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Interview: Jignesh Mevani

Jignesh Mevani: ‘The BJP sees me as a threat’

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Jignesh Mevani addresses a press conference at the AICC headquarters, in New Delhi on May 2.

Jignesh Mevani addresses a press conference at the AICC headquarters, in New Delhi on May 2.

Interview with Jignesh Mevani, independent MLA in Gujarat.
Jignesh Mevani, 42, an independent MLA in Gujarat, stands out for fearlessly taking on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime in the State. He will officially join the Congress for the 2022 Assembly election. On May 10, at a Congress rally in Dahod, Gujarat, party leader Rahul Gandhi spoke about Mevani’s recent arrest and said that Mevani would continue to fight even if he was sentenced to ten years in prison. This mention from Rahul Gandhi has set tongues wagging that the young politician will definitely play a prominent role in the Congress’ election campaign.

Considered a strong voice of the Dalit community, Mevani, a lawyer, cut his teeth in politics after spearheading protest movements following the lynching of seven Dalits from Una in 2016. He was among the organisers of the #ChaloUna (Let’s go to Una) yatra, later known as the first Azadi Kooch (Search for Freedom) yatra. The 380-kilometre march from Ahmedabad to Una saw the mobilisation of thousands of Dalits from all over Gujarat. Several rights organisations joined the movement, making it perhaps the most powerful demonstration in Gujarat in recent times.

Mevani established the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch in 2016, which grew into a platform for his entry into politics. Along with farmers, union leaders, and activists, Mevani led protest movements demanding justice for the marginalised. In 2017, he told Frontline that the only way he could do something was to be a legislator. In the run up to the 2017 Assembly election, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Thakor community politician Alpesh Thakor, both currently associated with the Congress, came out as strong opponents who could take on the BJP juggernaut.

Four years later, only Mevani has survived, that too barely. He won the election as an independent candidate from Vadgam constituency. During the peak of the second wave of COVID, when Gujarat was struggling with poor oxygen supply, Mevani managed to set up an oxygen facility in Vadgam. Those who have followed Mevani’s journey will testify to the young politician’s ability to strike a chord with his community. “He is genuine and he delivers. It is rare to find someone in politics like Mevani,” says Sagar Rabari, a farm leader and former secretary of the farmers’ rights organisation Khedut Samaj Gujarat.

With the Assembly election scheduled for December, Mevani’s popularity is causing the ruling regime some anxiety. On April 20, acting on a first information report (FIR) filed in Assam, the Assam Police interrogated, arrested and took Mevani to Assam, where they kept him in custody. The FIR was filed by a BJP supporter who took offence to a tweet Mevani posted on social media and has since deleted. In his tweet, Mevani essentially appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as “a worshipper of Nathuram Godse”, to use his influence to maintain peace in the areas of Himmatnagar, Khambat and Veraval in Gujarat, which witnessed communal violence recently.

Also read: Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani arrested over a tweet on Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Mevani was granted bail in end April but arrested again on charges of alleged assault. He was eventually released. When he returned to Gujarat, the local police came after him for apparently conducting a rally without permission. He has been granted bail for a month.

In an interview to Frontline, Mevani spoke about the Assam incident, the Gujarat case, the timing of both events, and why he will not back down. Excerpts:

It has been an intense few weeks for you. Could you tell us more about the recent events?

I am out on bail for a month. A lower court in Gujarat has convicted me for organising a rally, which was part of the second Azadi Kooch that we mobilised in 2017. The issue we raised was that thousands of acres of land allotted to Dalits decades ago have still not been given to the families entitled to the land. Possession [of the land] even now remains with upper caste people and anti-social elements.

For instance, in Dhanera, Banaskantha district, we identified a family that had been allotted land five decades ago. The family told us they were neither given possession nor was any case registered. Taking into account the numerous offences and the injustice to so many families, we gave a call for the second Azadi Kooch. The police say we carried out the rally without proper permission. We will fight this claim.

Also read: ‘It is part of a Brahmanical agenda’

My case exposes a bigger issue, which is that the BJP will stop at nothing to target me. It is a petty case for which I have been convicted to three months in jail. I will take this punishment as a badge of honour because I am extremely satisfied with the outcome of the protest. The family got its land and has begun cultivation. It was the dream of Babasaheb Ambedkar that the landless be given land. This is the legacy I was trying to carry forward.

You say your case is part of a broader picture. If they cannot win in the political arena, is the ruling regime using tactics such as sending law enforcement agencies to harass political opponents or others who pose a threat to them?

Absolutely. As I said earlier, this party wants to destroy me. They will go after anyone who is a threat. They will do it at any cost. The manner in which they arrested me—not letting me talk to my parents, not letting me talk to my lawyer, and showing blatant disregard for jurisprudence. They just do not care. If this can happen to a sitting MLA, what could happen to an ordinary man? If I can be harassed and tortured in this manner, what hope does a citizen have?

Why are you, in particular, such a threat to the BJP?

They see me as a threat in the longer term. My recognition, identity, and reach are now no longer confined to Gujarat. I have been to at least 22 States giving lectures, being part of seminars and press conferences, participating in demonstrations and rallies. I have worked hard at increasing my reach. They are afraid of my ideology resonating with youngsters, with people looking for an alternative to them, because they know I will not compromise my belief system when it comes to the RSS and the BJP.

When the climate is so oppressive and there is a breakdown in democratic governance, what keeps you going? What is your end goal?

My drive and motivation come from a simple space. Each and every day I use tools which are a creation of the working class. Therefore, I have to repay them and do something for them. I have to be concerned.

Another genuine driving factor for me is science. If you study evolution, you understand that the early Homo sapiens did not have class or other divisive issues such as gender in society. We need to understand where this has emerged from. It is my end goal to see a classless, equal society with no exploitation.

Are you ever worried about the danger to your life?

My unshakeable ideological position will never let me remain silent. I know what it means to take on the RSS. We have seen what happened to Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Haren Pandya, and so many others. I know the risk. I know the grave dangers. There will be more attacks. But I will not stop. I will continue to fight for the rights of people I represent. By now those who know me know I am not afraid.

Your detractors have said that the incident involving you has made you relevant again. Some say you only have nuisance value for the BJP. How do you see your political career so far?

Development excites me. I have been able to do a fair amount of work in my constituency and I am encouraged to do much more. Imagine being able to participate in framing policy? That is what I want to do.

Also read: ‘You can’t preach self-respect to empty stomachs’

The BJP will do whatever it takes to malign me. Narendra Modi and [the RSS chief] Mohan Bhagwat are clearly uncomfortable with me. We know their stand on Dalits and I am therefore a hindrance. I am not concerned with them trying to change the narrative. My work will speak for itself. With regard to my relevance, I want to say “Thank you Modiji”. Thank you for exposing your government and splashing my name across the country. Ironically, some BJP supporters have been sympathetic to me in this case of targeting.

What are some pressing issues in Gujarat that you hope to work on?

Gujarat, in general, needs to improve its employment rate, health and civic infrastructure as well as its education standards. These are the broad areas of focus. Specifically, I will be working on issues concerning Dalits, Dalit Muslims, and the marginalised tribal belt, particularly in North Gujarat. The Congress is keen to concentrate on these areas and I will be part of this campaign.