New Delhi: In July 2016, a video shot at Una taluka in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district went viral. It showed seven Dalit men stripped down to their waists being whipped by alleged cow protection vigilantes for skinning a dead cow.

That video, an example of crimes against Dalits and self-styled vigilantism, also marked a turning point in the life of Jignesh Mevani, a 36-year-old Dalit activist and lawyer.

Dalits rose up in tumult, and Mevani ended up becoming the face of the agitation. He led the Dalit Asmita Yatra (self-respect march), and coined the slogan, “Gai ki loom aap rakho; hume humaari zameen do (You may keep the cow’s tail, give us our land)".

Since then, Mevani’s political profile has gained more visibility. “We want to give the message that we will not tolerate discrimination against the community anymore," Mevani had told Mint over the telephone then. This year, Mevani, along with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and others had planned an “Azaadi Kooch (freedom march)" on the first anniversary of the Una flogging, but permission was denied.

Now, Mevani is taking his politics to the people—he is contesting the Gujarat elections as an independent candidate from the reserved Vadgam constituency in North Gujarat.

The Congress has extended support to him by not fielding a candidate of its own.

In an interview to online news portal Firstpost, Mevani identified himself as “primarily an agitator" who decided to contest the elections “so that I can continue to raise issues from a non-compromising position".

His strategy is to tear into the BJP’s development plank and promote Dalit-Muslim unity.

Mevani has long campaigned for landless Dalits to be given five acres of surplus government land as promised in the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. In the interview to Mint, he had said, “land in…areas was allotted 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."

Mevani is a gripping orator with an interest in the writings of Karl Marx and B.R. Ambedkar. His is an interesting presence in the electoral scene of Gujarat, which has also seen the rise of other youth figures like Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor over the past few years. All three men have been tapping into the dissatisfaction of their respective communities.

Mevani’s candidature has animated the Gujarat elections. Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy donated Rs300,000 to his campaign on crowdsourcing platform Crowdnewsing, writing that Mevani represents “a kind of breakthrough in Indian politics. A solidarity that rises from the bottom upwards…"

It is this fact—that Mevani is a grassroots activist now trying his hands at politics—that has led Raosaheb Kasbe, a former professor of political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, to call him an exciting candidate.

“I don’t know him personally, but I have been following him with interest. He has proved to be an adept organizer and someone who can articulate the demands of the masses. His decision to contest is a welcome one as we need more people who represent the marginalized in the legislature."

Mevani’s emergence may or may not challenge the status quo in Gujarat but it does indicate the start of a political career for him.

If he does get elected, as an independent he may not have much say, but he will still be able to raise issues. And if he doesn’t, then it’s the start of a political career. Either way, he’ll be watched.

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