”Our movement is pitching for an alternative model of development based on land reforms”, the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladhai Samiti leader says.

Jignesh Mewani has become the face of Dalit assertion in Gujarat after leading the protests following the Una incident last July, in which a group of Dalits were brutally assaulted by cow protection vigilantes.

Mr. Mewani, who is a leader of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladhai Samiti, recently led a ”rasta roko” agitation in Ahmedabad, demanding that the government give physical possession of the land allotted to Dalits. The State administration relented and has started mapping the land around Saroda village in Ahmedabad district’s Dholka tehsil, in preparation of handing over around 220 bighas of land to 115 Dalit families of this village.

‘Reasonable demand’

Speaking exclusively to The Hindu, Mr. Mewani argued that his movement’s main demand that every landless Dalit should be given 5 acres was reasonable as “every zilla and tehsil has government wasteland” and which could be recovered through the implementation of the Gujarat Land Ceiling Act. Besides, the SC/ST sub-plan provided for the government to buy land and distribute it to landless SC/STs.

He said his movement was “pitching for an alternative model of development, based on land reforms, where productivity and wealth gains will be made by redistributing land to those who will work on it themselves, land to the tiller.”

The State administration’s move to start mapping land around Saroda village was a huge victory for the movement, he claimed. Hitherto, “Gujarat had a unique model of carrying land reforms only on paper,” he said.

His movement would organise a rail roko in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Maninagar in Ahmedabad on October 1 to press for the land distribution demand.

Biggest challenge

Asked what was the biggest challenge facing Dalit politics today, Mr. Mewani said Dalit assertion should have progressed beyond anti-casteist sloganeering and that it was “bogged down in identity politics.” The need was to “combine identity politics with a material basis — to fight for social justice as well as economic justice.” In this regard, he said the movement considered the Left as an ally.

“Even if we are not able to create a classless society … we ought to aim for a society that has less disparity … Material issues are the heart of Dalit politics. With our slogan, “you keep the cow’s tail, give us our land,” we are discarding the communal agenda of the Sangh Parivar and are raising material issues — one could call it a Left perspective,” he said. While critiquing the Left for its shortcomings, he would welcome Leftist activists to his movement, he said, adding, “more the Left keeps raising Dalit issues, the more Dalits will begin to trust the Left.”

It was necessary for Dalits to counter saffron politics as well and the “political project of Dalit-Muslim” unity was one way to do so, he said, emphasising need for inter-caste and inter-religious marriages to be common among Dalits. His movement was seeking to build a broad coalition against the Sangh Parivar and a gathering of OBCs, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and trade unionists was being planned for September 27 in the State, he said.

Full text of Jignesh Mewani’s exclusive interview to The Hindu:

The main demand of the agitation you are leading is that every landless Dalit should be given 5 acres of land. How realistic is this? Where will the land come from?

Every zilla and tehsil has government wasteland, which could be distributed. Thousands of acres of land can be recovered through implementation of the Gujarat Land Ceiling Act. Plus there is a provision in the SC/ST Sub-plan under which the government can even buy land and distribute it to landless SC/STs. If land can be found for the Tatas, Ambanis, Adanis and SEZs, it can be found for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs as well. If there is political will, then it is definitely possible.

But corporate groups are given land to generate economic development that benefits everyone. What will giving five acres of wasteland to a Dalit achieve?

Land reforms were part of the First Five Year Plan. Its objective was to make India a more egalitarian society, and uplift the poor and the landless. Majority of India’s population still depends on agriculture for survival. We are pitching for an alternative model of development, based on land reforms, where productivity and wealth gains will be made by redistributing land to those who will work on it themselves, land to the tiller.

Tell us about the success story of Saroda village land rights agitation.

Gujarat has a unique model of carrying our land reforms only on paper. They don’t give actual possession of the land. Do we expect farmers to do cultivation on paper? If you take the case of Saroda village, 115 families had been allotted around 220 bighas of land in 2006. By law, they should have been given physical possession of the land within 90 days. We are now in 2016. For nine years, these families had been continuously sitting on dharnas, taking out rallies, submitting memorandums, to no avail. They even submitted a written request to the government stating that if you don’t want to give us the land, please expel us from this country. But nothing happened. So this month we finally decided to break the law by doing rasta roko in Ahmedabad. Many things happened – three sisters from the protesting families fainted, and the police, instead of calling an ambulance, beat them up. But eventually, when the state understood that we weren’t giving up no matter what, it agreed to start the process of handing over the land. The measurement of the land has started. This is a huge victory for us.

Why were you arrested on September 16 on your return to Ahmedabad from Delhi?

My arrest speaks volumes about the Gujarat model and the model of governance here. It reveals to what extent the Gujarat government is scared of the ongoing Dalit agitation.

