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The Sunday Profile: Jignesh Mevani

A vocal critic of the BJP, Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat’s only Independent MLA, is out on bail after 10 days in custody over a tweet on the PM. Leena Misra & Parimal Dabhi on the man and his journey so far — from his lawyer-activist days to being the face of the state’s Dalit politics

Written by Leena Misra , Parimal A Dabhi |
Updated: May 1, 2022 12:03:13 pm
Jignesh Mevani, Jignesh Mevani bail, Jignesh Mevani jail, Jignesh Mevani arrest, Jignesh Mevani relesased, Jignesh Mevani interview, Kanhaiya Kumar, Hardik Patel, Indian Express, India news, current affairs, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News, Indian Express India News Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat’s only Independent MLA (Illustration: Shyam Kumar)

To Natwarbhai Parmar, 69, son Jignesh Mevani always seemed a touch too idealistic. “He would talk about bringing about a revolution and I would say such revolution happened only before 1947. He would then say, ‘I am ready to go to jail’. In a sense, he prepared us for the worst,” says Parmar, talking about the case that landed Mevani in the custody of the Assam Police.

“If they can take him to Assam for such a small matter, I can’t imagine what they will do next. We are very scared of the BJP,” adds Parmar, who retired as a clerk from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in 1987.

But many say Mevani’s arrest on April 20 over a purported tweet against the Prime Minister and subsequent re-arrest on charges of assaulting a woman police constable have only served to highlight the ruling BJP’s insecurities around the Dalit leader in an election year.

On Friday, while granting bail to Mevani, 42, Gujarat’s only Independent MLA, a district court in Assam pulled up the state police for lodging a “false FIR” and “abusing the process of the court and the law”.

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Part of a youth triumvirate that was defined by its strident anti-BJP politics, Mevani, along with former JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and Patidar leader Hardik Patel, had briefly raised the hopes of the anti-BJP camp. While Kanhaiya and Hardik joined the Congress, Mevani couldn’t on technical grounds — as that would have meant losing his MLA seat from Vadgam. Though the BJP’s storming back to power in the 2019 general elections, combined with the Congress’s internal politics, ensured that the fightback has since dampened, Mevani’s Independent status has meant that he has more manoeuvre room for his politics than the other two.

A source close to Mevani said, “Mevani follows Leftist ideologies to the core. He had no intention of joining the Congress, and it was tough persuading him, but agreed to align with the party only after Kanhaiya joined in Bihar.”

Hardik, who was instrumental in bringing Mevani into the Congress fold, however, says, “The idea was to strengthen the party. As an Independent legislator, he cannot do as much as he can with the backing of a party…he can become the Congress’s national Dalit face”.

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Born in 1980 as Jignesh Parmar in Ahmedabad, to where his father had moved from Meu in the mid-seventies, he later changed his surname to ‘Mevani’ (derived from Meu village) to keep alive his link with his roots.

After his schooling in the Asarwa area of Ahmedabad, Mevani enrolled in H K Arts College, Ahmedabad, to graduate in English Literature, where he was deeply influenced by educationist-activist Professor Sanjay Bhave and poet and theatre personality Saumya Joshi.

After a diploma in journalism, Mevani worked as a journalist in the Gujarati magazine Abhiyaan in Mumbai for two years. It was around this time that he studied the Gujarati poet Mareez, born Abdul Ali Vasi, who is often called ‘the Ghalib of Gujarat’. He spent much of his time researching the poet’s life and times, even visiting places in Mumbai associated with him — the research is likely fodder for a book in the works.

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Back from Mumbai, Mevani joined Jan Sangharsh Manch, the civil rights organisation founded by the late trade unionist and lawyer-activist Mukul Sinha, who took up cases for the 2002 riot victims. At Sinha’s persuasion, Mevani studied law at Ahmedabad’s DT Law College and practised in the Gujarat High Court. As lawyer, Mevani moved the court seeking surplus government land for Dalits under the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act.

Besides Sinha, Mevani had had as mentors constitutional expert the late Girish Patel and the late Gandhian Chunibhai Vaidya — personalities who strengthened his Leftist ideology.

“Some of his campaigns would scare us, as he would venture into areas where he would have to confront headstrong people,” says Mevani’s mother Chandraben, 68.

