Opinion

Jignesh Mevani: An introduction to the brilliant face of the Gujarat Dalit agitation

It’s facile to compare Mevani to Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, the other young leaders who have lately gained influence in Gujarat.

Natural and inevitable as it may sound, the comparison is odd nonetheless.

Despite the vice-like grip of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the deep slumber of the Congress, three individuals have lately emerged in Gujarat to shoulder the mantle of leadership: Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. What is perceptibly common to them is their relatively young age and their growing influence. Hardik Patel, informed by his own understanding, rages against the “Injustices to the Patidars”, while Alpesh Thakor has assumed leadership of a disparate group of Other Backward Classes and aims to serve their interests by periodically holding meets. He wants to ensure that there are no more claimants to the reservation policy as it exists today. Jignesh Mevani is the latest entrant to this stage.

Following the Una atrocity, where cow protection vigilantes mercilessly beat four Dalits found skinning a dead cow, Mevani and his activist friends decided to put up a consolidated resistance under the banner of the local body, Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti. This body had no political backing or, for that matter, monetary support from caste-based organisations. Its agenda is to secure justice for Una victims and, over and above that, to broaden the appeal to take on the unending atrocities against Dalits by combating the primary issue of discrimination.

It may be recalled that in 2012, Gujarat was witness to a “rare” spontaneous uprising of the community when three young Dalits were murdered in cold blood in Thangadh. However, because the Dalit community makes up just 7% of the state population, it can’t singularly impact the results of an election. As for Dalit leaders, they are too happy donning loyalty badges of their respective political parties. So it came as no surprise when the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi didn’t so much as bat an eyelid before summarily ignoring Dalit sentiments.

But much has changed between Thangadh and Una. For one, Narendra Modi is not the chief minister, but the prime minister. Secondly, when an event as sordid as Una occurs – and more importantly goes viral as a video – the discomfort is not about Gujarat, which Modi and Amit Shah believe is their pocket borough, but how its extreme repercussions and reverberations can upset the electoral apple cart in Uttar Pradesh, where the sizable Dalit vote actually matters. Can’t really ignore that, can we? So while the mighty haven’t really been brought to heel as yet, the BJP top brass knows it can ill-afford to summarily dismiss this unrest with a contemptuous wave of the hand.

A rare phenomenon

Into this space came Jignesh Mevani. Those who heard Mevani at a recent rally in Ahmedabad and elsewhere see a possible filling of the vacuum that has existed in articulating Dalit concerns over the right to justice, to equality and to a more enlightened discourse on equal-opportunity employment. To be sure, this is not just about impressive bombast or oratory, for if those were the only parameters, the prime minister would win the race before the starting gun was fired. When we do rush in for comparisons, it would be good to bear in mind that what separates Mevani as a face of this Dalit protest is not just his anger or aggression, but also his erudition and the experience amassed from being associated with grassroots struggles over the years.

Mevani is not a propped-up leader or someone who has been airdropped as an unexpected gift from the heavens. Neither is he a front for a political personality, nor does he enjoy financial support from his more prosperous community members. But what 35-year-old Mevani, now on a long march with like-minded protesters from Ahmedabad, which fittingly culminates in a flag-hoisting at Una on August 15, does have in spades is extensive experience of being in public life and the firm confidence that comes with being a man of letters.

A combination of intellect, dynamism, leadership and the spirit of service – not just within Dalits, but in the public life of all of Gujarat – is a rather rare phenomenon. At a time when Mevani’s leadership skills have been put to the test, it is consoling to know that his intellectual bandwidth is well in place already. His scholarly tome on one of Gujarat’s finest poet Mareez, due next year, will be a formidable addition to the world of Gujarati literature and journalism. On the other hand, his learned and nonconformist expositions on Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries puts him in a league apart from those who, with their limited worldviews, have done infinite injustice to the memory of these great men.

An English literature graduate from HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, Mevani imbibed several critical lessons about social equality from his professors Sanjay Bhave and Saumya Joshi. What amplified this understanding was the on-field experience of working with the Gandhian Chunibhai Vaid and the redoubtable leftist grassroots worker Mukul Sinha of the Jansangarsh Manch. Over the years, whatever struggles the Jansangharsh Manch has found itself enmeshed in, be it granting of land to the landless tillers or against the injustices meted out to the municipal labourers or the jawans of the Gujarat Industrial Security Force, Mevani has always been a part of it.

Intellectual inheritor

In a commemoratory volume edited by Ketan Rupera brought out to celebrate Chunibhai Vaid’s life and times, Mevani’s sharp and perceptive interview with the man is as revelatory about himself as it is about the old Gandhian warhorse. In his introduction to the interview, Mevani writes:

“There have been three Kakas (Kaka is a beloved Gujarati expression for an old uncle) who have been like three priceless gems in Gujarat’s public sphere – Girishkaka (Patel), Mukulkaka (Sinha) and Chunikaka (Vaid). Girishkaka loved to combine Gandhi and Marx, Mukulkaka believed in bringing together the philosophies of Marx and Lenin, while Chunikaka (Vaid) harped upon Gandhi’s decentralization theory as a way to establish Gram Swaraj. These 3 venerable gentlemen, the way they fought throughout their lives on behalf of the farmers, Dalits, the oppressed and the society’s victims of all hues are true exemplars of nobility and sacrifice…”

These three lines should tell us all we need to know about why a comparison between Hardik Patel and Mevani is wholly out of place.

There have been precious few who have actually sustained the struggle on behalf of the marginalised in Gujarat, be it during Modi’s tenure as chief minister or before that. An exception is Martin Macwan. The founder of the Dalit rights group Navsarjan Trust, Macwan is among those who had resolutely held aloft the flag of resistance and the promise of creating a better society. Mevani (a lawyer to boot) inherits a legacy of struggle from his three aforementioned “kakas”. Passion is his perpetual state of mind. But to be led merely by passion after having assumed the mantle of leadership can be fraught with consequences. And yet, Mevani’s temperament prevents him from merely being content with the theoretical understanding of any issue. With him, the experience isn’t complete without a subtle and empathetic appreciation of any subject.

The challenges he faces externally and even from within are legion. To not just steer but take forward the movement against casteism in the face of an aggressive anti-Dalit social structure and the terrifying internal differences within sub-castes, to make sure that the bitterness and aggression does not ever get out of hand, to also ensure that the thread of conversation with well-meaning co-travellers does not snap despite occasional issue-based differences, to keep a safe distance from opportunistic politicians who would think nothing of using the movement’s fuel to light their own fires, to watch out at all times that the movement, whilst staying firmly against all manner of atrocities and institutionalised violence, does not rail against or root for one individual or party but continues to stay socio-centric with an unwavering focus on the ideals of equality and collective emancipation and against systemic brutalities.

It is in these unequivocal challenges that the true test of this man and the movement lies, and well, so does the opportunity for real social change.

Translated from Gujarati By Vistasp Hodiwala

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