Mass Rally Protesting Indian Quota System Leads To Unrest



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Protests turned deadly in Gujarat, India, this week. Thousands of people, galvanized by a charismatic young member of the Patel community, took to the streets to demand access to jobs and education.

Mass protests turned deadly in Gujarat, India, this week. Hundreds of thousands of people, galvanized by a charismatic young member of the Patel community, took to the streets to demand access to public jobs and education.

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There are charismatic young leaders who can mobilize large groups of people, but it's not every day you see a 22-year-old speaking to a rally of hundreds of thousands. And that's what happened this week in India in Gujarat.


HARDIK PATEL: (Speaking Hindi).

CORNISH: His name is Hardik Patel, and there, he's promising to fight for his people. The Patels, which make up a large percentage of Gujaratis, are considered well-off but want access to public jobs and education. This massive rally turned violent, and at least eight people were killed. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been watching this story and says this goes back to India's ancient caste system.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: It really hones in on these OBCs. Those are other backward classes, as that's a legal designation that recognizes the vast economic and educational disparities that exist in India. A huge number of people fall into those, and now, increasingly, you have grievances about more people wanted to get into that category so that they can get a piece of the quota pie.

CORNISH: So help us understand this spectrum here. The Patels - who are they?

MCCARTHY: Well, the Patels are a very influential group in Gujarat. They're 15 million out of the 60 million people who live there. They are not necessarily economically disadvantaged, but with 50 million, you're going to have many people who are not making lots of money. They're in the diamond business in Europe. They run hotel chains in the United States. Half-a-dozen Patels are in the State Cabinet there. So is the chief minister. She's a Patel. So they benefit, but not everyone benefits. And those who don't gathered to get a piece of the quota pie in India this past week.

But interestingly, Audie, just as many came to say, no, we'd like to see the quota system done away with; it should not be along caste lines but economic class lines and merit.

CORNISH: So what's known about Hardik Patel, this young man who's basically the face of this movement?

MCCARTHY: We know that he has 35,000 people who like him on Facebook. And in two months, he's become a force to reckon with - he's - as he goes about galvanizing the Patel community and its demands for quotas to win seats in the government, positions in colleges. And you have to remember, government seats are very, very prized. He is - quietly went about holding many, many rallies on - nearly close to a hundred rallies to attract people across the country to the cause. He claims to be apolitical, but by the same time, he's being touted as the new Modi.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, what are the wider implications for India? I mean, could this spill over into other states?

MCCARTHY: Well, it already has. In fact, the neighboring state of Haryana, where the Jat caste is very politically powerful, is pushing for the same thing. So you've got people that are pushing to enter into a world where a government job is guaranteed, and that's very important here.

And there's lots of questions that are still unanswered here. And no one is more rattled by this - just the sheer size of these demonstrations this week than the government, and there's lots of questions about whether or not there are hidden hands working in Gujarat. It's hard to see how one person - Hardik Patel - along could've mobilized a half-a-million people in an event that was so organized even the parking was smooth, Audie. And that never happens in India.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from New Delhi. Julie, thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.