Darshan Desai is a veteran journalist based in Gujarat. He has worked for several top news organisations, and he is best known for his incisive analysis and commentary on Gujarat politics
From a determined but low-profile lawyer fighting for land rights of Dalits to a strong-headed politician-activist, Jignesh Mevani has made a quick pace from Gujarat to India over less than two years. His meteoric rise and massive public standing came with the shocking Una atrocity in the monsoon of July 2016, when four Dalit men skinning the carcass of a cow were brutally beaten up by upper caste men, that became Mevani’s trigger to unleash a Dalit movement. Major and frequent violent incidents continued: Dalit youngsters were attacked and killed for sporting moustaches, watching garbha or riding a horse, increasingly strident assertion by cow vigilantes across the country and more recently, the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court, have only enflamed the Dalits. Mevani is the product of a conjunction of crises.
Difficult to reach otherwise as he plunges between his home in Ahmedabad, his electoral constituency Vadgam in North Gujarat, various Dalit action places in the state and the country, and during the 2018 Karnataka polls, the 36-year-old Mevani spoke to Parliamentarian. Excerpts:
Jignesh, what all is happening with you and around you?
What? Is that a question? See, the time has come to change our timid ways. I am going to change the entire grammar of the Dalit movement in the country. Gone are the days of the annual ritual of garlanding Ambedkar’s statue on April 14 and blurting out mugged up paeans to the man.Or handing over some piece of petition to the authorities. Time is for some meaningful action. You asked me Jignesh, what’s happening with me. Am I clear to you? You ask me what’s happening around me. (Laughs) Can’t you see it even all around you? Around everyone else in the country in every nook and cranny?
Atrocities against Dalits have been happening for decades, it was for this very reason that the SC/ST Act was passed over two decades ago, but you are expressing your anger as if nothing happened before Una…
So, is it fine even if it continues now? Wait, this is not my only answer. There is something more serious. Let me explain the perspective. It’s not just that Una happened, but that it was conducted in full public view, it was videographed and made to go viral for those who missed it. And it was to hurl a direct threat to the Dalits. Correct? What is the message here? The message is that it is their government now, so they can set you right. Didn’t the so-called cow vigilantism continue after Una, as more attacks either on Dalits or on Muslims? Can you see this self-created sense of hawkish empowerment? Where is it coming from? Why didn’t it stop, why does it not stop? It is the Manu-wadi (caste Hindu) RSS mindset at play, being deployed as a strategy, it is being sponsored and institutionalised by this government. Just tell me one thing. Why does the Narendra Modi Government not bring the much-awaited ordinance to set right the dilution of the SC/ST Act by the Supreme Court? It may well do so when the 2019 Lok Sabha elections get closer, but this will not carry any conviction or commitment. Even the review petition was filed after all-round pressure and criticism. It was not out of genuine conviction. This government wants to make the Act a toothless piece of legislation. Similarly, why did it take so long for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn the Una atrocity, and that too only after criticism in the international media? Why has this criminal morbid cow vigilantism not stopped? Where is it getting its strength from? You told me atrocities on Dalits were committed earlier too. Do you get my answer now? Yes, they were committed earlier too, but not with the blessings of the State as a deliberate ideology and methodology. There is a conscious attempt by the government to pit the Dalits versus the rest. As many as 28 people have lost their lives in the name of cow protection during the last four years. In all, there have been 2,300 communal incidents and 1,500 people have died.
Why do you say the Supreme Court has diluted the SC/ST Act? It has only put riders to prevent possibilities of the misuse of the law, like FIRs should be filed after initial inquiry at the level of a Superintendent of Police.
Should a law be diluted just because it may be misused? Don’t we have an effective policing machinery to prevent the misuse? Please note the SC/ST Act is not any other piece of criminal law, it was enacted to correct decades of injustice and violence inflicted on the Dalits. In the State of Madhya Pradesh versus Ram Krishna Balothia case of 1995, the Supreme Court had stated: “The offences of atrocities are committed to humiliate and subjugate the SCs and STs with a view to keep them in a state of servitude. Hence, they constitute a separate class of offences and cannot be compared with offences under the Indian Penal Code.” In Lalita Kumari versus State of Bihar, the Supreme Court is very clear that an FIR must be registered immediately irrespective of the merits of the case. It says, “Upon the disclosure of the commitment of offence, without going into the merit of the complaint, the police is duty bound to immediately register the offence.” Going into the merits of the case comes much later during investigations. Now, strangely, the Supreme Court is itself reversing its own directives. Let me tell you, the Supreme Court is inflicting the worst kind of judicial atrocity on the Dalits and tribal masses of this country. You suggest preventing misuse of the law? In Gujarat, there is just three per cent conviction rate under the SC/ST Act. To give another example, in every village, every taluka (tehsil), every district, the liquor prohibition law is thrown to the winds and it is hardly a deterrent.
