From Dalit activist to Gujarat MLA: Tracking Jignesh Mevani’s journey
Jignesh Mevani, underdressed for the chilly morning at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus, walks tiredly into a dhaba. Hands in pockets, he squints at the freshly prepared potato curry, looks away, and stares through a cloud of misty breath. “My body is going to give up,” he says.
Mevani is exhausted. Eighteen days after winning the assembly election from north Gujarat’s Vadgam constituency, the 36-year-old is in Delhi for a short visit – he is giving interviews, participating in television news shows and posing for pictures. He is upset about not being able to return the dozens of phone calls he’s been getting. He is worried about his meetings in Ahmedabad where he was supposed to be.
But his eyes brighten when a student, who takes some time to register that it is indeed Mevani sitting next to him, asks him about his plans for Vadgam. Wolfing down his food, Mevani says, “You come to Vadgam after one year and see for yourself. We are going to transform the constituency. I will invite experts from various fields including RTI, health, education, social justice, research, to contribute in making Vadgam a model constituency.” He means what he’s just said. For Jignesh Mevani now belongs to the people. He appears —for the moment—to be symbolic of the disenchantment brewing in Gujarati society. He is the rare Dalit leader who has developed a massive following within his own community and outside. At a time when dissent is difficult, Mevani does not miss an opportunity to criticise the government. He won an election in his maiden attempt, without joining any political party. Now he will have to work within the official framework of governance, make the bureaucrats see his vision, continue from where his predecessor left off, and still make sure that he doesn’t let his people down.
But in the JNU campus, despite talking enthusiastically to the student about his plans for Vadgam, he seems tired, as if he doesn’t really want the students to recognise him, as if all he wants is a few quiet moments of anonymity.
JIGNESH AND VAN GOGH
Mevani wouldn’t mind the title ‘Vincent Van Gogh 2.0’ for himself. “He left a stunning impact on my soul,” says Mevani of the late Dutch painter, considered one of the greatest artists of all time. “His passion was mind boggling. I derive my zeal from him.”
He first read about the artist while doing a Bachelors in English Literature at HK Arts College, Ahmedabad, an institution that shaped his worldview to a large extent. That was where he met two people who would influence his thoughts and actions in ways he could not imagine. Saumya Joshi, then associate professor, English, was a dramatist. “I was impressed as hell to see how Saumya’s plays depicted the concerns of the marginalised,” says Mevani. “He exposed me to the arts, literature and theatre.”
Sanjay Bhave, also a faculty member in the English department, introduced him to the stalwarts of social activism in Gujarat. “Bhave saheb glamourised them. I used to think, life toh aisa hona chahiye, where you can look beyond just a salary. Pagaar toh mil hi jaayegi. (Everyone works for a salary. The actual aim should be changing people’s lives).”
During his college years, Mevani was never seen as “Jignesh, that Dalit lad.”
It was an extension of how he was raised in a middle-class joint family in Ahmedabad’s Medhaninagar area. While he was aware of his identity, it was not a topic of discussion at the dining table in the Mevani household. His mother retired from the BSNL as a clerk and his father was with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. “Over the newspaper, Papa and I used to discuss general issues. Our debates were not about the problems of our community,” he says.
Mevani got a PG Diploma in Journalism from Ahmedabad’s Bhavan’s College and shifted to Mumbai where he worked for a news magazine Abhiyaan for three years.
He returned in 2008 and began working with the civil rights organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM) run by the activist-lawyer Mukul Sinha, one of the people he had idolised during college. “Jignesh used to call him kaka (uncle),” recalls Mukul Sinha’s wife, Nirjari Sinha. (Mukul Sinha died in 2014). “He worked with us on the rights of sanitation workers and security guards. He was unsure about his career. Mukul asked him to pursue law,” she recounts. So Mevani went on to do an LLB from Gujarat University.
In the years to come, Mukul Sinha would become one of the three ‘kakas’ who Mevani would revere and through whose work he would come face to face with the ground reality of Gujarat. The other two were activist-lawyer Girish Patel and the Gandhian activist, the late Chunni Bhai Vaidya, who worked for land reforms and the creation of sustainable rural economies. “It was at Mukul kaka’s office where, for the first time, I understood atrocity in the real sense of the term. When I heard stories of undertrials in POTA, I was not able to sleep for many nights,” he says.
Mevani remained true to the spirit of Van Gogh in his passion for whatever he had set his mind on, a passion that could border on obsession. He submerged himself in the cases he fought, the academic exercises he undertook, and the causes he felt for. “While analysing the works of Gujarati poet Mareez, also known as the Ghalib of Gujarat, he went to the extent of tracing people for whom Mareez used to ghost-write. To understand the life of freedom fighters, he travelled to Rajguru Nagar in Pune, the birthplace of Shivaram Rajguru,” Sanjay Bhave remembers Mevani’s obsessive streak.
After studying the history of the Dalit community, Mevani concluded that their poor socio-economic condition was partly because a majority of them they did not own land.
On July 11, 2016, Mevani was a member of the AAP and working as a lawyer with the JSM when cow vigilantes thrashed four Dalit men on the allegation of skinning a dead cow in Una, a city in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district, 350 km from Ahmedabad.
The Una case, which became symbolic of Dalit atrocities throughout the country, was the turning point that Mevani had unknowingly been prepping for. He went full throttle. Along with his friends, Mevani formed the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM) which conducted a Dalit mahasabha in Ahmedabad on July 31.
