Interview with Dalit leader and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN
This interview with Jignesh Mevani, the Dalit leader and newly elected Member of the Legislative Assembly from Vadgam, Gujarat, evolved over a number of short interactions spread over a couple of days during his visit to New Delhi in early January for the Yuva Hunkar Rally, and was completed after a long telephone conversation while he was travelling out of the capital city by road. In spite of the unstructured nature of the interactions, the articulation here is in keeping with his cogent and lucid communication track record. During the interactions, Mevani outlined the responses that his recent initiatives had evoked and delineated how he proposed to advance his politics in the days to come.
Right through the Gujarat Assembly election (December 2017) campaign, you maintained that once electioneering was over you would immediately get back to your core mass mobilisation issues and programmes: the campaign against the atrocities and discrimination faced by the Dalit communities across the country, the indifference of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre in fulfilling its promise of rolling out two crore jobs for the unemployed youth, and the active pursuit of land distribution demands. In the first and second weeks of January you seem to have picked up and highlighted the Dalit discrimination and employment issues. How do you think this campaign will pan out in the days to come?
We will have to understand the context in which we are raising these slogans. One of the most striking characteristics of the three and a half years of the Modi regime is the rising atrocities and brutalities against Dalits and Muslims as well as the mounting scales of social deprivation among Dalits. Parallelly, one can also see the rising awareness as well as churning among Dalit communities about the true anti-Dalit character of this government. More and more people are taking note of the stunning silence of the Prime Minister on atrocities against Dalits. He did not utter a word on the Bhima Koregaon violence nor on the assault on the Bhim Army. People are realising that there was only lip service from the Prime Minister for the Una victims, no concrete action. [Dalit victims of cow vigilante attacks in Una, Gujarat.] This was the situation after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, too. Dalit communities are realising all this and that the claim of Modi being an Ambedkar bhakt has no merit. That they have not taken cognisance of the genuine concerns of the Dalit communities, including the rampant untouchability seen in several States or the mounting social deprivation or the rising atrocities. This is what the continuing churning has highlighted. It also proves that the effort to use the Ramnath Kovind as [the Dalit] President card has not worked with the Dalit communities.
TWO CRORE JOBS
The promise on generating employment and the indifference to take it forward too have similar response on the ground. Although I belong to the Scheduled Caste community, I am also primarily a youth and employment is part of my agenda and unemployment is primarily a material issue. It is in this context that we realised that these questions would have to be raised and campaigned on more vigorously. But I suppose that the campaign on both the issues would have to be sustained for a long time to get substantive results at the social and administrative levels. That is exactly why I said during the election period itself that I would be getting back to these core issues at the earliest. In fact, I have taken a pledge that there would not be a single speech of mine across the country or a single interview of mine or even a single Facebooklive of mine or a single mohalla sabha of mine where I do not ask the question: where are the two crore jobs that you promised?; where I do not address and raise the issue of this huge employment fraud that Prime Minister Modi has played on this country’s youth. It is downright political hoodwinking. As all this is getting highlighted, the impact of the movement in the beginning of this year has tremendous significance at the level of immediate and medium-term political impact. I can sense this from the responses that the movement has evoked from the BJP and the larger Hindutva, Manuwadi forces. It has risen to such levels of aggression that the threats on phone and on social media against me have simply multiplied manifold. And there is a clear sign of panic in this unprecedented aggressive response. It is a kind of panic that stems from the realisation that the mere lip service that they and their governments have been doing in terms of Dalit welfare and reduction of unemployment is getting more and more exposed. It may also be driven by an apprehension that this growing expose would have an adverse electoral impact too, especially in Karnataka and Rajasthan.
Have you been able to identify those who are making threatening calls to you?
These are anonymous calls. But it is also evident from the language, tone and tenor where they are coming from, politically, ideologically and organisationally. We have told the authorities, including security agencies, to try and unravel these callers. I also have information that intelligence agencies have received authentic reports on the threats against me, threat to my life. But I do not know what they are doing on this or how their investigations are progressing. But I am saying this on record that I am sure if you check using your journalistic sources with the Intelligence Bureau or some other agency, you will be able to find out who are behind the series of threats to my life. When I say you, I do not mean you personally but the media as a whole. The big question is whether you will carry out this duty of yours.
