Interview with the Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN
IN mid July 2016, a video of a few Dalit youths being beaten and paraded by a mob for skinning a dead cow in Una in Gujarat went viral and triggered a mass movement for Dalit assertion that probably had few parallels in the history of modern India.
This battle for self-respect and dignity began with a 400-kilometre march by more than three lakh Dalits from Ahmedabad to Una braving threats and intimidation from Sangh Parivar elements and daring them with slogans such as “You may keep the cow’s tail, give us our land”.
One of the architects of the movement was Jignesh Mevani, a 36-year-old lawyer-activist who has been working for long on the Dalit land rights issue in Gujarat. As convener of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, he made Dalits take a pledge that they would not do jobs such as skinning dead animals that were linked to their birth in a particular community.
Mevani is going ahead with his ambitious mission of uniting Dalits and all progressive forces, including the Left, on one platform to launch a pan-India movement against the growing menace of communalism and to safeguard secularism and work towards establishing a casteless society. There are many sceptics within the Dalit community about this approach.
Taking on the Sangh Parivar in its den, Gujarat, he says, is not easy. He realises that making Dalits conscious of their right to live with dignity is a stupendous task, and his immediate objective is to defeat the caste-centric nationalistic Hindutva caucus. “If they are defeated, the fractures in society can be removed. But it is not possible unless Dalits bury their differences and join hands with progressive forces,” he says.
Mevani was recently in Chennai on an invitation from the Caste Annihilation Front (Jathi Ozhippu Munnani) and to attend a series of programmes. He spoke to Frontlineon the Gujarat model of development and why it failed, the rise of the scourge of right-wing extremism, and the deep differences within the Dalit community.
Excerpts from the interview:
The Gujarat development model that Narendra Modi is said to have scripted as Chief Minister of the State from 2001 to 2014 is now sought to be replicated at the national level. But you have criticised it as a failure. Why?
The Gujarat model is a lethal combination of neoliberalism and communalism, which syncs perfectly with Modi’s “Goebbelsian rhetoric” of development.
Sensing the growing divide between the rich and the poor in the post-liberalisation era, corporate giants and the political dispensation have been trying to deflect the attention of the masses from their economic plight. Communal fascism and globalisation are made for each other. It is not a coincidence that the Babri Masjid demolition took place soon after the country adopted the neoliberal agenda.
Well. The Gujarat model has, in fact, left the once-vibrant Gujarat in tatters today. The State had healthy financial stability until 2001, but is facing a huge financial deficit today. Gujarat’s public debt, according to reports, stood at Rs.53,000 crore then but is Rs.1,65,000 crore today. It is no exaggeration to say that Gujarat is facing economic bankruptcy today because of the prioritisation of unviable and anti-people projects that benefit only the corporate class.
Social spending on public health and education, employment and infrastructure has come down drastically. Modi’s model of development is to rob the poor and pay the rich. He gave away even fertile land and gauchars [grazing land] to corporate giants at throwaway prices, causing severe stress to the State’s economy and ecology, which in turn led to a serious agrarian crisis and forced nearly 1,000 farmers to commit suicide in a decade in the State. Even water meant for farmers was diverted to big industries. Is this a development model?
Do you mean to say that Modi’s development model, which seems to have brought him successive electoral victories, will actually be disastrous for the country?
Absolutely. His failure to create jobs and ensure sustainable growth has been the main factor behind the massive Patel agitation for reservation. The Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, led by Hardik Patel, is campaigning for reservation under the OBC [Other Backward Classes] quota. Had Modi been committed to a sustainable growth [model], affluent social groups such as Patels would not have taken to the streets asking for reservation in employment and education, competing with the downtrodden. It is his gross failure that has created disharmony among various sections of the people in a once-peaceful State. This is his model of depravity and decay, which he attempts to implement across the country. Just imagine what will happen if he is allowed to pursue his mission based on “the Gujarat model”.
BOUND TO FAIL
Is it not premature to say that his model will fail?
His model is bound to fail. Renowned scholars and economists have said so. Gujarat has been a laboratory to test the Hindutva agenda at the micro level. Now these right-wing extremists have started implementing it at the national level. Modi is their face. The country’s development is not their agenda. It is not about economics and development. It is something sinister, a majoritarian agenda that attempts to communalise a secular nation. The youth and farmers have been cheated like never before. Has Modi ever visited the family of a farmer who committed suicide? He will never in future too. For him big corporate houses are important, not the common man. Modi is just a mirage and will remain a total failure.
Many claim and believe too that Modi has brought Gujarat to the fore. It is the successful projection of this image of him that has brought the BJP to power at the Centre and in many States today. You cannot deny that.
It is just a fairy-tale fantasy. His “’Vikas Purush” image is just a corporate construct. His agrarian policy in Gujarat was a mess. Despite the massive Narmada project, in which a huge amount of taxpayer money was spent, half of Gujaratis are left with no water today. More than a lakh manual scavengers [safai mazdoor] of the Valmiki community are struggling to get basic minimum wages. There has been no visible effort to rescue them from this menial job and rehabilitate them.
