Ahmedabad: Lawyer and human rights activist Jignesh Mevani, 36, is the convener of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch and Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti. Mevani became the face of Dalit protests in Gujarat after he addressed a rally in Ahmedabad on 31 July.
Mevani called off his rail roko (block rail) movement on Saturday after the Gujarat government agreed to listen to him. In an interview, Mevani spoke about his fight for Dalit rights, achievements, political ambitions and plans to take the fight beyond Gujarat. Edited excerpts:
Why did you decide to call off your rail roko movement at the last moment?
For the past three months we are relentlessly struggling, holding demonstrations, carrying out rallies and public meetings to voice our concerns and demands. The state government did not open the door to us so I decided to knock their doors on the night before the rally. I called up the CM’s office and I was later directed to the home and law minister Pradeepsinh Jadeja. The government has agreed to meet us for our demands on 5-6 October if we withdrew our protest. Also, Gujarat government had urged us to withdraw our protest keeping in mind the tension between India and Pakistan on the borders. And we did keep that in mind too while calling it off. We will sit and discuss with the state government before deciding on further action.
Why did you choose rail roko as a means of protest? Did you take inspiration from any similar events in the past?
To make it clear, I called this rail block protest as a compulsion not as choice. If the government can accept and look into the unconstitutional demands of the Patels, withdrawing cases against them, why will they not listen to us? If tomorrow a similar situation arises, we may again go for a similar form of protest. But all our protests have and will remain peaceful. In 2006, the state government gave thousands of acres of land to over 7,000 families, mostly Dalits, after the protesters, led by Gandhian rights activist late Chunibhai Vaidya threatened to block rail routes.
What have been your achievements so far?
First of all, we have been able to bring the economic issue with the atrocity and human rights issue. In Saroda village, 150 Dalit families who were granted government waste land in 2006 were till date not given possession. We carried out road block protest earlier this month and the government gave in to our demands and immediately began the procedure of allotting land. The state government recently announced to set up special courts across the state for atrocity-related cases. As many as 6,000 safai karmacharis (cleaners) were given permanent jobs this month after we joined their cause, although all the credit for it should go to them. We have built an enormous pressure on the government too. If Anandiben Patel had to step down as chief minister amid our growing protests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who usually does not speak up on such matters, had to speak up more than once to give assurance to our community’s safety and security.
You plan to take your movement outside Gujarat, to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan?
Not only UP and Rajasthan, we plan to take our fight to Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi and Maharasthra where we would expose the Gujarat model and show how Dalits are being treated. We will spread our movement to various parts of the country for Dalits and other deprived communities. We are looking at creating a young and bright team of activists from all over the country.
Do you agree that there is no national Dalit movement in the country?
Yes. A movement with nationwide coordination is missing. But there are some genuine voices of Dalit struggle that are surfacing from all across the country.
Does it impact your movement when some activists or Dalit leaders criticize you?
It will have no impact. I have created my own space. I am young, sharp, have a deep sense of the issues I deal with and can articulate well to give a broader picture than any of these typical leaders.
One of your main demands is five acres of land for the Dalits. How realistic do you think this is? A court case on a similar issue is still pending.
Land reforms are a vital part of the Indian Constitution to create an agrarian socialist state. The case that you are referring is about 163,808 acres of land that has been allotted since 1960 for landless farmers of which about 70,000 acres was meant for Dalits and there are many areas like Surendranagar, Mehsana, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts where Dalits have not got possession. This case is going on. Apart from this there are provisions where government wasteland at the taluka or village level is to be given to SC/ST, OBC and other landless labourers. Also, there is a provision for the government to buy agriculture land for SC/ST. The government has in many cases given 3 acres of land to landless Dalits. Our demand is for five. But we are willing to talk with the government and discuss on this. If they can give to corporates why not us? Then there is undistributed ‘Bhoodan’ land.
In Gujarat, we have the Patel community, who are mainly land holders agitating for quota related demands and on the other side we have the Dalits, many of who are farm-labourers, protesting for land rights and other reforms. How do you compare these two?
Both these agitations are the outcome of the failure of Gujarat model and both are represented and led by youths. The Patel youths are feeling the heat of farm distress and are looking for upward mobility by way of jobs and education. For Dalits, it is as much of an existence issue as much as a move upward. Apart from land and human rights issues, one of our key demands is also 50,000 jobs. I believe that our movement is more progressive than Patidars and we talk about all deprived and working classes today involving tribals, Muslims, OBCs (other backward classes), de-notified tribes, trade unions and farmers’ unions. We keep Dalit women and their issues on the fore front and will soon launch a new wing for addressing women’s issues.
On 31 July, you had given a call that all Dalit men and women who are engaged in the work of lifting carcass should stop doing so. What alternative source of livelihood have they turned to?
Some 25,000 Dalits had pledged in that July rally in Ahmedabad and over a period of time another 25,000 have done the same. While I don’t think that all of them have quit, removing carcass was not their only source of livelihood as nobody and most of them are farm workers.
What do you think about the various Dalit protests from several corners of the country?
There is denial of justice to Dalits all across the country due to globalization and neo-liberalization. UK’s Equality Bill in 2009 had a lot to do with South Asians and Indians discriminating Dalits there as well. The post Rohith Vemula incident has a lot to do with these uprisings. The Thangadh shooting incident in Gujarat shows that feudalism is still intact in this country. Certain Hindutva forces are trying to repress the community but the Indian youth is not in mood to take it lying down these days.
What about your political ambitions?
As of now, I am not associated with any political party and am not planning to do so in near future. This, however, doesn’t mean that I will never join. I can’t predict what might happen two-three years down the line.
Why did you leave Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that has made you as one of its spokesperson for Gujarat?
Although AAP tried to keep a distance from our Dalit movement in Gujarat and never tried to publicize it, there were certain elements from our community as well as BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) who tried my connection to AAP to derail our movement. So I quit.
What do you think of Dalit politicians in the country?
They are highly disappointing and are stooges of either Congress or BJP.