Meet India’s Dalit Leader Who Is Fighting Injustice

At a time when Dalits in Gujarat are holding large-scale protests against the state government, it would be instructive to recall that exactly a year ago Hardik Patel, who was 22-years-old at the time, began giving fiery speeches that set in motion the Patidar community’s agitation to secure reservation in government jobs.

jignesh mevani

Some even said that the sword-wielding rising star, who did not rule out violence as a means to achieve his goals, was poised to burst onto the national stage. But then, it only took a couple of months for the agitation to the fizzle out and for the BJP government in Gujarat to throw its might behind putting Patel in jail.

Jignesh Mevani, a social activist and lawyer, has not become an overnight sensation like Patel, nor does he have a Wikipedia entry in his name, but the activist has been noticed for organising the huge rally in Ahmedabad on Sunday in which 20,000 Dalits pledged to give up removing cow carcasses and cleaning gutters.

Speaking to HuffPost India, the 35-year-old activist said that as a leader of the fledgling Dalit movement in Gujarat, he is aware that it isn’t easy to keep the momentum going, but he is determined that it won’t fizzle out like the Patidar agitation.

Out of the 20,000 Dalits who have pledged to no longer engage in menial work, for instance, Mevani expects only 25 percent to stick to their resolution, but he is confident that thousands more will come forward to be counted in the coming months.

The movement, Mevani explained, is not just a struggle against exclusionary social and political forces. It is also an internal struggle in which Dalits need to realize that they really don’t have to clean society’s muck, and while making this change, they must contend with hardships such as loss of livelihood.

“We don’t want Hardik Patels, we want people who can keep the struggle going,” Mevani said. “This is a continuous struggle. It won’t peter out like the Patel movement.”

“This is also a socio-cultural movement. Someone from outside comes into Ahmedabad and can sell gol gappas, but why should a Dalit be in the gutter. Dalits need to understand that they can be industrial workers, they can be landowners,” he said. “Dalits need to realize that they can be what anyone else can be.”

We don’t want Hardik Patels, we want individuals who can keep the struggle going.

It was the brutal flogging of four Dalit boys by cow vigilantes in the town of Una last month — which was recorded on a phone camera and went viral online — and the failure of the police to punish the culprits, that unleashed the pent up anger within the community and triggered state-wide protests in Gujarat that continued for over a week.

When I asked Mevani if there was any danger of the Dalit movement turning violent, he said, “Even though this conversation is under surveillance, I’m saying now that those individuals from other castes who are violent with us, we will break their hands,” he said. “Shock therapy needs to be given to some individuals from upper castes.”

Shock therapy needs to be given to some individuals from upper castes.

Things have been quiet since the protests ebbed over the past few days, but Mevani and his colleagues have used this period of calm to plan a 10-day march, starting on 5 August in Ahmedabad, and ending in Una on Independence Day. They will ask the state government to provide at least five acres of land for every Dalit family in Gujarat, and special courts to handle cases of atrocities against them.

During this march, Mevani plans to meet with Dalits in villages all along the 350 kilometre journey in order to urge them to leave menial jobs and demand land from the government. “Land struggle is key. Those who own land have power,” he said. “We are raising the slogan, if land is being given to Ambani and other tycoons then why is there no land for us.”

Land struggle is key. Those who own land have power.

Leaders of the Patidar agitation had also planned similar marches and interactions with members of their community, but it failed to have any impact. Three weeks have gone by since the flogging in Una, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to talk about the brutal episode or the protests that followed in which at least 17 young Dalit men tried to commit suicide to express their outrage. A Dalit man who consumed poison died over the weekend. “What could be worse than young men having to consume poison to be heard,” said Mevani.

What could be worse than young men having to consume poison to be heard.

While blaming both the Congress and the BJP for the condition of Dalits today, the activist said that BJP’s Hindutva ideology simply did not allow for a casteless society. “Hindutva is totally against Dalits,” he said.

When I pointed out that Modi had called for an end manual scavenging and launched a scheme for Dalits to get loans of up to ₹100 lakh to set themselves up as entrepreneurs, Mevani asked if this was progress then why were so many Dalits were being attacked in the country.

Official figures point to a 44 percent increase in violence against Dalits in 2014, the year in which the BJP came to power at the Centre, as compared to 2010. A full30 percent of the 47,064 crimes in 2014 were committed in four BJP-ruled states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh.

Just in last few weeks, Dalits were beaten by Bajrang Dal activists in Congress Party-ruled Karnataka, they were thrashed in BJP-ruled Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were urinated upon in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar. Cow vigilantes attacked Dalits in Lucknow even while the agitation in Gujarat was underway.

So while Prime Minister exhorts the virtues of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar in the U.S. House of Congress, Mevani wants to know why Modi isn’t doing more to put an end to the terrible crimes against Dalits being perpetrated day after day. “Dalits are frustrated. This explosion of anger is an explosion of that frustration,” he said.

Dalits are frustrated. This explosion of anger is an explosion of that frustration.

In all fairness, it should be mentioned that Modi has taken some steps such as the induction of more Dalits into his cabinet, and demoting Smriti Irani, former minister for Human Resource Development, whose handling of Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide was widely regarded as insensitive. The BJP also expelled its senior leader in Uttar Pradesh who called Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati a prostitute, and the party’s top brass no doubt had a hand in Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben stepping down amidst continuing Dalit protests. But all this comes across as damage control after the fact, and politicking ahead of crucial state elections.

Dalit thinker Chandra Bhan Prasad told HuffPost India that this is the first time in history that Dalits are facing attacks in a systematic fashion from organised groups such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP, and cow vigilantes or “gau rakshaks”. He said Modi had failed to rein in the Sangh Parviar and its outfits which were dominated by leaders from upper castes.

“Rising Dalits are unacceptable to caste supremacists. Earlier, Dalits did not dare to ride a horse, but now some dare to do it. It is acceptable for a Dalit to ride a donkey but a Dalit on a horse is unacceptable,” he said.

It is acceptable for a Dalit to ride a donkey but a Dalit on a horse is unacceptable.

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