A Conversation With Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit Activist and Leader of the Uprising in Una

07 August, 2016

In mid July 2016, a video surfaced of an incident in Una town in Gujarat where a mob beat up four Dalit youths for picking up a cow carcass, and then paraded the young men around town, hitting them in view of the residents. The incident sparked widespread protests in the state against vigilantism and a greater push for Dalit rights. Jignesh Mevani, a 35-year-old lawyer and activist who has been working on Dalit land rights in the state, is one of the leaders of these protests. He is the convener of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, a committee whose aim is to fight atrocities against Dalits. On 31 July, Mevani led a rally where thousands of Dalits pledged to stop picking up carcasses as the protests against atrocities intensify in the state. Mevani also works on the issue of land rights for Dalits, which he believes is key to Dalit empowerment.

On Thursday, Surabhi Vaya, an independent journalist, spoke to Mevani over the phone. Below are excerpts from their conversation, parts of which were conducted in Hindi and have been translated. They discussed the changing administrations in Gujarat, the history of Dalit movements in the state, the spontaneous protests since the Una incident and the silence around such atrocities in past.

Surabhi Vaya: What do you think it was about Una incident specifically that triggered the uprising? Why was it the catalyst?

Jignesh Mevani: The way the video of the Una incident went viral, the video was circulated over WhatsApp, showing that in the middle of the day for everyone to see in Una town, you beat up four Dalit youths, practically skinning them…

After that the entire Dalit community’s self-respect and dignity was also taken away. You are breaking down a person and a community’s self-respect in broad daylight for everyone to see. Even the way the media picked up the issue and made it a national political debate really gave impetus to the movement. But this was always going to happen.

SV: Has the nature of Hindu vigilantism changed in Gujarat now that Modi is at the centre?

JM: As part of a carefully thought-out strategy, the Sangh Parivar and BJP began their project of saffronising Dalits across the country; they also tried that in Gujarat. However, in the largely anti-people, anti-poor Gujarat development model, the Dalit does not have anything except defeat and exploitation. There was a phase when they became convinced of the Hindutva ideology but that phase is ending now and they can recognise what these people are really like. When the economic condition sees no improvement and on the other hand, the chatter is about big ideas like “Vibrant” and “Golden” Gujarat. “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” [“we can all progress together”] is being sloganeered, but it feels like it excludes Dalits. Therefore, Dalits are also realising that they are not going to get anything in this Gujarat Model except brutality and violence.

SV: What differences did you see in the Anandiben Patel and Narendra Modi governments?

JM: No difference. During the Modi regime, instead of distributing land among SC, ST or OBC, it was distributed to [the corporate conglomerates] Adani, Ambani and Essar. Anandiben has propagated the same model. Additionally, during Anandiben's regime, because Modi reached Delhi, Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act—a progressive legislation which has provisions to grant land to landless—was distorted. Neither has pursued the issues of caste violence and Dalit rights.

SV: Could you talk about the history of Dalits and Dalit movements in Gujarat?

JM: Many non-Dalits also became part of the [Dalit] movement in the 1980s. Dalit Panthers [an anti-caste movement started in 1972] has always had a very radical, progressive agenda and manifesto. That is one aspect of the Dalit movement. Because of that it developed a militant mood—that is, if the conservatives did not treat them well, there would be violent push back. The message was clear, that they can consistently fight for their rights. The program mentioned in the [Dalit Panther] manifesto included things such as forming trade unions, fighting for fundamental rights, fighting against caste-based discrimination—but these things could not materialise. It ended up remaining only in the manifesto.

On the other hand, Gujarat has very few progressive forces that could have been natural allies of the Dalits. Along with all this, when the economic policies of globalisation came [in 1991], identity politics became a big factor. The Dalit movement across India was caught in the grip of this form of politics. The Dalit movement after the 1990s became caught up in the rhetoric of combating casteism, “Manuvaad murdabad” [“death to the ideas of Manu”] and did not take on the issue of ensuring they [Dalits] have access to basics such as food, shelter, and housing. There have always been many organisations, individuals and institutes trying to take up the Dalit issue, particularly issues of atrocity and land struggle. However, a platform that could unite all of these ideas and put these issues at the forefront is yet to happen.

