Ram Parmar had no idea about the young man on the dais, but the daily-wage labourer was impressed by the speaker’s raspy voice. More importantly, the core subject was close to his heart: atrocities on Dalits.
Listening to that speech in his central Gujarat village on Friday, Parmar cheered every time there was a criticism of the government for continued attacks on his community. By when the crowd at the wedding hall in Dholka saw off the activist, Parmar had become his big-time fan.
Jignesh Mevani, a bespectacled lawyer, is earning admirers and followers in a big way across the western state. The 35-year-old resident of Ahmedabad is leading a foot-march to down-south Una, where cow protectors thrashed four Dalits last month.
A video of the July 11 flogging in the Saurashtra town spurred Mevani to organise a Dalit mahasabha (grand assembly) in the state capital. That 20,000-strong rally on July 31 saw Dalits taking a vow to discontinue with their age-old practice of removing cow carcasses and manual scavenging.
As the convener of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti which is fighting against the July 11 incident in Gir Somnath district, Mevani has become a rallying point for those seeking renewed discourse on Dalit issues. The stubble-sporting leader might be from a middle-class family, but his ability to strike a chord with the poor in his community was evident in the mahasabha that was the biggest gathering for the cause of the Dalit community in Gujarat’s recent history.
“A majority of Dalit academics are not in touch with ground realities and current issues affecting the community,” he says. “Those who have a grasp on matters are not sufficiently articulate. I bring in a combination of an academic and an activist.”
Last month, Mevani’s forum, also consisting of four of his aides, held meetings and protests in several parts of the country. The encouraging response has emboldened the mission.
“The Una episode was stark. It came as a shocker for many,” he says, “I thought it was important to channelise that mood into something concrete.”
Today, as Mevani hops villages during his 11-day ‘Aazadi Kooch’ (March for Freedom), he avoids rhetoric—instead, talks matter-of-factly.
Across the 350-km padayatra that began on Friday and is slated to conclude on the Independence Day, the activist makes members of his community take a pledge to shun their traditional tasks. Mevani wants the government to provide them alternative livelihood options. At the end of every speech, he appeals to them to spread the message on social media.
“Slogans against upper castes and release of Dalit literature are important, but I wonder how far we can go with such activities. My samiti has come up with new, specific demands,” notes Mevani, clutching a cell-phone and catching up with the latest media updates on his campaign.
The march has sparked interest in political parties, but Mevani isn’t keen to capitalise on it. At a halt on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on Friday, Congress workers greeted the protesters. Mevani and his associates asked the party supporters to join his movement as “individuals”.
“My work is apolitical. Period,” Mevani says.
Mevani enriched his oratory and organisational skills during his stint at the Jan Sangharch Manch, a civil society organisation founded in Ahmedabad by late lawyer Mukul Sinhahe also worked with the victims of 2002 Godhra riots and studied cases of extra-judicial killings in the state. He took keen interest in the issues of sanitation workers and trade union members.
As a lawyer, Mevani filed a PIL in the Gujarat High Court in 2011, claiming irregularities in land allotment to Dalits across the state.
The recent Una incident came a fresh trigger to his Dalit activism. “I realised the time had come to consolidate members of the community. The sheer barbarity of the crime punctured the myth that such atrocities were a thing of past,” he notes.