'The BJP has divided the nation, my job is to sew it up'
In a chat with V. Kumara Swamy, Independent MLA from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani, says his battle against the BJP goes beyond his state
Jignesh Mevani's body is screaming for some respite. The backache is unbearable, migraine is a constant companion and the digestive system has gone for a toss. "It's been a punishing schedule and I haven't slept well for more than a week now," he complains. On top of it all he says he has been getting threatening calls and messages from unknown numbers at regular intervals. But rest is the last thing on his mind. "How can I rest when I am a witness to so much excitement and energy around me?" says the journalist-turned-politician.
It is the day after the Yuva Hunkar Rally organised at Delhi's Parliament Street, where Mevani got a rockstar reception. This was followed by a media fest that fast deteriorated into a stampede - with cameramen and journalists trying to corner him. It sent the Delhi Police into a tizzy; they finally had to whisk him away.
Some news channels went to town screaming that the rally was a flop, but Mevani, 37, an independent Gujarat MLA, does not think so. "The success of the rally was that it was the topic of prime-time discussion. Why discuss it if it was a flop? Such things happen only in a banana republic," he laughs at his own clever pun.
It is early morning and Mevani is about to make a road trip to Saharanpur Jail in Uttar Pradesh. There he hopes to meet Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, leader of the Bhim Army; the Saharanpur Jail has been his address since last June, following violent Dalit protests to violence unleashed by the Rajput community. Eventually, of course, Mevani returns without having met Ravan. He is denied permission by the jail authorities.
But that is later. For now, he is in a chatty mood, migraine or no migraine.
I tell him about Bollywood director and producer Vivek Agnihotri challenging him to an open debate on his politics and accusing him of being an "urban Naxal". Mevani adjusts his spectacles and runs his fingers through his hair, then dismisses the whole thing saying he has no time for such "silly stuff". But he is open to bigger challenges. "Ask Amit Shah if he has time. I will debate him," he laughs.
And then, as an afterthought, he says, Agnihotri and others should watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) rather than the speeches of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath. "You will be entertained and your blood pressure will also be under control and you will hate less." Someone suggests the classic Chameli ki Shaadi as an alternative to DDLJ. "Oh yes. That's a better film and it is on inter-caste marriage."
We steer the conversation rallywards and Mevani decides to have some fun with the format. He asks questions and answers them himself. "The stage was full of anti-nationals such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, myself and others, and what were we talking about? To give us the rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. What were the songs that were being played? Samvidhan meri jaan or The Constitution is my life. Now it is for the people of this country to decide as to who is anti-national. This cannot be decided by a few paid agents of the government alone."
Mevani first shot to fame in July 2016, when he led protests in Gujarat over the flogging of four Dalit youths in Una by a mob that accused them of having slaughtered a cow.
The former journalist formed the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, and within days, he was leading a 350-kilometre Azaadi Kooch March from Ahmedabad to Una that culminated on August 15 with 10 demands to the Gujarat government. The most important of the lot, however, was the demand that every landless Dalit family be given five acres of land.
A month after that, the serving chief minister of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, had to resign. The movement had mobilised Dalits across the country and even forced the Prime Minister to come out and criticise the cow vigilantes.
Says Mevani, "Una showed that we may have a progressive Constitution, but we have a lot of people with regressive mindsets. I decided not only to expose the discrimination in the society but also the so-called 'Gujarat Model' of Modi."
From an Ahmedabad-based journalist to civil rights activist to an MLA and now as a nationally recognised Dalit leader, Mevani has travelled a long distance in a short time. Now, invoking his election symbol, a sewing machine, he says, "I often used to say in my speeches that while the BJP has divided society, my job as an MLA would be sewing it up. My job is also to sew youth alliances across the country to take on the fascist forces."
The BJP may have won Gujarat in the recent Assembly elections, but Mevani believes the party is rattled by the victory of leaders such as himself. "Dalits never mattered to Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat as we form a small minority. We were like a tail for the BJP, but the elections in the state have showed that this tail can turn into a noose around its neck, not just there but across the country."
Mevani seems to be enjoying his newfound fame, or notoriety, as some would call it. Only recently, cases were filed against him in Maharashtra for alleged incitement of violence following the Bhima-Koregaon caste riots. "I was nowhere in the picture, yet they filed cases against me. It shows that they are scared of me. They don't like the fact that I am an established Dalit leader now."
What about the allegation that he is backed by the Congress and is fighting on their behalf? For the first time he sounds miffed. He starts rattling off the names of leaders who had campaigned for him for the Vadgam Assembly seat in Gujarat's Banaskantha district. "Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) MLA from Bihar, Sudama Prasad, was there, Swaraj India's Yogendra Yadav, Aam Aadmi Party activists and an alliance of 28 Dalit organisations campaigned for me. The list goes on. Singling out Congress doesn't make any sense. Anyway, it doesn't bother me."
But the sitting Congress MLA didn't contest the seat. "That was the Congress party's decision. Not mine," comes his prompt reply.
He is in a hurry, so we are jumping topics now. Mevani, Alpesh Thakore and Hardik Patel had burst onto the Gujarat scene almost at the same time. What now? With the electoral heat subsided, Mevani says all of them have chosen different paths, though they could come together on issues of common concern at any point. That's a stance he has maintained since long before the Gujarat elections.
And life as an MLA? Mevani will soon be back in his constituency, but he promises to fulfill all his promises of attending seminars, rallies and fighting the battles of the marginalised. For his constituency he has, it seems, drawn up plans already. "I will take care of it with the intention of making it a model of development for the country." Also, keeping in mind the tide in the affairs, he says he plans to form an organisation that can work in all parts of the state. But as to whether it will be a political party or a social organisation, he won't disclose. "I have a lot of things to do," he says.
For now, as someone who ideologically leans Left, he vows to "keep up the pressure" on the BJP and the Right-wing Hindutva organisations. "They will keep talking about gau mutra, gau mata, ghar wapsi and love jihad and creating fake enemies. But we have to keep talking about communal peace, unity, jobs and justice."