Young 'hero' behind new Dalit movement

Jignesh Mewani, 35, had a pleasant surprise when he returned home on Monday evening.

By Basant Rawat in Ahemdabad
  • Published 7.08.16
Jignesh Mewani

Ahmedabad, Aug. 6: Jignesh Mewani, 35, had a pleasant surprise when he returned home on Monday evening.

A group of neighbours in the predominantly middle-class Dalit locality of Chwalnagar in Ahmedabad were waiting for him with flowers, near a small stage they had erected to felicitate their newfound "hero".

The previous evening and through the day, they had watched the young Dalit activist on TV and read about him in newspapers, awestruck at the way one of their own had shot to national limelight overnight.

On Sunday morning, few people even in Ahmedabad had heard of Mewani. Those who had knew him as one among the many activists of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, formed by late lawyer-activist Mukul Sinha who fought for the 2002 riot victims.

By Monday, Mewani says, he was receiving calls from across India.

In between, Ahmedabad had witnessed a rally of 10,000 Dalits on Sunday evening that Mewani had organised over social media, acting mainly on his own initiative.

Many, such as veteran Dalit activist Valji Patel, 79, believe that Sunday's Mahasammelan will "open a new chapter" for the Dalit movement in India.

One key decision the Dalits took at the rally was to stop skinning cattle for a living in protest against the July 11 flogging of Dalit youths by cow vigilantes in Una.

The other was to hold a 355km march from Ahmedabad to Una where the national flag will be unfurled on Independence Day. The march started yesterday.

"I have been receiving queries from not just Dalit organisations and activists but public intellectuals and filmmakers too," Mewani, who floated the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti about five days before the rally, told The Telegraph on Tuesday.

"Many people want to donate money - we have already received Rs 1.8 lakh - and join the march."

His Chwalnagar neighbours were so impressed that they raised Rs 27,000 among themselves on the spot and donated it to the movement.

Mewani represents a new breed of Dalit leaders, says Valji, founder member of the Dalit Panthers, a western Indian political party that has never had much electoral success and has been superseded by the Bahujan Samaj Party as the community's voice.

"Young, educated and articulate, they represent a new generation. They are angry and aware, with fire in their belly and a sparkle in their eyes," Valji said.

But call Mewani the face of the post-Una Dalit resistance and he will have none of it.

"I'm not the only one," he says. "There are many invisible, unsung activists who have for years fought untouchability, the ban on Dalits' temple entry, and the atrocities on the community," he says. "Many people slogged to make the July 31 rally a success."

But Mewani's increasing stature was evident the day after the rally when relatives of the Una victims, being treated at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, contacted him to complain the hospital had decided to prematurely discharge them.

"One of the patients was still vomiting and complaining of chest pain but the doctors had declared them all 'fit'," Mewani said.

Ironically, the hospital had accepted the patients a day after a Rajkot hospital, where they had initially been treated, had prematurely discharged them, apparently under political pressure.

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati has alleged that Monday's move was prompted by the BJP government's keenness to prevent a meeting between her and the patients during her scheduled Ahmedabad visit on Thursday.

Mewani rushed to the hospital, persuading the authorities to change their decision and averting a confrontation by pacifying agitated Dalit youths who were arguing heatedly with the doctors.

Turning points

Mewani was born into a middle-class Dalit family and went to a school that had no playground.

His grandfather worked in the leather business in Mehsana, their hometown, before his parents shifted to Ahmedabad, 73km away.

"Until I was 19, I had no exposure. Only after I took up BA English in Ahmedabad's HK Arts College, where one of my professors was a public intellectual and spoke of art and films and his many grassroots activities, that I got interested and motivated," he said.

He then had a series of mentors. While studying journalism after graduation, he came to know a filmmaker, Rakesh Sharma, who was making a documentary on farmer suicides in Saurashtra.

"I accompanied him. My interaction with him, and what I saw and experienced, completely changed my perspective," Mewani said.

He worked as a journalist for three years with a Gujarati magazine in Mumbai but returned in 2007. He then met Mukul Sinha, research scientist turned trade unionist turned lawyer-activist.

"My curiosity to find out why some Muslim women were at his home was a turning point," Mewani said.

"It emerged that one of the women had been pregnant when her husband stepped out to buy medicines but did not return for days. They later learnt through the media that he had been arrested and implicated in the murder of (former minister) Haren Pandya. It shook me."

Mewani decided to dedicate his life to working for Sinha's Jan Sangharsh Manch. On Sinha's suggestion, he pursued an LLB degree and earned it in 2013.

In the process, he learnt that the thousands of Dalits who had been allotted surplus land acquired from landlords under the land ceiling act had in most cases never received physical possession. He moved a public interest plea but it was dismissed.

"This is one of the issues we are going to highlight during the Una march," Mewani said.

Another demand will be that the Dalits who are vastly outnumbered by non-Dalits in their villages be shifted to taluka (tehsil) and district headquarters.

"We'll demand separate 'smart settlements' for Dalits, which was one of the dreams of Babasaheb Ambedkar," Mewani said.

Valji, the Dalit Panther founder member, said such settlements were the only way to protect Dalits from atrocities.

The pledge not to skin cattle too follows up on an idea evolved by Ambedkar, who thought the practice reinforces caste hierarchy and untouchability.

One NGO already working on this issue is Navsarjan, run by Martin Makwan and Manjula Pradeep with 80 staff members and thousands of volunteers, which has a network spanning 22 of the state's 33 districts.

It was Navsarjan that inspired Dalits in places like Surendranagar to refuse to remove dead cattle after the Una atrocity. Navsarjan is part of the yatra.