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Jignesh Mevani: Cadre building amidst atmosphere of fear; in search of alliances

By Rajiv Shah
A few days back, I met independent MLA Jignesh Mevani, one of those who has been regarded in some circles as an iconic Dalit leader of Gujarat. He had come for a meeting in Gujarat Vidyapeeth, organized to remember a truly iconic Gujarat High Court advocate, late Girish Patel, known to be the founder of public interest litigations (PILs) in India, and one who firmly stood by the underprivileged. After listening to several speeches, including that of Mevani, I came out of the hall along with a journalist colleague, Darshan Desai.
I murmured in Desai’s ear a strange rumour I had heard a few weeks earlier – that Mevani, known for being a long-time opponent of BJP, had “possibly” met Union home minister Amit Shah, or maybe he have asked for an audience. Desai immediately advised me to ask Mevani. I never believed in the rumour, though I thought there was nothing wrong in meeting Amit Shah. After all, he is India’s home minister, and if one has to make a representation or a complaint, one must approach him. Who else?
No sooner I spotted Mevani just outside the hall, and decided to approached him. I have known him for about a decade, when he was just a human rights activist. He had met me first in my Times of India office in Gandhinagar. Mevani greeted me with a deep welcome. Yet, I asked him this most embarrassing question: “Have heard a rumour: You met Amit Shah. Is it true?”
Mevani, perhaps already a thick-skinned politician, wasn’t impressed, yet smiled, “If someone says I met VI Lenin, would you believe it?” There the matter ended. A rumour was a rumour. I don’t know what whether the person who had told about the “possible meeting” had any interest in telling me about it. Also, I continued to argue with myself, what’s wrong if one meets Amit Shah? Politics is one thing, meeting someone is totally another.
The last time I met Mevani was more than one-and-a-half years ago during a press conference before he was announced an independent candidate backed by the Congress in 2017 for assembly polls. I was interested in knowing what all he has been doing all this while. “Cadre building”, was his cryptic reply. Must be for the organization he leads, Dalit Adhikar Manch, I thought. But wasn’t it a drab subject?
So I asked him: “People say, there is economic slowdown. Do you agree? If there is, why is there no unrest against the BJP rule anywhere?” And his reply was, “There is an atmosphere of fear, prevailing across India, that’s what is keeping people from protesting.” He appeared sure, this atmosphere of fear wouldn’t last long, the volcano would burst, and when it does, the cadres whom he is “preparing” right now would give political directions on what should be done next, of course, under his “able” guidance.
“Where is Congress, the party which backed you? Why is it so quiet? Except for isolated statements, it does not appear to be doing anything. It is not visible”, I further probed his mind. And he replied, “It’s again the atmosphere of fear which is keeping the Congress dormant. They have instituted cases against Congress leaders, who know, if they campaign aggressively against BJP rule, the security agencies would pounce on them. Hence they have no option.”
Then I turned to him to find out whether he was involved in any agitation. “Yes, of course”, he said, “I was in Kutch a few days back. We got the occupation to hundreds of acres of land for Dalits. The land belonged to the Dalits, but it was occupied by powerful sections. It was a long drawn out battle, and we have won. We are fighting for more such land, we are sure we will win in Kutch.” Was he preparing for an election from Kutch, I asked him, and he replied in the negative.
Madhavsinh Solanki
I knew: Land struggle for the Dalits has been one of Mevani’s favourite thrusts. A lawyer himself, who can speak in reasonably good English (a requirement in High Court), I recalled, he had even filed a writ petition in the Gujarat High Court on this after coming up with a survey of the land allocated to the Dalits during the land reforms days, but continuing under the occupation of dominant forces. I don’t know what exactly happened, but if I recall correctly, he did get some favourable judgment giving directions to the Gujarat government on this.
“But what about your politics? What political alliances are you working on? Don’t you think you need alliances in order to defeat your chief opponent, BJP?”, I sought a diversion. In between, the two security guards who are part of the security cover he has been provided, came up to him and said, the tea and snacks were ready, so he should join. Mevani told them to go there, and continued talking to me. I was interested in alliances also because Dalits form less than 7% of the population of Gujarat, and banking on Dalits alone, one cannot expect him make a political dent in the state.
Already a seasoned politician, Mevani knows this pretty well – one reason why he decided to agree to a constituency, Vadgam, to fight elections. This was a “sure seat”, so to say. Even during the Lok Sabha polls, when BJP won all 26 seats from Gujarat, Vadgam was among the seven assembly segments out of 182 where it couldn’t get majority. A scheduled caste reserved seat, it has a huge Muslim population, and Mevani’s slogan then, of Dalit-Muslim unity, did work.
Muslims in Gujarat make up about 9% of the population. So, even if Dalits and Muslims form a complete alliance, that would mean just 16% . So, I asked him, what was he doing to come up with a broader political alliance. I had in mind an alliance which former Gujarat chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki had formed in 1980s, called KHAM, an acronym for Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims.
Himself belonging to the other backward class (OBC) Thakore community, Solanki in had turned Kshatriyas into a political class, which included upper caste Rajputs, and OBC castes Thakores and Kolis, which form around 40% of the state’s population. Experts tell me, the latter two call themselves Rajputs as they are the descendants of the footsoldiers of India’s rulers, whether local kings or Britishers. The alliance was broken by BJP within a decade after it came up with the Hindutva thrust, seeking to unite all Hindus, ranging from OBCs to Dalits and Adivasis, even as assiduously keeping Muslims out, thus bringing about a communal divide.
Apparently, Mevani understood what I was trying to hint it, and he replied: “We have seen from our own experience that OBCs and Dalits have strong contradictions, and an alliance between the two is not easy. Hence, what I am proposing is an alliance between Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis.” For quite some time he continued explaining this contradiction, and on the need to have such an alliance. Reason was simple: Adivasis form about 15% of Gujarat’s population, and with Dalits and Muslims, they they would together be around 31%. The discussion ended, and we proceeded to have tea.
Frankly, I didn’t understand the logic of the alliance. First of all, while Dalits and Muslims often live side by side in ghettos, Adivasis, though oppressed almost in the same way as Dalits, live huddled in the eastern hilly belt of Gujarat, where there is sparse Dalit population. Secondly, while Muslims and Adivasis do live together in some parts, there have been strong contradictions between the two, especially in South Gujarat.
In districts like Bharuch, Adivasis see Muslim landowners as exploiters, one reason why wealthy Congress strongman Ahmed Patel, political adviser (former?) of Sonia Gandhi, refuses to fight any poll from Bharuch, which has been his karmabhoomi.

Comments

Jagdish Patel said…
In 2002 Muslims were attacked badly in Panchmahal and Dahod where the Adivasi population is in majority. In almost all Adivasi constituencies BJP has won, which was earlier Congress bastion. It is unlikely that Adivasi and Muslims can come together. The Ground reality is much different

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