Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani is undeniably among the rising stars of Indian politics. Yet his emergence has also spawned disquiet in his own community – the Dalits. They have reservations about his sharing the stage with Left leaders, his argument that BR Ambedkar’s ideas do not constitute an ideology in the sense Marxism does, and his rhetoric that does not primarily focus on Dalit pride and dignity. There is also the nagging suspicion among Dalits that Mevani’s politics could make their movement dependent on other political formations and dilute its Dalit-ness.

That a 35-year-old leader, still fresh to politics, could alter the course of the Dalit movement does indeed challenge credulity. Yet Dalits are concerned about his politics because they feel their movement could soon be facing a leadership vacuum – they cannot identify a seasoned leader who could take over from Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati if she were to fail in reversing her declining political graph. Mevani could well be their future option, the reason why his forays into North India have stoked curiosity as well as invited scrutiny.

On February 12, Mevani was in Meerut to demand the release of Chandrashekar Azad, the incarcerated Bhim Sena leader accused of fomenting violence in the western Uttar Pradesh town of Saharanpur in May. Mevani is scheduled to visit Delhi later this month. On January 9, he participated in a rally in the national capital to protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “anti-people policies”.

Dalits who attended the January 9 rally returned with mixed feelings about Mevani, not least because he was in the company of young Left leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Shehla Rashid. That in itself would not have been a problem but for Kanhaiya Kumar saying that he is opposed to Hindutva, not Hinduism.

“But Hinduism is a problem for Dalits,” said Dr Satish Prakash, an associate professor in Meerut College, who came to Delhi to listen to Mevani. “When leaders around Mevani make such a statement, Dalits begin to wonder about his politics, his intent.” Prakash said there is substantial interest among Dalits about Mevani, evident from their response to him in Meerut as well. “Mevani can become a Dalit leader by becoming a part of the Dalit movement, by making sacrifices for it, not by joining hands with the communists,” he said. He cited the example of Congress leader Jagjivan Ram and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan, both of whom Dalits regard as their leaders. “But we don’t consider Ram’s daughter, Meira Kumar, or Paswan’s son, Chirag, as Dalits’ leaders,” Prakash argued. “That is because they were never part of the Dalit movement.”

From this perspective, Mevani must first establish his credentials as a Dalit leader before sharing a platform with the Left. Citing the deep distrust between the Ambedkarites and the communists, Prasad declared, “We can’t allow the Dalit blue to be turned into the communist red.”

Bahujan Samaj Party leader pays tribute to BR Ambedkar and party founder Kanshi Ram. (Photo credit: AFP).

History of distrust

The Ambedkarites distrust the communists because they historically underplayed the role of caste. Simply put, the communists subscribe to the theory that says sweeping changes in economic structures (base) automatically lead to a reordering of society (superstructure). A classless society will inevitably create a casteless society.

The fight against caste was consequently subordinate to the class struggle. It was also thought that a focus on caste would drive a wedge between the upper and lower caste members of the working class and weaken its solidarity.

Such a perspective turned the communists into foes of Ambedkar, whose goal was to battle caste and annihilate it. They dubbed him as the “divider” of the working class and hurled invectives on him. For instance, the central committee of the Communist Party of India passed a resolution in 1952 calling Ambedkar a “pro-imperialist” and “opportunist” leader who had organised his Scheduled Caste Federation on a “communal, anticaste Hindu basis”.

The caste and class movements in India subsequently split and began to move on separate trajectories. The hangover from the past persists even today.

‘On the right path’

If the communists underplayed caste, the Ambedkarites can be said to have missed out on the salience of class. “It is wrong to say that Ambedkar was opposed to Marxism,” said Anand Teltumbde, political commentator and civil rights activist. “He considered Buddha and Marx as his heroes, evident from his 1956 lecture in Kathmandu. Ambedkar was only opposed to communist practices – their use of violence, to their idea of the dictatorship of proletariat.”

The divorcing of caste from class has increasingly turned the Dalit movement into an aggregation of sub-castes. “The core character of caste is like an amoeba,” Teltumbde writes in one of his essays. “It only knows splitting. Caste seeks hierarchy.” The Dalit movement has weakened because it faces an upsurge of sub-castes, rendering the task of melding them together hellishly complex.

It is because of these reasons that Teltumbde argued, “Mevani is on the right path. Unless Dalits transcend caste and forge a class unity with other marginalised people, their struggle can never reach fruition.” Of particular significance is Mevani’s demand that five acres of land should be given to every landless Dalit family, the ongoing protests, which have already led to a self-immolation death on Friday. His politics is not just about grabbing power for few.

Teltumbde said that the Dalit middle class has to oppose Mevani because the politics of identity has given them reservations and provided them with space to negotiate with the state. Mevani’s politics, therefore, is a challenge to the Dalit elite as well. But Teltumbde predicts that the antipathy to Mevani will diminish because “he is now an MLA and therefore associated with the state as well”.

An image of BR Ambedkar is held up during the Dalit Asmita Yatra in Valthera village near Ahmedabad, in August 2016. (Photo credit: AFP).

A changing Left?

Mevani’s politics also won an endorsement from writer and academician Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. “The need of the hour is to link up with the Left,” Ilaiah said. “Hindutva poses a threat to the Constitution and seeks to usurp Ambedkar. Dalits cannot check Hindutva on their own. Mevani is right in uniting Dalits and the Left.”