It is a carefully propagated image that Gujarat is shining. Do you know that it is not found among the top 10 developed States despite Modi having been in power there for four terms from 2001. Gujarat has the largest number of malnourished people in the country and one of the most corrupt regimes today.
Modi promised to build 50 lakh houses for the poor in the State. But not even 1 per cent of that has been completed so far. These houses, mainly built under the Indira Awas Yojna, were to be completed within the maximum time limit of two years. But the majority of them are still incomplete, though the State has claimed that the target has been achieved. The incomplete houses are shown as complete. A similar fate has fallen on other welfare schemes, too. These fudged figures expose the emptiness of the Gujarat model, which excludes Dalits and the marginalised.
But Modi claims that his development model is inclusive and has benefited Dalits and the marginalised.
It is a lie. There is a 300 per cent increase in violence against Dalit women in Gujarat today. The data provided in reply to a query under the Right to Information Act reveal that a total of 501 rape cases have been registered between January 2001 and December 2014 in the State. Dalits in 104 villages are living in perpetual fear of death since they suspect that the police who give them protection against casteist forces might withdraw at any time and expose them to danger. [The government has identified 11 districts, including Mehsana, Ahmedabad (Rural), Amreli, Rajkot and Surendranagar, as “atrocity prone”.] The world knows how Muslims were victimised in Modi’s Gujarat. Is this an inclusive model?
Why do you lay stress on the distribution of land among Dalits at a time when they face social ostracisation, an issue that needs to be confronted and solved immediately?
This problem of caste-based discrimination is not confined to Gujarat. In the post-globalisation period, Dalits have become “double victims” of both caste and class discrimination. In the post-Una era, Dalits understand the evilness of the Hindutva forces, which actually nurture caste-based discrimination, and the importance of owning land. Economic empowerment will ensure them dignity, socially and economically.
In India, land determines the caste system. The redistribution of surplus land in the possession of caste Hindu feudal landlords among Dalits is essential for their uplift. I have demanded that five acres [two hectares] of land should be distributed to each landless Dalit in Gujarat under the provisions of the Land Ceiling Act and the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. Many of the parcels of land that were allotted to landless Dalits remain on paper.
At a time when the rhetoric of manuvadis is growing shrill, one must realise that both caste and class should unite. One cannot preach self-respect to empty stomachs. The land issue lies at the core of this movement, the aim of which is to move towards an all-inclusive model. If one studies Ambedkar and Marx in the context of atrocities, one can understand that they endorse the point that land reform is the key tool for empowerment.
Your views on coordination with Left and other progressive forces for Dalit liberation have been criticised not by Hindutva elements but by a few intellectuals and activists within the subaltern stream.
Yes, I am well aware of it. This sort of negativity and divisive approach, as far as I know, goes against the spirit of Amberkarism. Amberkarites interpret Babasaheb to their whims and create hurdles to the marginalised in their path towards emancipation and empowerment. Everyone knows that Ambedkar was not a Marxist, but can anyone deny the fact that he did have a class perspective? My objective is to place Ambedkar before the people in totality with his radical interpretations and also for critical appreciation. This would take one far closer to him and also to the Left, though it is imperative that we must engage with the latter continuously against its perceived dogmatic principles insofar as class is concerned.
An intellectual understanding of Ambedkar with an open mind will create the space to share commonness among the forces that are fighting communal and casteist elements even at the micro level. Unfortunately, the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement is a disappointment. There is hardly anything in it that can be called Ambedkarite. Given this, the character of mainstream Dalit parties is even more shocking. Dalit parties are caught in perpetuating identity politics, adopting whatever means that suit the individual leaders to achieve their political aspirations and power.
Ambedkarites, of course, can disagree with me. They have the right to do so. But in order to annihilate the monster of Hindutva capitalism that is waiting to devour even the meagre livelihood resources of subaltern society, is it not imperative for us to forge a broad coalition of the forces that propagate similar agendas? We must learn to agree to disagree.
Divided we fall?
Yes. We must realise that we are all sailing in the same boat targeting a toxic foe—Hindutva and its Varnashrama-based casteist structure. Ambedkar, in 1944, said that “the root of untouchability is in the caste system; the root of the caste system is religion attached to varna and ashram; and the roots of varnashramam is Brahminical religion; and the root of the Brahminical religion is authoritarianism or political power”.
The forces in Gujarat are systematically targeting Dalits and Muslims to construct a right-wing monoculture and identity. Today they have captured power at the Centre, and we need to keep that in mind. Our slogan in Gujarat, “you may keep the cow’s tail, but give us our land”, has no doubt stunned the right-wing communalists. It could be equated with the perspective that the Left propagates. So what if we Dalits and the Left have to work in tandem to defeat our common foe to achieve social and economic justice. I would say that Tamil Nadu is fortunately insulated against Hindutva machinations thanks to the legacy of the Dravidian movement and its leader [E.V. Ramasamy] Periyar.
