Breaking bread with Governance Now: Jignesh Mevani, leader of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti talks about cow protection and his dalit movement
Ashish Mehta | September 1, 2016 | New Delhi
It’s different this time.” Jignesh Mevani also repeats that adage, that the dalit agitation in Gujarat this time is different. That it is unlike several campaigns in the state’s recent history that had briefly succeeded but did not have a long-lasting impact. “This is not your typical ‘dalit agitation’. We are taking both caste and class together,” he says. “The kind of response the movement has got so far shows that you have to raise economic questions along with the demand for social justice.” This, of course, is the emerging theme of the year: the coming together of the dalits and the Left – or Ambedkar and Marx – in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest.
We are at the Press Club in Delhi, and Mevani has just addressed a sizeable crowd of journalists. Now, he is giving away sound bites and quotes, networking with activists, and telling everybody to “just SMS your number, we will keep in touch”. He is wearing the same grey-and-white check shirt that we have seen in all his visuals from Gujarat. He peppers his talk with precise terms, like ‘the marginalised’ and ‘discourse’, that puts him in a league apart from that other campaigner from Gujarat, Hardik Patel. The right discourse would also come handy when he addresses JNU students in the campus later in the day.
We have pakodas with lemon juice on the table and that should be sufficient to put this conversation under the rubric of ‘Breaking Bread with Governance Now’.
When a group of upper-caste ‘cow protection’ vigilantes flogged four dalits for skinning a dead cow (and went on to even record a video clipping of the beating) in Mota Samadhiyala village near Una town of Saurashtra on July 11, it triggered an impromptu reaction across the state, now turned into an agitation led by the 35-year-old journalist-turned-social activist. Several other factors were at work, but the widespread anti-government mood generated by this agitation proved the immediate reason for chief minister Anandiben Patel’s resignation.
As the movement exposes the Sangh’s ambiguous approach to the dalit question, the Una barbarism and its aftermath can dampen BJP’s prospects in the next major political joust in Uttar Pradesh. This makes Mevani’s movement nationally relevant. (No wonder, Mevani headed to Lucknow from Delhi.)
But what explains the success of the movement over more than a month by now? “During the 12 years of Narendra Modi’s rule, 14,500 incidents of atrocities against dalits were recorded. There are 55,000 people who are still employed in manual scavenging. Untouchability is prevalent in 1,590 villages. The rate of conviction in SC atrocity cases is just 3 percent…” Mevani continues with more facts and figures. And unlike dubious data reeled off by some, he takes care to mention the source of each claim – government reports, RTI replies, NGOs’ field surveys and so on.
“Now Modi says, ‘Don’t shoot dalits, shoot me first’, but he did not even visit the families of the victims of the Thangadh police shootout in September 2012, when he was merely 17 km away from the spot for his election rally.” During the annual fair at the pottery town of Thangadh in Surendranagar district that year, upper castes and lower castes groups came to fisticuffs over stall allocations, and both went to police with their versions. On September 22 and 23, police fired – as Mevani claims, from AK47s, no less – on a group of dalit youths, killing three. Four years later, the crime investigation department (CID) of the state police have refused to convert two of the three FIRs into charge-sheets, says Mevani. “So, you can understand what we can expect from the CID probe Anandiben Patel ordered into the Una incident.”
It is these long-pending grievances of the dalits that have led to the eruption, giving momentum to the state-wide agitation. Mevani, joined by several civil society activists, led a march from Ahmedabad to Una. At the culminating rally on August 15, they made ten demands, including allocation of five acres of land to every dalit family in the state as a form of redressal of pending problems and as a means of livelihood.
Is that even feasible? Does the state government have such a massive land pool? “It is feasible, practical and viable. Indeed, there is a provision for this in the revenue law. There are vast swathes of wastelands. The government can resort to the land ceiling law. Then there are 50,000 acres of land donated under the Bhoodan movement which are yet to be allocated. Still, if needed, the government can buy land and give it to dalits; there is a provision in the SC/ST sub-plan. The point is, if the Gujarat government can give away so much land to the Ambanis and Adanis, why not to dalits?”
The making of a campaigner
It’s not a “typical dalit movement”, and this man with the most typical Gujarati name is not a typical dalit leader either. I first heard of him for his series of ground reports on farmer suicides in Saurashtra region, published in the journal Nireekshak about four years ago. His father worked in the Ahmedabad municipal corporation, and the family lives in Asarwa in the blue-collar east Ahmedabad, a world away from the glitz of the upper middle-class new city on the west. For higher studies, he found himself at the HK College, once a vibrant hub of progressive politics, literature and civil society.
