Ahmedabad: It was a chance meeting in 2008 with an elderly Dalit gentleman whose son was arrested on fake charges that altered the life of Jignesh Mevani, the Ahmedabad-based activist and face of the Dalit agitation roiling the state.
Mevani, who had quit his job as a reporter in Abhiyaan magazine in Mumbai, was visiting the city office of Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM), a civil rights organization, to explore an opportunity to join it. It was here that he met the harried man.
“I asked the elderly man the purpose of his visit to JSM office. He told me his son had gone to buy medicine for his daughter-in-law as per the doctor’s advice and did not return for two days. The son had got arrested on charges of murder of a politician. I came across various such issues of atrocities against members of people from lower castes. This is when I decided that I had to do something to change things,” he says.
Mevani, who had come to the JSM office to meet the late Mukul Sinha, trade unionist, activist and lawyer joined the Manch the very same day as a volunteer. Inspired by Sinha’s work, mobilizing Gujarat Industrial Security Force Society personnel. A 10-day agitation for minimum wages and other labour rights issues followed, joined by 2,500 workers, in which 176 got hospitalized due to illness. The battle was partly won, he says, as the government raised minimum wages and other benefits for workers. He never looked back after that.
Eight years since that chance meeting, Mevani, now 35, is leading the Azaadi Kooch March (March Towards Freedom) from Ahmedabad to Una, a municipality in southern Gujarat 350 km away, where seven members of the Dalit community skinning a dead cow were tied up, stripped to waist and thrashed with iron rods on 11 July by a group of self-styled cow protectors, triggering an outrage.
‘Keep the cow’s tail’
Son of a retired clerk in Meghaninagar area of Ahmedabad, Mevani became the face of the agitation when he addressed over 20,000 Dalits on 31 July in a city perceived to be dominated by upper classes and businessmen.
A raging viral fever had not subdued Mevani, who coined the slogan Gai ki loom aap rakho; hume humari zameen do (You may keep the cow’s tail; give us our land), when Mint reached across to him over phone: “I can talk as long as the crowd allows me to”.
“When one reads Ambedkar and Marx in the context of atrocities, land reforms emerge as the key issues. In India, land determines the caste system,” Mevani explains his slogan for the Dalit march. In other words, lower caste men like the ones assaulted at Una would not have had to skin dead cows for a living if they had their rightful land.
At a time the country celebrates the 125th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and a Dalit icon, the uprising led by Mevani and others has lifted the movement from being just about atrocities against Dalits to one of human rights and land reform.
A skilful orator with degrees in English and law, Mevani quotes revolutionary socialist Karl Marx and Ambedkar in one sentence, while rattling out facts and figures from the right to information (RTI) petitions and court cases he has filed. He has performed in parallel theatre in his student days and researched on Mariz, a poet who wrote Ghazals in Gujarati, not Urdu preferred by Ghazal legends such as Ghalib.
Mevani’s expertise on Dalit issues and oratorical skills are drawing huge crowds wherever he travels, making speeches and talking to people.
Besides JSM’s Sinha, with whom he worked on various issues including pensions for widows, Mevani has also worked with Bharatsinh Zala, an RTI activist who has campaigned on farmer suicides in the state. He also joined noted late Gandhian Chunibhai Vaidya who fought for farmers’ rights and accompanied him to many rural areas. On Dalits, he has worked with activists like Martin Macwan of Dalit Shakti Kendra and Manjula Pradeep of Navsarjan Trust.
It was a survey in 2009 that he conducted at JSM covering 10 villages in Surendranagar and Ahmedabad districts that opened his eyes to land denied to Dalits.
The Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act provides for allotting five acres of surplus government land to landless Dalits. However, Mevani claims this wasn’t done.
“Land in these areas was alloted to Dalits, but it was only on paper. There was no physical transfer of land. We filed a public interest litigation in the high court and filed over 110 RTIs till 2015. Meanwhile, in reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, the ministry of rural department said that between 2007 and 2012 56,873 acres of land was alloted in Gujarat by the government.”
As per a Gujarat government reply to court case, 1,63,808 acres had been allotted to more than 37,000 beneficiaries so far. However, a district-wise breakup showed only 18,000 beneficiaries had been alloted as per an RTI filed by Mevani.
He says the case took a strange twist after the state government said it was impossible to get the details, “because the information sought by the petitioner was so enormous.”
“This is unheard of in the governance history of the country where the state says it can’t implement a policy that it came up with,” he says.
He says the Dalit angst has been simmering for many years now, pointing out that the police constable who shot dead three Dalit youths at Thangadh in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region in 2012 was still not arrested.
Mevani, who joined the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014 and is currently its Gujarat spokesperson, emphasizes that the Dalit movement is apolitical and his aim is not to target any single political party or any one politician.
“Once the government agrees to meet our demands, we will be happy to end our protest,” he said.
Among other key demands of the agitation include alternative livelihood options, better policy and legal frameworks for protection against atrocities and prosecution of those involved in the Una incident.
Mevani, who is close to publishing a research work on Mariz’s poetry on his 101st anniversary in February 2017, has uncovered 25 ghazals that the impoverished poet had sold. He says he has travelled several hundred kilometers to get one photograph or documentary evidence of the poet.
Jagat ma che lahva kadam kadam pur; fakt ek sharat che gatiman rehvu (opportunities lie at every step you take; condition is, you remain in motion), he signs off by reciting a couplet by Mariz, while the Azaadi Kooch March moves to Una.