It was followed by a 10-day march on foot from Ahmedabad to Una which culminated on Independence Day. “Gaaye nu puchhdu taame rakho, aamne amaari jameen aapo (You keep the cow’s tail, give us our land),” Mevani hopped from village to village, repeating the slogan in every public meeting where Dalits took a vow that they would not henceforth lift the carcasses of dead cows.
During lunch breaks, the RDAM members would review Mevani’s speeches – was the audience relating to him or not; why was the crowd in a particular gathering smaller than expected; should he modify the content to suit local sensibilities; what was the extent of media coverage of the rallies.
In hindsight, Mevani says, the Una incident catapulting him to the national stage was a lot about timing. “Dalits have faced far worse brutalities than what we saw in Una. But the outcry in the Una case was unmatched. Certain things resonate at certain points. This was one of them,” he says.
The Vadgam election had dimensions of a David vs Goliath contest.
On November 27, seventeen days before polling in Vadgam, Mevani announced, through a Facebook post, that he would be in the fray. Far from being wise, the last-moment decision verged on the insane. “I was confused,” he explains. “We had no money or concrete organisation. At the same time I realised that I was at my best as an activist. I had caught the people’s imagination. My campaign would get massive media coverage due to which my opponent would appear diminished. So I jumped into it.”
On the one hand, there was the formidable electoral machinery of the BJP, oiled by the party president Amit Shah at the helm. The party had ruled Gujarat for 22 years and was looking to win at least 150 out of 182 assembly seats. On the other side was Mevani, a novice, self-proclaimed agitator, who was out to expose the socio-economic conditions of farmers, Scheduled Castes and minorities.
Ironically, Mevani’s image became his biggest stumbling block in the election. Dalits, comprising 16% of Vadgam population, could relate to his agenda. But the predominant Chaudhary community was not comfortable with his approach. “They presumed that with Jignesh as an MLA, they would be routinely booked under the Atrocities Act because Dalits worked in their farms and factories,” says Sagar Rabari, 50, a social activist and general secretary of Gujarat Khedut Samaj, who helped Mevani devise his election strategy. “I had to act as Jignesh’s guarantor,” says Rabari.
A lot, however, was going in Mevani’s favour. The AAP and the Congress withdrew their candidates so that voters had a choice between Mevani and the BJP. Crowdfunding platform crowdnewsing.com raised Rs 20.5 lakh for his campaign. By the time of the election, Mevani had polished his oratory skills, having spoken at multiple forums in the one year period since the Una incident. Four teams were canvassing for him—his aides from Ahmedabad, activists and volunteers from Delhi, the local communities in Vadgam, and the Congress cadre.
In retrospect, Mevani admits that he spent more time convincing people why they should vote the BJP out than talking about the change he intended to bring. “We didn’t elaborate on what we would do. My positive campaign was inbuilt in my image. I believe that I got 4,000 votes only on my credibility,” he says.
The BJP claimed that Mevani was an outsider; that he had accepted funding from the Social Democratic Party of India, a political wing of Popular Front of India (PFI), which has been accused of terror links (Mevani denied the charges); and that he was using Muslims for votes. The last charge stemmed from Mevani’s interview published in the Forward Press, which quoted him saying that his first girlfriend was a Muslim.
Mevani’s victory was a vindication for his supporters not just in Gujarat but across the nation. “At the all-India level, the anti-right forces are in search of some spark. They have found that in Jignesh. His position in Gujarat is reinforced with his national position,” says Ahmedabad-based sociologist Ghanshyam Shah. “If Muslims wanted someone whose hand they could hold, they have found that person.”
VADGAM IN WAITING
The people who have been part of his journey so far or who have monitored his trajectory seem to know where he is faltering and the pitfalls that lie in his way forward as an MLA.
“He should watch his words. The radicalism he shows at times makes him vulnerable. Else the government will file cases against him and he will find himself entangled in legal battles,” Sanjay Bhave echoes a concern shared by almost all of Mevani’s well-wishers. “Now he should rise above Modi-bashing and talk about concrete issues,” he adds.
He will have to cut down on travel and concentrate on his constituency. “Now people have expectations from Jignesh Mevani, the MLA. He has to deliver. He can’t continue to only be an orator,” says Nirjari Sinha.
Ghanshyam Shah suggests that Mevani should have a panoramic view of society and politics and move ahead accordingly. “Currently, all the information he is getting is from the media. For long-term politics, he should have a group or a think tank which dispassionately reflects on the ground situation.”
Mevani says that the one criticism he has got the most—that he should be less aggressive — is not unwarranted. “I agree with this,” he says. “But the problem is that I won’t remain who I am if I start working on this. This is who I am.”
About the charge that he over-travels, he says, “Me going to various states energises the youth and Dalit groups. I should keep doing that but not at the cost of Vadgam.”
It will be some weeks before Mevani overcomes the euphoria of the resounding win that caught his aides and the country by surprise.
Mevani is still getting used to being addressed as “MLA saheb.” “I bought 10 new kurtas, all of different colours. I like wearing them with folded sleeves, with a wrist watch on my left hand. I flash the victory sign like a neta (politician) does. I am quite enjoying this.” His eyes sparkle. “But the feeling has not sunk in as yet.”
Mevani underplays the congratulatory phone calls and the meeting with the Congress party president Rahul Gandhi before the election. He describes it as a “Hi, hello” meeting. He is still getting accustomed to his new role – learning how to greet people, how to listen to them, how to become a leader his followers can admire and look up to.
Like the bunch of students who surround him at the dhaba in JNU, vying for selfies with him, cautioning him, in awe of him, and waiting for him to prove them right. Responding to each one of them, Mevani seems like a leader at the start of an eventful and uncertain voyage. “I am also a brand now, a force to reckon with,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.