INTERVIEW | JIGNESH MEWANI
Meet Jignesh Mevani, the fast rising Dalit leader from Gujarat. Incidents of violence against Dalits in Gujarat stirred Jignesh Mevani’s conscience when he decided to do something to change things. The young activist, who came to prominence after the flogging of Dalits in Una, Gujarat, also threatens the traditional Dalit leadership like that of Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj, who have joined the saffron bandwagon. In conversation with Caravan Daily, he discusses rising attacks on the Dalits and Muslims and calls for unified strategy to confront the threat of Hindutva fascism
Abdul Bari Masoud | Special Correspondent
HAVING shot into limelight after the Una incident of public flogging of Dalits last year, Ahmadabad-based activist Jignesh Mevani is fast emerging as a young, credible and articulate voice of the oppressed classes in India.
The young activist is also threatening the traditional Dalit leadership like that of Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj, who have joined the saffron bandwagon as Mevani call them “stooge of the government”.
Arguably, the Dalit angst has increased manifold since the BJP-led government came to power at the Center and particularly after the advent of Yogi Adityanath government in the largest state (Uttar Pradesh) of the country.
36-year-old Mevani, son of a retired clerk from Meghaninagar, Ahmadabad, is influenced by Ambedkar’s ideology with a tilt towards socialism and communism. Mevani has a degree in English literature and Law.
He had also dabbled with politics when he joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2014 and became its Gujarat spokesperson. But his political journey was short-lived as he left the AAP to focus on Dalit movement emphasizing that it is apolitical movement.
A chance meeting in 2008 with an elderly Dalit, whose son was arrested on fake charges, altered this young leader’s life. Mevani left his job as a reporter in Mumbai-based Abhiyaan magazine and started frequenting the city office of Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM), a human rights body.
It was here that he met a man whose son had gone to buy medicine for his daughter-in-law but did not return for two days and was arrested on charges of murder of a politician. Then the incident of a police constable, who shot dead three Dalit youths at Thangadh in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region in 2012, but was not arrested.
Many such incidents of violence against Dalits in Gujarat stirred Mevani’s conscience when he decided to do something to change things.
Since then, he has led the Azadi Kooch March (march towards freedom) from Ahmedabad to Una, where he coined the slogan “Gai ki dum aap rakho, hume humari zameen do (You may keep the cow’s tail, give us our land).
Because of his knowledge of Dalit issues and oratorical skills, he is being reckoned as a crowd-puller.
In an exclusive interview with Caravan Daily‘s Abdul Bari Masoud, Mevani spoke at length about his movement, current political and social climate in the country and the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat, Dalit leadership and Dalit-Muslim unity. Here are the excerpts of the interview:
You are again launching the agitation on the first anniversary of Una incident on July 11. What purpose do you think would it serve?
We will launch a bigger agitation than the last year, thousands and thousands people will hit the streets of Gujarat. We will expose them (BJP government and Sangh Parviar) for their nefarious activities. The so-called ‘Gujarat model’ and ‘Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas’ has turned into a tool to subjugate and suppress Dalits, and other minorities. It has become a model of destruction for Dalits. In their scheme of things, life of a human is considered less worthy than that of a cow.
The Saharanpur clashes, the shocking flogging of Una victims, brutal murder of Pehlu khan and Mohammad Akhlaq, the devastating account of Latehar where citizens of this country were killed and hanged by a tree, the case of gang rape over suspicion of beef – these are more than a wake-up call to demand a special law to deal with the phenomenon of mob-lynching. If a man gets life imprisonment for ‘killing’ a cow, what about killing a human being? A reign of terror is prevailing in the country. So, if the government doesn’t come up with a stringent and stern law against mob-lynching by July 11, we will re-launch a nationwide movement from Una.
The so-called ‘Gujarat model’ and ‘Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas’ has turned into a tool to subjugate and suppress Dalits, and other minorities. It has become a model of destruction for Dalits. In their scheme of things, life of a human is considered less worthy than that of a cow.
What about your demands including five acre land to each Dalit household and justice to Una victims during last year’s agitation
Not a single demand was met. Last year, then Chief Minister Anandiben Patel had conceded many of our demands but none of them was fulfilled by the BJP government. The Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act provides for allotting five acres of surplus government land to landless Dalits. However, this wasn’t done. It is only on paper. Among other key demands were government jobs, unemployment stipend and alternative livelihood options.
