Since the emergence of Hardik Patel from among the Patidars and Alpesh Thakor from among the OBCs during movements in Gujarat over the last one year, the state’s Dalits have been feeling the need for a young leader of their own. And one activist has put his hand up to fill that void. Jignesh Mevani, 35, has been the face of protests by Dalits following the assault of Dalits in Una. An English literature graduate, former Gujarati journalist and serving lawyer, Mevani administered a pledge to the protesting crowds that their community will no longer do the “dirty jobs of society”.
Mevani agreed that he is consciously trying to fill what he calls an enormous vacuum of leadership among Dalits in Gujarat. He said he has the help of a team with members such as Kaushik Parmar, Subodh Parmar, Suresh Agja and Mahesh Parmar.“In the 1970s, a strongly radical Dalit group, Dalit Panther, came up in Gujarat. However, over the years, that organisation did not do enough to address various issues of the community,” he said. “I also feel the older generation of Dalit leaders has failed to transfer the leadership to the younger generation and because of that the struggle on economic issues has [suffered].”
About the current uprising, he said, “Such a spontaneous response from the community was not seen in Gujarat even in 2012 when three Dalit youths were shot dead in Thangadh of Surendranagar by police. What is more important is that even non-Dalits and Muslims are coming out proactively to support the community this time.”
Mevani is also a spokesperson for Aam Admi Party’s Gujarat unit and he makes no secret of his political ambitions. “Two hundred per cent, I have political ambitions. And my association with AAP is an extension of my activism [over Dalit issues].”
Born in December 1980, Mevani hails from Mehsana district and lives in a Dalit-dominated locality of Meghaninagar in Ahmedabad. His father, Natubhai Mevani, is a retired clerk who worked with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
Jignesh studied English literature at H K Arts College and journalism at Bhavan’s College, Ahmedabad, and worked in Mumbai for a Gujarati magazine and a Gujarati daily for around four years.
As a student, he was influenced by educationist-columnist-activist Prof Sanjay Bhave and poet-theatre personality Prof Saumya Joshi. “It is due to people like Profs Bhave and Joshi that I came in touch with various Gujarati newsletters of civil society such as Nirikshak, Bhoomiputra and Naya Marg. I also got influenced by civil rights activists of Gujarat such as Girish Patel, late Chunibhai Vaidhya and late Ilaben Pathak,” Mevani said. However, he said, “during my stint in journalism, I realised that idealism and realism are two different things. And during this period, in 2008, I watched Rakesh Sharma’s Gujarati documentary Khedu Mora Re [about farmers’ suicides] following which I quit journalism and came to Gujarat.”
So began his work as an activist. He met activist Bharatsinh Zala, visited various places to understand the issues leading to farmer suicides, and joined Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM) of the late Mukul Sinha, trade unionist, activist and lawyer, to whom he attributes his understanding of Left ideology.
Subsequently, Mevani started taking up land issues of Dalits while also studying at D T Law College in Ahmedabad. He now practises at Gujarat High Court, where one of his pending petitions relates to allocation of government surplus land to landless Dalits under the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act.
“Today, only instances of violence against Dalits have become Dalit issues. I firmly believe that there should be protests on the economic front too,” Mevani said. “Also, Dalits should include all oppressed classes and I would like to bring all of them together.”
Mevani also plans to publish a research work on Gujarati poet Mariz on the poet’s 101st anniversary next February.