That is a big challenge that you are throwing at the media.
I told you, I am on record on this.
But these recent initiatives that you have taken are focussed on Dalit discrimination and employment issues. You are yet to come up with any concrete programme on land distribution, which you had always maintained was a key component of comprehensive emancipation of the marginalised communities of the country, including Dalits.
In the first week of February, this movement will be started afresh. It will start at Banaskantha district of Gujarat and would address the issues in Kutch district, too, where 4,300 acres [one acre=0.4 hectare] have been allotted, but on paper. The preparatory mobilisation for this will begin in the last two weeks of January through public rallies and other means of campaign. This itself will last for close to a week. This will be followed up by a five-day march through the districts of Kutch and Banaskantha, highlighting not only the long-standing administrative failures to distribute already allocated land, but also the devious efforts to privatise a civil hospital in Palanpur. This march will pass through my constituency of Vadgam, too.
During the election period you formed a coalition of young leaders through your alignment with Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor. Though you were bound by a common anti-BJP politics, the fact remains that both Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor are essentially champions of their communities, Patidars and Kolis respectively, which, too, have relatively greater access to land and other resources in the feudal socio-economic structure of Gujarat. Now that you are getting ready to embark on a concerted movement highlighting the core issues of discrimination against Dalits and land redistribution, how do you think your election associates will respond?
I would certainly appeal to them to join hands with the movement. My campaign is essentially about social justice and general welfare of the people. That is why the campaign is set to have pressing people’s issues such as public health. Again, our alliance during elections was just not about electoral issues but also about rallying youths from all ranks and social groups on common agendas that confront them everywhere. Demanding that the Union government fulfil its promise of two crore jobs is a prime issue where all of us had in-principle agreement right through the election campaign. The issue of unemployment does not just affect Dalit youths but also the youths of the upper castes and Other Backward Classes. It is a matter that cuts across not just caste but also religion. Muslim, Christian and youths belonging to other communities, too, face the travails of unemployment. I am sure we will have many more similar matters and concerns that would bring us together.
But the fact remains the both Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor are essentially driven by caste interests of a sectarian nature and not primarily by social justice. Would this not goad them to oppose your campaigns and agitations, especially on the Dalit empowerment and land questions?
Why should we start chasing perceived problems or things that have no manifestations? My point is clear. I do not want to make big claims but I would like to see all young leaders join this campaign, which will ultimately acquire nationwide dimensions. And, certainly, I will invite all of them. And I am sure that if we work honestly, things can turn hopeful. I have always been of the firm view that even identity-based movements have to adopt, evolve and advance broad-based general issues that have a common thread in all castes and religions. Even Dalit identity-based movements and politics have to do this. Only this approach can take us closer to or even strive for a casteless society.
Unlike other practitioners of Dalit politics, you have consistently advocated an ideology-based approach and also repeated that the natural ally of Dalit emancipation politics in India is the Left movements.
That is something that is obvious, that Ambedkarites and the Left should come together as they are natural friends and allies. Their coming together would strengthen not only their own respective movements but the state of our society and politics as a whole. But I would like to add some more in the present political context. What is hanging over the head of this country, its people, their democratic ethos as well as the values and principles of our Constitution that was formulated by Bhimrao Ambedkar is the unmistakable threat of fascism. In this given situation, all pro-people, pro-poor and secular forces have to come together, be it Gandhian, be it Sarvodaya, be it socialist, be it NGO, be it trade union, be it feminist or in whatever nomenclature. The time is such that every group or individual who believes in creating and sustaining a democratic, secular, socialist republic and who is committed to opposing the fascist politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar should come together. The thing that we need to remember constantly is that they are such deadly forces.
If we fail to force this broad unity, we could end up losing not only our secular polity but also the very character of our country. As far as I am concerned, I will leave no stone unturned in pursuing this idea. And as a newly elected young legislator, I am planning to travel across the country and raise youth energy to strengthen and advance this idea, whose time has not only come but is literally impelling us into action.