Updated: May 6, 2022 8:09:22 am
Picked up at midnight from a Circuit House in Palanpur and flown to Guwahati over a complaint filed by a BJP leader regarding a tweet, Independent MLA Jignesh Mevani is out on bail after spending nine days in a Kokrajhar jail. In its order giving him bail, the Kokrajhar court pulled up the state police. In an interview with The Indian Express, a day before he was convicted for unlawful assembly by a Gujarat court, Mevani discusses the Assam arrest, his political plans, and his future in the Congress. Excerpts from the interview:
What has changed in Jignesh Mevani after the April 19 arrest by the Assam Police?
I am relaxed and offended both, relaxed obviously for getting bail and offended because of the harassment and persecution I was subjected to for no reason. (I am) absolutely innocent as far as these two cases (over the tweet, and for allegedly assaulting a woman police official) are concerned. I have done nothing wrong, and I proactively submit to you that I am not going to delete these tweets…
I am happy and inspired at how people came out in support all across India, particularly in Gujarat, in my constituency, in Baroda, Surat, Ahmedabad, Kutch, Saurashtra… women participated, people participated beyond castes and even political parties. There were sympathisers from the BJP (too) who were not loud, covering their faces, but they were there… That’s what people told me. So, I was seen not just as a Congressman, but like ‘the son of a Dalit’… I can proudly say that it also has to do with the fact that I have been liked as the true son of a Dalit. Whenever caste atrocities have happened in Gujarat, I have been there, and they know it… Therefore they really love me.
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How did you spend your time in custody? How did the Assam Police treat you?
Obviously, Day One is not good when you are picked up, taken some 2,500 km away, not allowed to talk to parents, lawyers. You do not know what is going to happen, what is the FIR, what are the charges, whether you will get bail or not, how they will behave in custody… But, at the same time, I told myself that come what may, I will face it, I will not bow down… I was also clear that there could be more FIRs, more serious charges in which I could be implicated. I was mentally prepared as well.
One day I was in the police lockup, there were a lot of mosquitoes and cockroaches, obviously not much light, no fans. Lock-up is a lock-up ultimately… They are nothing but hell. But by and large, police were okay and cooperative and never misbehaved with me… apart from filing a false FIR. But this process, the fact that you have to go through it, that itself is harassment… I took bath in a toilet, which is something we are not used to.
I also thought about the freedom fighters. People hurl so many abuses at (Jawaharlal) Nehru, (but) he was in jail for 14-15 years. The kind of torture Bhagat Singh and his comrades were subjected to is unimaginable. Even Hardik (Patel) was in jail for nine months, Umar (Khalid) has been in jail for almost two years. Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bhardwaj… all these political prisoners.
Also, I have always been a public interest activist, public interest journalist and public interest lawyer. So, I was thinking of doing something about prisoners’ rights someday… I also thought it would be fun to put BJP people in the same lock-ups (laughs).
I read (Andre) Agassi’s autobiography; the way he chased Steffi Graf, proposed to her… That entire chapter was really inspiring and I really liked that autobiography. I read newspapers as and when I had the opportunity. I was happy I hit the headlines in Assam newspapers daily; people had started liking me, they came to police station out of curiosity. The police constables had a lot of sympathy for me.
I had a fantastic discussion about the culture of Assam with one of the officers. I want to read more about the history and culture of Assam because there is not much caste discrimination compared to the cow belt or Hindi heartland… I got to know about this place called Hajo, which is a little Mecca of the East where Muslims can pray, Buddhists can pray, Hindus can pray…
I missed the Instagram reels of Jhanvi Kapoor (laughs).
You said the Congress backed you solidly, right from Rahul Gandhi down.
The Congress was solidly with me. Somebody from my side gave a desperate call to Rahul Gandhi. Probably he was abroad and sleeping, he woke up, took the call, listened carefully and then gave instructions to the people in Delhi. The party people woke up at 12.30-1 am, and Jagdish Thakor (the Gujarat Congress president) rushed to the (Ahmedabad) airport from where I was being taken… Pawan Khera and Randeep Surjewala (Congress spokespersons) spoke to the media… The PCC president of Assam, a battery of lawyers appeared for me. Youth Congress people were constantly outside the police station for good 12-14 hours a day. There was not a single day where protests didn’t happen in Assam in my support.
Do you think the Congress support was because they see you as an important Dalit face?