You have been travelling around Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, UP. What are you aiming to do?
It is very simple. I have a clear aim to ensure that the least number of Dalits vote for the BJP.
Jignesh Mewani was an activist lawyer fighting for the land rights of Dalits before Una happened and before he became an MLA. What is happening to that movement is it on?
Not just on, it has continued and accelerated. After I became an MLA, I took up a movement to get as many as 5,300 acres for the Dalits in Kutch district with a memorandum to the authorities. The beginning was made from Rapartaluka, where an order had been passed way back in 1983 for allotment of 110 acres of land to the Dalits under the Land Ceiling Act but the possession was never given. We issued a notice to the District Collectorate to hand over possession of this land by April, and said that failing this, we will block the Samakhiyali Highway entering the Kutch district. And overnight, the land was allotted. In fact, after April 14 possession was given for some 808acres of land. Soon after, the process had been started to allot 200 bighaland in Junagadh and Surendranagar districts. The immediate target now is for nearly 1,000 acres of land in Suigam in Banaskantha district by May 16. Then, we take up five pockets in Botad, Amreli and Kutch districts. In all, my fight under the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch is to get 1.63 lakh acres of land for Dalits under the Agricultural Land Ceiling Act.
You have often spoken about working for all underprivileged sections, besides Dalits. What are your plans?
First, we are planning a huge rally of government employees, Asha workers, those working in anganwadis, mid-day meal scheme staff, government security guards, liftmen and class four workers like peons in the Gujarat State Assembly. Are you aware that there are 1,100 employees at the State Assembly and they are actually paid only Rs 7,000 as against Rs 9,580 per person on the records? I am going to fight for this also.
How was your experience in Karnataka and response from the crowds? Were there only Dalit audiences?
I had a fabulous experience in Karnataka. The crowds were quite responsive as I made them realise the anti-Dalit and anti-minorities mentality of the BJP. At several places, we made the people take a pledge never to vote for the BJP in their lifetime. And they did. I addressed as many as 22 public meetings and some of them jointly with veteran film actor Prakash Raj. Bollywood stopped giving him work because of this, but he continued with his commitment for the Dalit cause. The BJP went into a panic mode and wanted me to be banned in the State, this is evidence of the public response.
After Karnataka, what next, how do you plan to take your movement forward?
I came to Gujarat, addressed a couple of rallies, and I have already reached Rajasthan, which is going to the polls this year. The ruling BJP there is so scared. For the fifth time they sought to ban my entry and prevent me from holding public meetings. I went to Khairthar village to meet Dalit victims of police atrocities on April 2 when they were holding protests against the Supreme Court ‘dilution’ of the Atrocities Act. The police had gone into the homes of Dalits and severely beat up even women and children. Here too, the local administration imposed Section 144 prohibitory orders to prevent me from holding public rallies. I am planning to first meet one lakh people in Rajasthan and convince them not to caste a single vote for the fascist and communal BJP.
Is stepping out during the elections your only strategy to take the Dalit movement forward against the BJP?
Absolutely not. The Karnataka elections are over but we are already working on strengthening the network of Dalit and minority organisations there. All of them came together during the elections, and so I am building on from there. But elections are a trigger to start binding the communities together. Like I am already continuing my work in Gujarat, where I just addressed a public meeting, though the elections got over in December. Here, my aim is to get one lakh people to take a pledge against voting for the BJP and not to let their children join the RSS shakhas.
From your forays across various states, do you see any chances of the Congress being able to stitch together a Grand Alliance ahead of 2019?
Yes, there are very good chances if like-minded parties shed their ideological differences for a larger goal. They should realise the time has come for the BJP to be shown the door permanently in the larger interest of the country. Even the Shiv Sena, which has been BJP’s strongest ideological partner, feels this. The BJP’s biggest advantage is that most other parties keep fighting among themselves. Just imagine the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress coming together in Uttar Pradesh, or the Trinamool Congress and the Congress together, or even the Left. They should all join hands, for their own survival.