Hope and caution in Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani’s rise

  • Sudipto Mondal, Hindustan Times, Una
  • Updated: Aug 23, 2016 11:44 IST
Lawyer Jignesh Mevani led a Dalit protest march from Ahmedaba to Una in Gujarat in August. (Siddharaj Solanki/ HT photo)

For some years now, India’s Dalit movement has come close to triggering coordinated nationwide protests, but faltered every time, mainly because it didn’t have a youthful new leader who could galvanise the community.

Enter Jignesh Mevani.

The 35-year-old lawyer-turned-Dalit activist burst onto the national scene at a time the anti-caste movement was looking for a young and energetic leader who had mass appeal and could grab headlines.

Rohith Vemula could have been that leader but he died before he could be discovered. Dontha Prashanth, Rohith’s friend and comrade from the University of Hyderabad, could have emerged as a leader of the nationwide struggle following Rohith’s death but was marginalised because of his poor Hindi and distance from Delhi: Two things needed to stay in the media spotlight.

So when Mevani happened , it seemed like the time had come. Here was a leader who could growl at the most powerful political force in the country today--the Sangh Parivar--and that too in its heartland.

The agitation he spearheaded following the horrific July 11 flogging of Dalits in Una for skinning a dead cow, even forced chief minister Anandiben Patel to resign, some said.

Equally important, Mevani’s rise came just months after the greying, upper-caste dominated Communist movement found its new-age mascot: Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar.

Mevani seemed invincible when he declared at the July 31 rally in Ahmedabad that Dalits would start breaking the bones of cow protectors if they dared to as much as touch them. That one statement stood out more than any other because it had never been done: The feudals had never been openly threatened this way.

This was a state with no history of such assertion against Hindutva and no major Dalit fightback against ancient Hindu codes. This was Gujarat, where Dalits form less than seven percent of the population. And Mevani was threatening to put his words to action starting with Saurashtra, where in many villages even today upper castes accept money from Dalits by sprinkling holy water on the currency.

But few asked Mevani how he planned to deliver on his threat perhaps because of how convincingly he issued it. “If a small fighting unit of 800 Dalits could defeat a Peshwa army of 2,000 in the historic battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818, Gujarat’s Dalit minority could easily take on the feudals,” his supporters argued.

Battle lines drawn, Mevani marched from Ahmedabad toward Una where his supporters had planned a massive show of strength on August 15.

Mevani (second from right, backrow) announces the start of his 10-day march to Una in Ahmedabad. (Siddharaj Solanki/ HT photo)

The fight presented itself on the night of August 13. Hundreds of men from the dominant Koli and Darbar castes blocked a key road leading to Una at a village called Samter. The police did nothing to control them as they pelted stones at Dalits heading to Una and even attacked a woman journalist at Samter. As Mevani and others entered Una on August 15, reports poured in that Dalits headed to the rally were being attacked in other villages too.

“If Hardik Patel can go to jail for seven months, I am willing to be jailed for 27 months,” Mevani thundered at the event and drew rapturous applause when he once again threatened to “break bones”. As if responding to his challenge, violence against Dalits escalated in Samter with many victims saying the police force did nothing.

All eyes were on Mevani as he went straight to the Una police station after the rally ended at around 12.30 pm. As cameras rolled, he argued loudly with senior police officers. When it became clear which side the police was on, Mevani zoomed off toward Samter to take on the mobs, or so it seemed at the time.

“Mevani told me he’s going to teach them a lesson. He will be victorious,” said Balubhai Sarvaiya, the main target of the July 11 attack by alleged cow protectors.

An hour passed without word from Mevani and then another two. When HT finally got through to him on the phone, he said, “Samter? No, I’m on my way to Ahmedabad.” Didn’t he tell Balubhai that was going to Samter? “There was a threat to my life and I was advised to leave.”

Balubhai didn’t believe it at first. But by 5 pm, it was painfully clear that Mevani wasn’t coming back. By 8 pm, all activists who had come from outside had left Una. Just Balubhai and his family, including women and children, remained at the police station pleading and arguing with the police to escort them safely back home.

