and amounts to an offence under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.”
The Gujarat government has made four attempts to reach a compromise, though the only one directly with Hardik was by BJP MP Vitthal Radadiya, who is also a Patidar strongman. He met Hardik in jail twice and conveyed to the government his demands.
Hardik’s father Bharat Patel, 49, who runs a business of submersible pumps and lives in Viramgam, nearly 320 km from Surat, comes to meet his son in jail every fortnight. “We are not rich. It costs us around Rs 3,000 to 4,000 to go to Surat. So we meet him every 15 days.”
Recently, he went to ensure Hardik got home food, after he began a fast over alleged “torture” in jail.
Bharat claims he is not worried about his son though. “Hardik has gone to jail for our community.