Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi pretends not to hear anything nowadays, neither he nor the Bharatiya Janata Party could have missed the hunkar (loud roar) that went up on January 9 from Parliament Street in the heart of the national capital, close to the BJP headquarters on Asoka Road. Responding to a call by Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist and newly elected Member of the Gujarat Assembly from Vadgam, for a Yuva Hunkar Rally (youths’ show of strength), hundreds of people gathered outside the Parliament Street police station defying prohibitory orders. Surrounded by water cannons and security personnel armed with tear-gas launchers, leader after leader raged against Modi’s anti-people policies. Typically, such rallies, which are held often in Delhi, are filled with students and activists and have minimal media presence. But this gathering was markedly different. Every media house was in attendance and remained there for the entire duration of the programme, which went on for several hours.
Mevani quipped that the next day’s headlines would show Umar Khalid, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader, offering a packet of chips to Jignesh Mevani onstage, followed by a debate that “the nation wants to know” why?! As Mevani made his exit, he was hounded by the media and had to literally make good his escape through the crowd.
Until a few months ago, Mevani used to participate freely in such gatherings and leave the scene without being mobbed. One could not have imagined such a situation. So what has changed?
Mevani’s electoral victory in Gujarat was a shot in the arm for the movement against fascism. He played a pivotal role in bringing leaders from across the country on to a single platform, and the January 9 rally was just the beginning, he said.
Mevani reminded everyone about his election campaign symbol, the sewing machine. By tying thread to thread, they would sing songs of love and affection despite the constant threats hurled at them, he said. “We will celebrate both April 14 [B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday] and February 14 [Valentine’s Day].” Both the days are thorns in the side of the BJP, which struggles to appropriate or denounce them.
Mevani said he was being targeted for the stiff resistance he mounted against the BJP in Gujarat along with Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor. He said although the BJP kept targeting them he would not stop asking for the release of Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ and jobs for two crore youths. Invoking the spirits of Savitribai Phule, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, he laid out several questions that the BJP must respond to in the Gujarat Assembly as well as on the streets: Why was farmers’ rights activist Akhil Gogoi arrested? Why were 800 students targeted? Why was the Bhim Army targeted? Why was the National Security Act (NSA) used against Chandrashekhar Azad? Why is there still no justice for victims of Una (the Dalit family beaten up by cow vigilantes)? Why are incidents such as those that occurred in Saharanpur, Una and Bhima Koregaon taking place? Why are 15 lakh people displaced? Why were protesting farmers in Madhya Pradesh shot at? Why was the University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula killed? Why has no action been taken in the case of the disappearance of the JNU student Najeeb Ahmad?
Mevani emphasised that they were not against any community or religion but were troubled by the state of the country, which had never before been plunged in such deep despair. He said that democracy and the Constitution of India were under threat from Modi and needed to be saved. He said over the past few years controversies such as love jehad, “ghar wapsi” and politics in the name of the cow were being raked up to divert people’s attention from the real issues of corporate loot through the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation.
He held the Constitution of India in one hand and Manusmriti in the other and asked Modi to choose between the two.
The Bhim Army Bhim Army national president Vinay Ratan Singh relayed Chandrashekhar Azad’s revolutionary Jai Bhim salutation from prison and conveyed his message: “As long as I am alive, I shall work for the people, and the day I die, such numerous seeds of revolution will germinate in the country that the foundations of the Manuwadi government will be shaken.” Vinay Ratan Singh said everybody was congratulating Mevani on his electoral victory, but the Bhim Army would like to give him the responsibility of taking the movement ahead. The motive of the Bhim Army was not to contest elections but to ensure that the politics of the country was transformed to become more people-centric, he added.
The Bhim Army shot into prominence last year after it launched large-scale protests against attacks on Dalits by Rajputs and clashed with the police. More than 50 houses belonging to Dalits were torched at Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and Dalit men, women and children were attacked with swords (“Targeting Dalits”, Frontline , June 9, 2017).
The Bhim Army protested against the attack and organised a rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in May 2017 where Chandrashekhar Azad gave a clarion call to Dalits to fight for justice and equality and raise their voice against atrocities and oppression. Soon after, there was a crackdown on the Bhim Army and Chandrashekhar Azad was arrested from Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh in June on charges of spearheading caste violence in Saharanpur. He has been incarcerated in the Saharanpur jail.
Taking on right-wing forces The farmers’ rights activist and president of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Akhil Gogoi, spoke of the need to build a unified platform to take on the right-wing forces. Gogoi was charged with sedition and detained under the NSA by the Assam government in September 2017. He was released on December 27. The charges against him ranged from defacing the signboard of a college named after the Jan Sangh ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay in Dudhnoi to inciting a crowd to take up arms against the Modi government at a rally in Morang near Dibrugarh. He was speaking about the Modi government’s decision to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis living in the State in violation of the Assam Accord of 1985.
Gogoi had been a vocal opponent of Modi and rallied against the land mafia. He raised issues such as corruption and polarisation of society time and again, which have landed him in jail many times. Speaking about the north-eastern region, he said: “There is a new amendment in the citizenship law that fixes religion as the basis for citizenship. This will change Assam’s demography, and will enable the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] to target their vote banks in Assam by polarising the vote along religious lines.... Nobody is happy in India, be it women, farmers or citizens. We were promised achche din , but there is no employment for the youth. Assam is ready to fight the BJP and all the tribes will come together to do so. We request you to come together and fight with us. We believe in Jignesh Mevani to build a new India.”
The JNU student leaders Shehla Rashid Shora, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid also spoke at the event.
Kanhaiya Kumar, who emerged as a leader after he was arrested from JNU in February 2016, reiterated that they were not against any caste or religious group. Stressing that democracy had given them the right to speech and dissent, he demanded that democratic and constitutional values be upheld. He said the BJP did not want Ram Rajya as it claimed, but its real agenda was to create polarisation between Hindus and Muslims. In this fight, only Nathuram Godse would win, he said.
Media trials Umar Khalid, who was vilified as a jehadist and hounded by certain television news channels after the JNU controversy, said that the bubble of the Modi wave had burst. He pointed out that the state was orchestrating media trials and they were after Chandrashekhar Azad as he was considered a threat to Hindu Rashtra, the Sangh Parivar’s pet project.
Adding her voice to the demand for the release of Chandrashekhar Azad, Shehla Rashid said Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath got all cases against him withdrawn as soon as he became the Chief Minister, but “has the gall to slap NSA on Chandrashekhar who stood for the rights of Dalits”.
The Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan was the only senior person to speak from the stage, which had a cluster of youth leaders, marking a significant shift in how movements might be run henceforth. Speaker after speaker underlined the role of the youth in opposing the Modi government and set the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.