What, in your assessment, is the biggest challenge facing Dalit politics today?

I think somewhere along the line it got stuck in the Manuwad Murdabad kind of sloganeering. Dalit politics should have progressed beyond this sloganeering, but it is bogged down in identity politics. The challenge is to combine identity politics with material politics – to fight for social justice as well as economic justice.

Would you say Dalit unity is a big challenge? If yes, how do you plan to address it?

It certainly is, and that’s why one of our campaign slogans is, “Duniya ke Dalit Ek ho!” A recent study by an NGO found wide prevalence of untouchability practised by Dalit castes against other Dalit castes. So this internal casteism is definitely a toxic factor that needs to be addressed. And this is a requirement for Dalit unity as well. In the coming days we will be organising different programs, including inter-caste marriages. We will use Valentine’s Day as well to promote inter-caste love and marriage. This will help give material shape to anti-caste politics.

One frequent criticism of Dalit politics has been that individual advancement becomes a stand-in for the community’s advancement. When a Dalit gets a seat at the table of power, people are happy that a Dalit voice has found representation. But we find that benefits accruing to individual Dalits don’t translate into political or material gains for the community as a whole.

I completely agree. The politics of the poor and the landless can never be a politics of the individual, or revolve around one leader. It necessarily has to be the politics of the collective. We have seen for many years that Dalit activists, or Dalit politicians when elected to power, are more interested in feathering their own nests. But now Dalits are beginning to realise that it is only through Lok Andolan – through people’s movements and collective effort — that they can win. They cannot expect their political representatives to automatically further their interests.

Isn’t this a limitation of identity politics?

Not necessarily, but yes, in a way, it is. There are contradictions in identity politics – it has positive and negative aspects. We need to grasp these contradictions better in our political analysis and mobilisation.

There seems to be a difference of opinon within Dalit politics on the question of what attitude to take towards the Left. There is a vocal section among Ambedkarites which believes that the Left has always undermined caste mobilisation and is not to be trusted. Where do you stand on this question?

I definitely see the Left as an ally. It’s not about the Left joining the Dalits or Dalits joining the Left, it’s about a Dalit becoming Left – by which I simply mean a cogent understanding of class struggle. Even if we are not able to create a classless society, at least we ought to aim for a society that has less disparity than the present one. Material issues are at the heart of Dalit politics. With our slogan, “You keep the cow’s tail, give us our land” we are the discarding communal and divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar, and at the same time, raising a material issue within the Dalit movement – you could call it a Left perspective if you like.

Yes, historically, the Left in India has made big mistakes. Ambedkarite politics has also made big mistakes. We will critique the Left for its mistakes and shortcomings, but if they come and join our movement, I am not going to turn them away – any political movement needs to have this much openness at least, and we do. The more consistently and seriously the Left keeps raising Dalit issues, the more Dalits will begin to trust the Left. This is a gradual process and will happen over time.

All this sounds good in theory but things get messy in practice, especially over issues of leadership. History tells us that the Left is not comfortable unless it is in control.

Well, in our case, with the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Committee, it is we Dalits who are in control, and the Left has joined us to lend its support. I believe if you fight earnestly for dignity and social justice, people will automatically want to join you – of course, a lot also depends on your understanding, the articulation of your politics, and how you want to shape the Dalit movement.

You have repeatedly stressed the importance of forging a Dalit-Muslim unity. It’s never been easy.

Yes, I am aware it is a difficult task politically. But if you put it on the table even as an idea, something is bound to come out of it. In 2002 in Gujarat, Dalits participated in the riots — not in big numbers, but they did participate – and for that, as a Dalit, I hang my head in shame. We need to counter the saffronisation of Dalits as well. A political project of Dalit-Muslim unity is one way to do that if we want to prevent a recurrence of this dynamic, and it is in the interests of Muslims as well as Dalits. I have said publicly that if I had two sisters, I would’ve liked one of them to marry a Valmiki, and the other to marry a Muslim. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages should become a common thing among Dalits. It may seem like a fantasy now, but I believe it will become a reality some day.

How do you explain a Dalit joining the Sangh Parivar?

I’m afraid I can’t explain acts of idiocy.

What are your future plans?

We are very clear that we want to develop an anti-RSS politics in Gujarat and also outside Gujarat. Let’s see what happens. On September 27 we are planning a huge gathering in Gujarat. OBCs, adivasis, Muslims, farmers, and trade unionists will come together with Dalits to create a broad alliance against the Sangh and the BJP. We will raise cultural and material issues to expose the Gujarat model. On October 1, there will be a rail roko in Narendra Modi’s home constituency of Maninagar in Ahmedabad, to press our demand for 5 acres of land for all landless SCs/STs.