Interview: Jignesh Mevani

‘Five years have been oppressive, scary’

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Jignesh Mevani. Photo: PTI

Interview with Jignesh Mevani, Dalit leader and MLA.

IT is probably fair to say that if there was no Una, there would have been no Jignesh Mevani in politics. A self-confessed “98 per cent activist and 2 per cent politician”, Mevani came into the limelight when he stood up for four Dalit youths who were stripped to their waist and assaulted for allegedly skinning a cow in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016. The youths, Vashram Sarvaiya, his brother Ramesh and their cousins Ashok and Bechar, all residents of Mota Samadhiyala in Gujarat, pleaded that they were only skinning a dead cow, but to no avail. They were tied to a jeep and given a lashing in full public view.

The Una attack led to widespread protests by Dalits across the State and even in places like Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. In Gujarat, Mevani led a 300-kilometre-long march from Ahmedabad to Una demanding the safety of and dignity for Dalits. The 10-day march concluded on Independence Day 2016, with Dalits pledging independence from exploitation. This strong response ensured that there were no further incidents of lynching of Dalits.

Mevani soon grew to be a prominent anti-Narendra Modi voice. Now a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, he continues to “raise a voice against forces of fascism, casteism and communalism” and emphasises that this general election is “a fight for the soul of India”.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

How do you see the five years of the Modi government with respect to Dalits and minorities?

I will give you a simple, straightforward answer. These five years have been the most disastrous, most oppressive, most painful. And scary.

Why do you call it scary? We had people like you taking on the government and its authoritarian tendencies.

It is scary because the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has unleashed its cadre on Muslims and Dalits. They have tried to silence the minorities and Dalits, in fact, everybody opposed to their idea of India. They want to impose their Brahmanical hierarchy. Deep down, they still swear by Manusmriti.

But there has been a positive change in society since your long march in Una.

Yes, there is a sense of empowerment. There is a feeling of belonging and, maybe, security too. Still, a lot needs to be done. We must not forget that the attacks on the minorities continued even after Una.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed regret, though in a roundabout fashion, after Una. Did it help the Dalit community in any way?

There was a feeling of relief after his speech, though it was very late. But let me reiterate that it is not a one-off fight or a lone case of lynching. There is a multipronged attack, and it is not likely to stop because of one Una march. In these five years, there have been constant attacks on the community. People have felt emboldened to raise their hands against Dalits. Fortunately, Dalit men have not been lynched, but there have been other attacks. For instance, in some places they cannot ride a horse, at some other place they cannot grow a moustache. At one place a Dalit wedding procession is not allowed to pass through an upper-caste mohalla. What is this if not continued oppression of the Dalit community?

Also, while most people have focussed on Una, it was not the only instance of Dalit lynching during BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] rule at the Centre. In Rajkot, a Dalit man was beaten to death. The media kept quiet.

Attacks on Dalits are not the only evidence of oppression. We have had human rights activists being arrested for standing up for Adivasis or for taking on the government and crony capitalists.

Attacks on Dalits, minorities or arrests of activists are part of a strategy to divert attention from the failure of the government. No jobs have been created, despite the Prime Minister’s lofty promises. Unemployment is at a 45-year high. I would say the arrests of activists was also intended to instill fear in the common man as also the opposition. We are living in times of undeclared emergency.

Also, we must not forget that when we see the arrests of human rights activists, and a lot of noise being made about Bhima Koregaon, it is because ideologically the ruling party is against Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims. The activists were arrested because they raised their voices for Adivasis and against a corporate lobby bent on destroying Adivasi culture. These instances of arrests and oppression are a manifestation of the filth the BJP or its predecessors has accumulated since 1925. Today, if all the men accused of killing a Junaid or Akhlaq roam free, it is because they have political masters. It is part of a design. It is about the fear I talked about.

Electorally, we have to try [to ensure] that these people never come back to power. But once these forces are uprooted from political power, we need to work at the social level to get rid of the poison that has percolated down.

What is the way forward? Do we have to get rid of the BJP or Modi?

Both, because the BJP agenda is hard-core Brahmanical, casteist and fascist in nature, the outcome of what [M.S.] Golwalkar preached to them before Independence, and many, many centuries ago it was taught by Manu. Forces like the RSS have brought up the current ruling political leaders. We have to get rid of both the BJP and say “No Modi, no Amit Shah”.

It is easier said than done. Even the opposition is not united. Even the Congress has fumbled through the alliance game.

I agree. To use cricketing analogy, to face the fascist RSS’ Modi and Shah is similar to facing Wasim Akram in the last over and having to score 20 runs to win. It is difficult, but it is possible. And it has to be done. As an activist, I have raised my voice against Modi. We all have to make ourselves heard and not allow the din raised by some people to drown our voices.

Will Pulwama impact the election?

It cannot be ruled out. The opposition was on a stronger wicket before Pulwama. We cannot deny that some people have bought the BJP narrative on Pulwama. In the circumstances, we need to have alliances. The BJP will try to drive a wedge between political parties, but we have to keep trying. If in Delhi we can have Congress and the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] together, and have some understanding in Maharashtra with Prakash Ambedkar and in Uttar Pradesh with the gathbandhan, things may turn out to be different. We have to do this because this is not a usual election. For the past one year, I have been virtually campaigning because I realise this is an election for the soul, the ideals, the principles of our Constitution.

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