This isn’t an isolated case. Dalit villagers say they’re facing social boycott at many places and there’s no saying from where the next attack will come. Balubhai and his family -- for whom this entire mobilisation supposedly happened – are back to where they started -- alone and scared.

This is to not say Mevani and others are cowards – indeed it’s a relief that he avoided taking law into his own hands. But it’s time to focus on how the muscular assertion and demands may have damaged the movement and put Dalit lives at risk.

Mevani should look at the Maoists who led another violent movement seeking justice for the meek. Could the Maoists protect Dalits from the Ranvir Sena in Bihar? Could they save Dalit Christians from Hindutva extremists after they killed VHP leader Lakshmananda Saraswati?

Mevani says he wants guns for Dalits. The Maoists armed Dalits in Telangana but did that protect them from landlords? Are the Maoists in a position to save innocent adivasis from the wrath of security forces?

The sentiment of dismay is summed up best by Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, a PhD student at JNU and a Dalit woman leader, who was on stage with Mevani.

“We can’t afford to risk the safety of our brothers and sisters who come out to support us. We’ve lost too many lives already, and we need to strategise better to protect them. We want to fight back, but not at the cost of our brothers and sisters,” Sanghapali told the online portal, Ladies Finger, in a recent interview.

Mevani needs to be told that there is a difference between courage and bravado – and all forms of assertion need not be hyper-masculine. He needs to appreciate that seeking answers within the constitutional framework is as brave as taking on a rampaging mob.

Many Ambedkarite groups have been working at the grassroots level in Gujarat for decades and have painstakingly built a robust network of lawyers and activists who provide help and emergency relief to Dalits in distress. Leaders of these groups had pleaded with Mevani to tone down his statements but he didn’t budge.

Another problem with his message is his alternative to cow-skinning, a profession that many Dalits have used to climb out of poverty in the state.

“Take a vow with me that you will no longer do the ‘dirty’ work of skinning cattle,” he told the gathering on Independence Day and threatened to block railroads if the government did not announce plans to give five acres of farmland to each Dalit in Gujarat within 30 days.

It’s true that a majority of Dalits still don’t own land, which is in the vice-like grip of the feudal castes of Gujarat. The demand for land reforms is, legitimate but it’s ridiculous to present it as an alternative to people like Balubhai who make upwards of Rs 50,000 a month from skinning dead cattle.

Mevani should have consulted Balubhai and others involved in the cow-skinning business and come up with a charter of demands for their economic emancipation instead of calling their profession dirty.

There are others in the business who make twice as much . “I thought it was just a blackmail tactic when they said we should stop picking up dead cows. I didn’t know they seriously wanted us to stop this business. What we want is protection, not a new profession,” said Balubhai.

Maybe Mevani will find some pointers from the businessmen belonging to the Dalit India Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) who shared stage with him on August 15. “We want to formalise, professionalise and industrialise the business of skinning cattle. We want to capture the leather industry and make it the stronghold of Dalits who have been doing this work for centuries. For that to happen, we need the support of leaders like Mevani. But he’s no mood to listen,” a DICCI leader told HT.

Mevani could have also exchanged ideas with Dontha Prashanth, who travelled in an unreserved compartment of the Secunderabad-Rajkot Express, just to be with him on that historic day. The scholar, who is pursuing a PhD in Ambedkarite economics, would surely have given him good advice. But Mevani chose to completely ignore Dontha’s presence on stage, not even a nod in his direction. Instead, he sat glued to another man who became a celebrity through his speeches, Kanhaiya Kumar.

Kanhaiya walked off stage the moment he finished his address and Radhika Vemula, Rohith Vemula’s mother, who spoke next, had to stop midway because the crowd was distracted by the JNU celebrity’s exit.

But despite all this, Mevani still enjoys widespread goodwill. Dalits and their leaders know that it may be years, perhaps generations before they find another charismatic leader like Mevani. He needs to be warned against taking this groundswell of goodwill for granted. For, it will be heartbreaking to see this spectacular Dalit surge crash and scatter against the intransigence of one man.

(Views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @mondalsudipto)

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