We also pledged that henceforth, we would not do menial jobs like cleaning gutters and drains, sweeping roads and streets, skinning of dead animals and disposing of carcasses. But nothing was implemented by the government. The government has not even banned the so-called cow-vigilantes committees. We will go to every village this time and expose them.
Last year you gave call to Dalits to give up menial jobs during the Una agitation. Was it successful?
At many places particularly in north Gujarat, hundreds of Dalits have given up their traditional occupations. This slogan was very successful. Dalits are joining us in land reform movement also. But at many places they have been facing resistance and violence. As you know, these filthy occupations have brought stigma of untouchability to Dalits. Despite all odds, we are determined to continue our struggle for self-respect and human dignity.
Even though there is growing unrest among Dalits and other minorities due to incidents of atrocities, prominent Dalit leaders like Paswan, Udit Raj and Athawale have been silent. What do you think is the reason behind this?
We should give a packet of glucose to Ram Vilas Paswan, Udit Raj and Ramdas Athawale, so that they muster some courage and open their mouth on Saharanpur and other incidents. They all are the stooges of the BJP. After Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Una incident, discontent and fear is brewing in Dalit communities, so it is natural that more and more Dalits are coming on streets to protest atrocities committed by upper castes. There is no political platform to articulate their grievances. It is a defining moment for us as our movement will hit different parts of the country.
Due to government’s affirmative actions, Dalit communities’ economic profile was considerably raised but they still did not get due social acceptability. What is the way out for this?
Dalit organizations and the ultimate goal of their institutions must not be power capturing but caste annihilation. This government is trying to impose Manusmriti (Hindu law book (Dharmashastra), which has distorted the social fabric of the country. You know the caste system has a material basis which needs to be destroyed. In villages, you will find Dalit clusters because upper castes are the land owners who behave as bullies. We get some indicators from the writings of Ambedkar for combating caste-discrimination. Material issues are at the heart of Dalit resistance as we are mobilizing people for structural land and cultural reforms. That is why I coined the slogan, “You keep the cow’s tail, and give us our land.”
How can Dalits improve their social status? For example, in government officers’ colonies, Dalit officers remained cut-off from the mainstream social life. You know caste system has a religious sanctity and even Gandhiji was a staunch defender of it. And, it was in this backdrop that Ambedkar had suggested for shunning of Hindu Dharma.
Caste discrimination is not only a problem of Dalits, but also the problem of India, as a whole. India cannot emerge as a power in the world without rooting out this cruel mindset. For this, it needs to destroy its material foundation.
How do you see the emergence of Bhim Army and its leader Chandrasekhar Azad?
This was bound to happen. The post globalization world has thrown many challenges and agrarian crisis is one of them. It is one of reasons behind the growing atrocities on Dalits in the countryside. Furthermore, the feeling of denial of justice has also been accumulating. Therefore, a section of Dalits is swayed by the militant tendencies. Bhim Army reflects the growing anger in Dalits. We take it positively. It also symbolizes the political failure of the leadership.
Unfortunately, a little section of Dalits has been saffronized which had participated in 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots. Being a Dalit, my head bows in shame for this.
Many Dalit leaders got swayed for political gains and members of Dalit community played into hands of communal forces during riots. How do you explain this as you are espousing for Dalit-Muslim unity at a larger level?
Unfortunately, a little section of Dalits has been saffronized which had participated in 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots. Being a Dalit, my head bows in shame for this. However, there is a growing realization within all Dalit sections that we should not become a pawn into the hands of castiest and Hindutva forces. We should save us from saffronization, otherwise we will be foot soldiers of the enemy camp.
We will make efforts that secularism remains intact and our people uphold secular values steadfastly. You saw during the Una agitation, Muslims and Dalits came together in Gujarat. It sent a positive message across the country. But much more is needed to strengthen this unity and we will make all efforts in this direction.
Now having emerged as the new Turk of Dalit leadership, what role would you play in the coming Gujarat assembly elections?
In the absence of a third secular political credible alternative, our slogan will be “Kale chour ko vote do, magar in Sanghiyoun ko mat do” (Cast your vote to black thief but not to RSS). These communal and fascist forces are hell bent on destroying the secular Constitution and want to impose Manusmriti by turning the country into a Hindu Rashtra. So, we will work to defeat these forces by asking people to discard the communal agenda of the Sangh Parivar.
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