What are your views on the Dravidian movement and the position of Dalits and Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu today?
As I mentioned earlier, Dalit politics across the country is caught in identity politics. But in Tamil Nadu, Dravidian ideology has more or less shaped the State’s overall social consciousness and kept the fundamentalist elements out. There is a morbid fear that the dilution of the Dravidian movement and the [weakening of] Dravidian political parties have created a congenial environment for the entry of right-wing forces.
Ambedkarites in Tamil Nadu, I understand, feel that the Dalit parties have not addressed the issues they are supposed to. They are also suspect that the present Dravidian political parties are OBC-centric and hence against Dalits, who form nearly 20 per cent of the population. This distrust and suspicion about the Dravidian movement, besides the Left’s class theory, cannot be dismissed.
But we must keep one thing in mind—you cannot dismiss the progressive forces outright. We can criticise their ideologies that are at fault. But can it be an impediment to join hands with them in the annihilation of communal fascism? Can we fight a lone battle against a formidable foe emerging as a monolithic entity? Then, it can never be an even battle.
While the Hindutva forces are getting united across the country, why have leaders like you and of other Dalit political parties not attempted to forge a common platform at the national level involving Ambedkarites, Marxists, secularists, Dravidians and others?
Yes, certainly. The foremost requirement is Dalit unity by removing the inherent “internal casteism” among us. We will be organising programmes to give shape to the structure of anti-caste politics. The Left in India has made some mistakes. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Ambedkarite politics, too, has similar problems. I am not going to turn away anyone who wishes to join us in our struggle for our emancipation and empowerment.
The point is simple—even after witnessing what we are witnessing today, if the Left, the Ambedkarites and activists of the self-respect movement don’t come together, it will be disastrous not only for the nation but also for Tamil Nadu. With the kind of legacy Periyar’s movement has had here, we can definitely defeat the dark and devilish medieval forces like the Sangh Parivar and the BJP.
History will never forgive us if we don’t come together and stop the entry of such dark forces.
Dalit activists feel that the fight against caste oppression by the OBCs should be prioritised. They have a point. Unless you eradicate caste and the discrimination associated with it at the micro level, how can a social group be brought into the mainstream at all to achieve inclusiveness?
Agreed. The ultimate aim of any Dalit party or any Dalit rights group has to be the annihilation of caste, whether it is at the micro or macro level. Almost everywhere in the country, we see that most of the atrocities inflicted on Dalits are by the OBCs, who have been “Brahminised”. Also, the way in which the Indian state has carried out land reforms, the Sudras have become even more oppressive on Dalits. But without Dalits joining hands with democratic and secular forces, their cause cannot materialise.
Dalits have become cynical about many of these issues. Certain sections within the Dalit community propagate the belief that there is a Brahmincal conspiracy in everything. They believe that each Brahmin on this planet is out there to destroy the lives of Dalits, little realising that our problem is with Brahminism and not with Brahmins. So, yes, I agree that we need to be open to embrace the progressives, provided they are ready to join us in the annihilation of caste.
What is your suggestion for the eradication of caste?
My suggestion is that land reform is the most vital tool that can overhaul the structural change in society and give socio-economic empowerment to the marginalised. Caste is not just a sociocultural phenomenon, as it has a material foundation as well.
So I will keep coming to Tamil Nadu and the other southern States and try to launch a struggle for land reforms, which alone, I believe, can eradicate caste inequalities, and particularly for our Panchami land. So I will urge not just Dalits but all pro-poor and anti-caste forces to come together to launch a united struggle to retrieve the Panchami lands that were allotted to Dalits by the British, though I know it will be a stupendous task. This will be definitely our main agenda here.
Your dream of uniting secular forces against communal fascism appears to be far-fetched. How will you consolidate the different elements from within and outside the Dalit community for a united movement to achieve an egalitarian society?
We must create a joint platform of all like-minded and all anti-Sangh Parivar forces across the country. We cannot let our struggle languish in isolation. Me, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid Shora and many other socially conscious stalwarts, activists and friends are already working on this. Hopefully, we will be able to show a trailer of this unity very soon, maybe before the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2017.
The Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch is successful in Gujarat. The task ahead of us is mammoth and not going to be easy at all. Dalits are now under the clutches of some cynical people—fragmented, confused and isolated. Bringing them together under one common banner and shaping it as a movement with class perspective is a no mean task.
But we will. Many in the States I travelled to, including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, have expressed their willingness to join us in this cause. I need the support of all to defeat our common enemy—Hindutva-propelled capitalism.
Our enemy has been identified. Now join us to retain the identity of the nation as an inclusive entity with its moorings firmly entrenched in its secular, caste-free and progressive ideology.