Ilaiah said that Ambedkarites should take a fresh look at the Left because it too has started to change. It accepts Ambedkar as an icon, and considers the protection of the Constitution he framed as a “revolutionary task”. It has also begun to address the issue that had alienated the Dalits from the Left – their absence from its leadership structure. The Left has been inducting Dalits into the leadership structure at least at the district level in Kerala and Telangana, said Ilaiah.

The Ambedkarites, however, feel the communists will skew their movement to wean away the Dalits from their fold, and it is for this reason the Left is grooming and courting Mevani.

“Mevani is a media creation,” said sociologist Vivek Kumar. “He is given the kind of space the best of Dalit leaders do not get. He does not even have an organisation. He lacks political maturity, and he won from a constituency from where the Congress did not field a candidate.” In other words, there hangs a question mark on Mevani’s independence, an aspect considered crucial in Dalit politics.

Kumar said that there are two types of leaders – dependent and independent. In the dependent category are Dalit leaders who belong to parties whose leadership is dominated by the upper castes. They have little agency in framing policies for the empowerment of Dalits, and merely articulate their party policies. Even the grammar of their politics is determined by upper caste leaders. Independent Dalit leaders are those who constitute a party’s vanguard. They represent the aspirations of the Bahujan or the majority of people – Dalits, Other Backward Classes and religious minorities – over whom the upper castes rule and exploit. Independent Dalit leaders seek to break their monopoly of power.

“They democratise power,” said Kumar. “When an upper-caste dominated party comes to power, it indulges in tokenism by assigning insignificant ministries to its Dalit leaders. But when the BSP came to power in 2007, a Dalit [Mayawati] became chief minister and a Muslim [Naseemuddin Siddiqui] held several important portfolios.”

The caste identity of a person wielding power matters immensely to Dalits. It has both symbolic and substantive meanings. The Left is found wanting on this count alone. “Why is it that after years of working for the poor, Dalits are largely missing from the leadership structure of the Left?” asked Kumar.

Kumar cited his own experience to make a stinging statement on the culture of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “They want class not mass leaders,” he said. As an executive member of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI(M), he had a hard time getting them to nominate Batti Lal Bairwa, a Dalit, to contest for the post of president in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s students union. “They thought Bairwa was rustic,” Kumar recalled.

Bairwa became the Jawaharlal Nehru University president in 1996, but he quit the communist party because of its poor record on lowering the high dropout rate among Scheduled Caste students in West Bengal, where the party had been in power for years. Bairwa, an assistant professor at Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo College in Delhi, is now with the Congress.

Despite his experience in Left politics, Bairwa supports Mevani’s quest to work with the Left. “We cannot be so driven by caste as to not come on the platform with those whom we are in agreement on some issues,” he said. “Mevani has emerged because Mayawati is not speaking out against the threat the BJP poses to democracy. There is class in caste. After all, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s children marry into wealthy, not poor, families.”

Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad.

Consolidating Dalits

Political scientist Ronki Ram, of Panjab University, suggested that Mevani first try to consolidate the Dalits who are not a homogeneous group. “Dalits constitute nearly 34% of Punjab’s population, but they do not even have a face because sub-castes among them are in competition,” Ram said. “It is only after consolidating Dalits that Mevani should reach out to others.”

This sequencing is important because Mevani could unwittingly become an instrument for other parties to divide Dalits in order to cannibalise their votes. “What would have happened to Mayawati if she had joined one of the national parties early in her career?” asked Ram. “ She wouldn’t have become the kind of leader she eventually became.”

The Ambedkarites feel bewildered that it is they who are asked to alter their worldview to help stitch together a subaltern alliance, but not the Left. Meerut’s Satish Prakash asked a rhetorical question: “If they are so concerned about the Dalit movement, why don’t Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar get their communities of Muslims and Bhumihars to join us? They think they are mass leaders who know what we want.”

Such then is the chasm between the Ambedkarites and the Left.

Kumar suggested that this can be bridged if the Left were to take confidence-building measures to convey that they are not condescending of leaders whom Dalits admire. For starters, the Left can appreciate the absence of communal riots when Mayawati was at the helm of Uttar Pradesh or highlight her role in developing Noida, suggested Kumar.

Mevani steadfast

Mevani is conscious of the disquiet his politics has spawned among Dalits. But he said he is not going to deviate from his chosen path. “When the spectre of fascism faces us, when the democracy we have is threatened, I think it is vital for pro-poor and anti-fascist forces to unite,” he said. “It is not the time to get into the debate over red vs blue. Those who fear that blue will be turned into red don’t have chetna [inner voice].”

Mevani is dismissive of what he calls the “nonsense” his critics talk. “I do not have time for them,” he said. “I have inspired a generation, millions of youth.”

He added that if a person like Teltumbde were to criticise him, he would take note and rethink. It is not hard to fathom why – Mevani subscribes to Teltumbde’s prescription of combining class and class for India’s social transformation.

Mevani’s ideological certitude is impressive. But politics is also about negotiations and pragmatism. For instance, if Mevani were to campaign for parties other than the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, he is not likely to endear himself to Dalits. He will certainly alienate them if he were to publicly criticise Mayawati. Though there is discontent brewing against her, the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh still believe that to criticise her is to insult them. Of such stuff is Indian politics made.