Updated: May 1, 2022 8:35:14 pm
The Bharatiya Janata Party acts like the bullock who thinks of himself as the owner of the farm. Least does it know that the real tamer of the bullock is the owner who is holding the leash. The owners in India’s politics are the public who care about constitutional values and a rights-based republic where criticism and engagement are part of their existence in this federal country.
The government might think that since public memory is short, it will forget about Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat’s Independent lawmaker and convenor of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, or many like him illegally incarcerated, and move on to another crisis. However, they forget that such acts are etched into the public’s minds, who will be emboldened to fight repression.
The arrest of 41-year-old Mevani by the BJP-ruled Assam Police highlights the growing repression by the BJP and its extended fears of a Dalit.
Mevani represents the state of the ordinary public, who look at him as their hero fighting for their rights. Though Mevani is an Independent legislator, he has a nationwide reach. As I write this column from New York, there is already a move within the diaspora and the international community to launch a campaign for Mevani.
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To know Mevani better, we may have to visit some of the stories from his past. Mevani grew up in a lower-middle-class family of clerical parents. At a place that was a breeding ground for the oppressed castes to fall into the laps of Brahminism, Mevani could have easily been the trishul-wielding Dalit taking on the Muslims. But he was the produce of the Dalit tradition that could easily see the differences exercised in society. Mevani got trained in the field of democratic protests. A seasoned journalist, he matured into a Gramscian intellect who could easily move around the borders of the neglected, oppressed, privileged, and repressed. He wrote thoughtful essays and even spent time with serious scholarly initiatives that had an agenda for the future.
Mevani is a lover of Gujarati language, poetry, ghazals, culture, and the Gujarati pride that precedes the current darkness in disreputable chambers. The Gujarati story of modern times is not that of PR-created Vibrant Gujarat but of uncompromising Dalit Panthers movement, the literary exposes done by the Adivasi spaces, the forces of labour unions who ensured no communal riot took place in the state that borders Pakistan. But this state has also witnessed the tragic Hindu-Muslim binary, the prevalence of untouchability, and orphanage accorded to Adivasis over lack of land titles.
Mevani is a reason for the democratic celebration of an otherwise pessimistic, gloomy India. Even in his arrest, he invites celebration that an entire State machinery had to double down on an MLA living at the other end of the country, about 2,800 km away. It simply shows what the State’s priorities and fears are. It is clear by now that the BJP is afraid of Mevani. And Mevani and his followers like it. It has further ensured his position as an indisputable leader that the country is desperate to embrace.
Mevani’s mentors are those who came to Gujarat to organise workers and unionised them. He is among the rare breed of India’s social activists-turned-politicians who understand land relations with caste violence intimately. He identifies his struggle in line with Dr Ambedkar and Dadasaheb Gaikwad, who launched a nationwide agitation for Dalit land rights. Mevani did the same in his home state that blatantly violated the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act, which did not give 5 acres of surplus land to Dalits, as was mandated.
The State perhaps miscalculated the impact of Mevani’s arrest. They have unduly acknowledged Mevani as a leading figure of the anti-BJP establishment. This arrest has already helped Mevani’s political résumé. In a party like the Congress, to be a political prisoner is a passport to higher ranks. He will rise in the party and launch his diatribe against forces that are dividing India based on majority-minority, communalist-casteism. With elections round the corner, Mevani might as well be the face of Gujarat that the Opposition wants to offer.
Mevani is not unknown to street struggles and fights with governments. He has reposed his faith in Rahul Gandhi, who he sees as a leader with genuine concern for the Dalits. Mevani has to survive two assaults — the BJP and Congress. If he succeeds on both fronts, India will have a leader to work with for several decades.
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column.
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