Mevani especially credits Sanjay Shripad Bhave and Saumya Joshi, both professors of English literature, for introducing him to the themes that would set his moral compass. Joshi’s breakout play, Dost Chokkas Ahin Ek Nagar Vastu Hatu (‘Friend, There Must Have Lived a City Here’), has made many Gujarati youngsters rethink the prevailing mainstream narrative on the 2002 riots. Watching it was a dramatic moment for Mevani too. Thanks to Bhave, he turned to reading the legendary Gandhian writer-editor-publisher Mahendra Meghani, and later worked with two “Ilabens” of the city, Ilaben Bhatt of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the late Ilaben Pathak of the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) who once taught at HK College too. “Bhave saheb ‘glamourised’ social activists for me.” Later, Mevani was to work with the doyen of all Gandhian activists of Gujarat, Chunibhai Vaidya, who passed away last year. Thanks to Bhave, he was soon reading the venerable troika of Gujarati civil society journals, Nireekshak, Naya Marg and Bhumiputra, apart from dalit journals, shaping his understanding of his – and others’ – identity.
Mevani also turned to journalism to support his family and worked in Mumbai for the weekly Abhiyan from 2004 to 2007. But activism was his calling and he returned to work with Mukul Sinha (who passed away in 2014). Sinha, a physicist-turned-lawyer-activist, was a veteran of many legal battles on behalf of trade unions. “Learning from him, I formed unions of sanitation workers,” Mevani says. Sinha and his Jan Sangharsh Manch are of course better known for effectively fighting court cases for the 2002 riot victims.
“You see, I am not a typical dalit activist. I am looking at dalit-Muslim unity. I have worked on farmers’ problems. I am raising economic questions. I want to make this movement inclusive – and that is one reason why some dalit groups of Gujarat have been critical of me. But the dalit movement is coming out of the old rhetoric.”
Apparently, he also has political ambitions – he was with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which is building a base in Gujarat, but on August 22, he announced his resignation from the party. “Let me clarify that the AAP has never ever tried to politicise the current movement, but I am quitting so that the movement does not suffer due to my association with it.”
As Gujarat next year goes to polls in which the BJP is on a weak ground for once after two decades, will the dalit movement make any impact on the results? Mevani maintains, “I don’t rule out the possibility.” He sees that the dalit unity will hurt the ruling BJP the most. But weren’t dalits harassed during the Congress rule? “Yes, but more so under the BJP rule.”
Of course, dalits are barely seven percent of the state’s population, and their vote against BJP did not deter Modi’s rise and rise in the state. Also, the urban, upper-caste middle class does not seem too sympathetic of Mevani’s cause. “But their biggest support is that they have not opposed us so far. In fact, the Patels [also on agitation path demanding quota] has expressed support to our movement.”
A movement that cannot fail
If the political equations are not affected, the current movement will fail to make a lasting impact, just as several civil society campaigns during the Modi years – the one against Nirma’s cement factory, for example – did despite winning the battles. But Mevani argues that here is a movement that cannot fail. “In the Mahasammelan in July, 50,000 dalits pledged not to do the lowly menial work. Isn’t that an achievement? For some families, skinning dead animals was a business worth Rs 1.5-2 lakh a month. They have quit it.” Ambedkar’s advice to the community to pledge not to do such jobs is being realised in Gujarat and that is not a minor social revolution if this continues.
“People everywhere in the state are responding enthusiastically to our slogan: Gaay ki doom aap rakho, hame hamari jamin do – you [the implication here is the Sangh] keep the tail of the cow, give us our land. Modi in his book ‘Karmayog’ says dalits do menial work selflessly because there is spiritual experience in it. Now, we have stopped lifting dead animals, and I invite Modi to partake the spiritual experience.”
The other demands expressed from the Una platform include taking all temporary sanitation workers in permanent jobs, with priority to be given to Valmiki community women, especially widows and the disabled. There has been no response from the state so far. “If this government can talk with the Patidar community on its unconstitutional demands, why can’t it talk to us? If we don’t hear from them by September 15, we will launch a Rail Roko agitation. We are prepared to go to jail.”
Expanding the agenda, Mevani also refers to the land acquisition bill passed by the state assembly that does away with the several conditions like social audit and paves the way for land grab. “We will also launch a farmers’ agitation against it. In the days to come, we will expand this agitation to include all the marginalised.”
ALSO READ INTERVIEW: Jignesh Mevani on why the dalit movement cannot fail
(The article appears in the September 1-15, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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