They (the Congress leadership) see me as a Dalit face. There is the short term and the long term. They know that I have an ideological foundation, they know that Jignesh is not just against the BJP, but also against the RSS and solidly against the RSS. So, the bigger he becomes, the larger he grows, he will become a bigger threat (to the BJP and RSS) in the coming days.
You have pledged your support to the Congress. What would change for Jignesh Mevani if he joins the party formally, as you are expected to do? What compromises do you think you will have to make?
I am very clear in my head that I will never let the activist Jignesh die. I am very clear about that. So, what I was doing as an activist, that will always continue. Prior to Una (the Dalit assault case), what I was doing, I have been able to do it even after becoming an Independent MLA and even after extending my support to the Congress. Rather, the Congress also wants me to be what I am. They also have clarity about me.
Rahul Gandhi is very clear in his mind when it comes to the rights of Dalits. He is very serious, sensitive and sincere about Dalits. So, he also wants me to grow as a Dalit leader. Congress people like K Raju, who is now coordinating with the SC/ST/OBC and minorities department, he also wants me to grow with every passing day. So, it will be really good for me.
I will find a role for myself after I join the Congress, where I will be able to move across the country. That is what the party also wants. The party is very clear about that, and so am I. So, only good things will happen to me. I am quite sure about it. I am as vocal as I have been, but never has anybody from the Congress asked me to lower the frequency of my voice for anything. Rather they have appreciated it.
So, you don’t see any possibility of having to make compromises?
No. At the same time, I don’t want to claim that there will not be any compromise. Because, mainstream politics is also an art of finding a way out of compromises. But largely I will grow.
What are your plans for the coming Gujarat Assembly elections?
Though I am constantly trying to attract more people apart from Dalits, I still primarily remain a Dalit leader. So, that will definitely be the area of my focus. And my second priority will be the working class, particularly the outsourcing and contractual workers and tribals and minorities. I will be focusing on Dalits, tribals, Muslims and OBCs, (to) bring them together.
I will have a lot of impact in Banaskantha and Patan (districts of North Gujarat), because people are really, really upset in Vav, Tharad, Deodar , Dhanera, Deesa. With every passing day, it is becoming my stronghold. And since it is becoming my stronghold, I would love to keep them solidly engaged with me. So, I will be definitely focusing on Banaskantha and North Gujarat.
Of course, as per the instructions of the party, I will going all across Gujarat. And since I have the momentum, I will be going to a few national platforms as well.
My focus will not be just Vadgam (his constituency), though I am very serious about it. My focus will be the whole state.
So, you will be fighting again from Vadgam?
Manibhai Vaghela, the former Congress MLA from Vadgam, has joined the BJP. Do you think it will dent your electoral prospects?
The kind of impact people are saying he will create does not seem to be true on the ground at the moment. Rather, the lodging of FIRs against me has turned out to be detrimental for his (electoral prospects). People have got charged up in my constituency. And who is Jignesh Mevani? Ultimately, Jignesh Mevani is a fighter; that is my public perception, my image. That image has got further strengthened among the Dalits and minorities. I don’t seem him (Vaghela) as much of a challenge.
Secondly, the internal contradictions within the BJP may also help me because the other ticket aspirants (from the BJP) would not like Manilal.
Hardik Patel has been complaining about being ignored in the Congress. Do you see a similar fate for yourself?
See, what Hardik is up to has nothing to do with what I am up to, and what I could be up to. Mine is a different path, a different journey. I have a different aim in life. My constituency is different – tribals, Dalits, minorities and working class people at large. So, what happens to X or Y or what X or Y does, doesn’t matter much to me. And this is not disrespect to anyone. It’s about my position.
Do you have any message for Hardik Patel?
That we have been good friends, good political colleagues. The only message that I would love to give him is ‘Hang on buddy, we will fight it out together’.
Have you ever been approached by the BJP?
During the Rajya Sabha elections (in 2020), there were indirect approaches. One of the big leaders from the Gujarat BJP categorically told me, ‘Please go and see this leader, rest will be taken care of. But think about doing something (voting for BJP candidates) in the Rajya Sabha (elections)’. I said, ‘No chance at all’.
Apart from that, the BJP is very clear that it is impossible to crack Jignesh… it is impossible for me to be with them.
And these two cases (in Assam) have made it clear that they don’t see me as opposition, they see me as enemy. So, the game is on. The fight is on.
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