The Patidar are a caste found primarily in the state of Gujarat, India. They were formally recognised as a separate identity in the 1931 census of India, having previously been classified as Kanbi. They are among the most studied of Indian castes and the process leading to their recognition is a paradigmatic example of the invention of tradition by social groups in India.
The rise to socio-economic prominence of the Kanbi community in Gujarat and its change of identity to that of Patidar can be attributed to the land reforms of the British Raj period.[a] The Raj administrators sought to assure revenue from the highly fertile lands of central Gujarat and to do this they instituted reforms that fundamentally changed the relationship that existed between the two communities of the region, being the peasant Kanbi and the warrior Kolis. Those two communities had previously been of more or less equal socio-economic standing but the emphasis of the land reforms better suited the agricultural peasantry than the warriors.
Governments in India had always relied on revenue from land as their major source of income. With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the extant administrative systems fell apart and anarchy prevailed. The British colonisation of the country took place over a period of many years and had to adapt to the various local land tenure arrangements that had arisen as Mughal power waned. These systems of ownership could be broadly classified as landlord-based (zamindari, vanta or magulzari), village-based (mahalwari, narva) and individually-based (ryotwari).
In Gujarat, the British administrators found that all three systems existed. However, the Kanbis had tended to adopt the village-based model and the Kolis had adopted the landlord-based variant. The village-based system entailed that organisations had been formed to jointly own a village and to share responsibility in some fixed proportion for the land revenues. The division of responsibility might be arranged by the amount of land held by each member (the bhaiachara method) or by ancestry (the pattidari system). Working with this village model enabled the British to impose a fixed revenue demand that was payable whether or not the land was cultivated and which gave the landholders the right to sublet and otherwise manage their lands with minimal official interference. It simplified revenue collection and maximised income when compared to a system based on individual responsibility for revenue, in which allowances had to be made for land being out of cultivation. It also allowed a degree of communal self-determination that permitted the rise of economic elites with no reason to engage in political challenges, and hence the rise of the communities then known as Kanbis. Some Kanbis became sufficiently wealthy that they were able to enter the world of finance, providing lines of credit to others in their community.
The situation experienced by the Gujarati Kolis, with their preferred landlord-based tenure system, was not so mutually beneficial. They found themselves subject to interference from the British revenue collectors who intervened to ensure that the stipulated revenue was remitted to the government before any surplus went to the landlord. Being less inclined to take an active role in agriculture personally and thus maximise revenues from their landholdings, the Koli possessions were often left uncultivated or underused. These lands were gradually taken over by Kanbi cultivators, while the Kolis became classified as a criminal tribe due to their failure to meet the revenue demands and their tendency to raid Kanbi villages in order to survive. The Kanbi land take-overs also reduced the Kolis to being the tenants and agricultural labourers of Kanbis rather than landowners, thus increasing the economic differentiation between the two communities. The differentiation was marked still further by the Kanbi trait of providing better tenancy arrangements for members of their own community than for Kolis.
The economic well-being of the Kanbis was enhanced further from the 1860s due to improvements in crop selection, farming methods and transportation. They began to diversify their business interests and some with higher status also replaced the field labour of their families — especially the women — with hired labour in an attempt to emulate the Bania communities, who had vaishya status in the Hindu ritual ranking system known as varna. Prior to this, the Kanbis had been of the less respectable shudra rank.[b]
The parcels of land held under the village tenureship system are known as patis and a patidar is the holder of one of those allotments. As time passed, during the nineteenth century, the Kanbis generally adopted the Patidar term to describe themselves and thus emphasise the high status associated by their ownership. The community also adopted the surname of Patel, which was traditionally applied to village headmen.
Aside from issues of nomenclature, the community also began to redefine itself in the context of the Hindu religion. As well as aspiring to kshatriya status, they adopted ritually pure practises such as vegetarianism, worship of Krishna rather than mother goddesses, and the giving of dowries rather than use of the then-prevalent bride price system. However, they did retain some of their local customs, such as a preference for singing vernacular devotional songs rather than the more Brahmanic Sanskrit variants.
The Patidar practice of hypergamous marriage was also distinct from that of the Kolis, with the former marrying relatively locally and across boundaries within their own community while the latter dispersed over a wide area in order to marry with Rajputs. The Patidar system caused the creation of endogamous marriage circles based around groups of equal-status villages known as gols, thus strengthening ties. Simultaneously, the system still allowed the possibility of someone from a relatively poor circle marrying hypergamously into one of the fewer more wealthy Patidar families, whose soco-economic status would be diluted unless they adopted such practices because there were insufficient eligible brides.
The Raj administration first recognised the separate caste status of Patidars in the 1931 census of India.
There are three main jāti (clans) of Patidars in Gujarat:
- Crispin Bates has stated a date of 1815 for the beginning of British land revenue reforms in Kheda district, which places the changes in the pre-Raj period when the East India Company administered the area.
- The varna ritual ranking system comprises brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras, with those unclassified being untouchables. Broadly speaking, vaishyas were business people involved in moneylending, trading and similar activities, while the shudras were manual workers.
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- Pocock, David (1972). Kanbi and Patidar: a study of the Patidar community of Gujarat. Clarendon Press.
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