The activism took a decisive turn on July 11, 2016, when four members of a Dalit family from Mota Samadhiyala village of then Una taluka in Gir Somnath district, were flogged by cow vigilantes. Mevani, until then a low-key activist-lawyer, launched a march to Una from Ahmedabad and unfurled the tricolour on Independence day. His slogan, “you can keep the cow’s tail but give us back our land”, was the first open challenge to the BJP in the state.

Gujarat High Court lawyer and former IPS officer Rahul Sharma, who has known Mevani since 2015-16 and who was associated with the Una agitation, recalls how the events then pitchforked him on to the national scene.

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“We first held a meeting at Acher in Ahmedabad on July 31, where everyone condemned the (Una) incident. I put forth the idea that we should march to Una. We decided not to call any big leader as that would overshadow Jignesh who is a very good speaker and communicator, and was emerging as a leader”.

Sharma says the timing to launch Mevani as a Dalit leader was “just right” considering “several political leaders had come to Una only to give lip service.” Besides, only a year ago, the young Hardik Patel had emerged as a leader from the Patidar quota movement, indicating there was space for new leaders.

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Soon after the Una incident, Mevani launched the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, a platform bringing together Dalit youth to fight for all marginalised communities. He also briefly joined the AAP but quit.

On September 28, 2021, coinciding with the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh, Mevani pledged support to the Congress, along with Kanhaiya Kumar, who joined as a member.

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Many said it would be a decision that would mark the end of Mevani’s fledgling political career, pointing to the wilderness that Hardik Patel and Kanhaiya find themselves in after joining the Congress.

Jayantilal Parmar, a member of the BJP’s media team, while distancing himself from the case against Mevani in Assam, says, “As long as Mevani was independent, he was an effective Dalit leader. The minute you join the Congress, you compromise your ideology.”

Parmar recalls how, when Mevani addressed a gathering in Chandkheda area of Ahmedabad after the Una flogging incident, “even Dalit BJP leaders went to the meet, but they abandoned him after he joined  Congress”.

A senior Gujarat BJP leader had earlier told The Indian Express that the party is not particularly concerned about Mevani. “I don’t think there is a specific ploy to tackle him. There are certain persons with whom our party does not bother negotiating at all and Mevani is one of them.” One of the reasons the BJP may not be particularly interested in Mevani, as this leader said, could be because Dalits form only about 7 per cent of the state’s population.

Another leader argued that Mevani holds little more than “nuisance value” for the BJP. “Politically he looked finished before these cases were registered against him. The cases have provided him oxygen. In Gujarat, he holds only nuisance value, but his voice holds importance in places with a strong presence of Dalits, Muslims and tribals outside the state.”

Ramjibhai Bhikhabhai Parmar, 76, from Vagda village in Vadgam taluka, who has been a traditional Congress voter but voted for Mevani in 2017, says, “The Mukteshwar dam issue was one that dated back to the days before Independence, but Mevani managed to get Rs 19 crore cleared from the government and ensured water from the Narmada reached the dam. It’s a feat that no BJP, Janata Party or Congress MLA could achieve.”

Dismissing the allegations against Mevani, Ramjibhai says, “Jignesbhai refuses to dine at homes where the women are behind a veil… that’s how progressive he is. And you think he would assault a woman constable?.”

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Through much of Mevani’s political journey, his family has been a constant by his side. His entire family had joined him in the Una march. His father Parmar has participated in most of Mevani’s rallies and also campaigned for him in Vadgam in 2017, taking charge of 20 villages. Parmar was also part of all the recent demonstrations seeking his son’s release.

“We worry for him, but what can we do if this is the path he has chosen,” says mother Chandraben, recalling how Mevani once rebuked her for telling journalists that he had “no intention of marrying”. “Mummy, don’t say that, I can marry, even at 50!,” he had told her.

Talking of the police raid on their home on April 21, his father Parmar says, “The team searched the house, especially Jignesh’s room, but found nothing. They had already seized his CPU from the MLA quarters in Gandhinagar and taken the mobile phones of two of his associates… We have gone only once to see his MLA quarter. His quarter was open to everyone — from students taking competitive exams to couples whose marriages were not endorsed by their parents. There was hardly any space for us.”

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First published on: 01-05-2022 at 04:00:09 am

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