Of the Dalit movements of Gujarat over the last two or three decades I can only say that there are people who want to work and are doing good work. There is a feeling of working to stop injustice, but some ideological perspective could not be cohesively built, and those working in the grass roots could not unite with others to drive long-term change. Therefore, a substantial rise in the Dalit movement which one expected did not happen.

On the other hand because of identity politics, particularly during the Modi regime, his agenda has been an agenda of communal fascism on one hand, and it is globalisation on the other hand: material contradiction has increased; disparity between rich and poor has increased; lower-caste, lower-class people have suffered a lot.

Why did the Una issue become such a big deal? That was because it was waiting to boil over. It was waiting to happen because in Gujarat, most of the Dalits are landless. There is a deep-rooted agrarian crisis. The Dalit class in rural pockets is severely exploited. A city-dwelling Dalit is primarily an industrial worker, works for private companies...

SV: Like the Textile mill workers in the 1980s that pushed for unionisation?

JM: Yes, but there is a difference between mill workers and field workers. There was hope in the time of the Dalit mill worker, there was a greater desire to struggle and that was alive in the field workers. So there was a bargaining power. Around the mills, the mill owners had created shelters for them where they were given homes. So there was a relative unity. However, those who went to malls or in private corporate houses later are far more dispersed, diluting their connection. If the Modi government continues to employ them for Rs 4,000 [per month], then we can imagine the condition of the industrial workers. So, the Dalit working in the industrial areas of a city and landless rural Dalits: the exploitation of both these groups in the last 12 to 15 years have gone up drastically.

Along with that, cases of atrocities have gone up as well. During Modi's government, from 2003 to 2014, 14,500 cases of atrocity were registered. Thirty-four Scheduled Caste women were raped in 2004, which reached 74 in 2014. Between 2005 and 2015, Dalits have been violently expelled from over 55 villages—they have had to leave the villages they lived in. There are more than 55,000 manual scavengers. There are close to one lakh sanitation workers who earn minimum wage after working the municipal corporation for years, and struggle to get permanent positions. So on the one hand, there is extreme economic exploitation and on the other hand, caste-based undermining in every other aspect of life. In 2012, the state police beat up three 16, 17 and 21-year-old Dalit youths so badly that they were practically skinned, and later shot them with AK-47s because they were headed to report a case of atrocity from the day before. Even after four years, in this case, no justice has been served. In cases of Dalit atrocities, the conviction rate in Gujarat is just three percent—97 percent of the people are just broken down.

There is no justice for them in Gujarat. The feeling has been accumulating for a while.

SV: In a Right to Information application you filed in 2015, you included some interesting numbers on land distribution to Dalits in Gujarat.

JM: My [RTI activism] work primarily concerned landless farm labourers and Dalits, in particular the land rights. India is an upper-caste, upper-class combination right? All the organs of the state, if you see objectively, are hegemonised by the upper-caste, upper-class combination. All the means of production are in their hands, and they, in particular, control land. The dominance of upper caste in rural areas is primarily due to their dominance of the control of land. Therefore, land reforms are most vital.

In Gujarat, in practically every district area, the thousands of acres of land distributed to Dalits is a joke. It has only happened on paper. For example, imagine I have been granted possession of land. I will get a piece of paper saying, I, Jignesh Mevani have survey number as proof that I own six biga land in a certain village. However, the physical possession would always remain with the upper, dominant-caste people. This means they [Dalits] have been distributed 1,000 acres of land but only on paper. The actual, physical possession has not been guaranteed.

SV: My parents often tell me that when they first moved to Ahmedabad, there were no ghettos, and that they are a recent phenomenon.

JM: This is Modi magic. The way Muslims were killed in the [2002] riots, in Naroda Patiya, Naroda Gam, Gulberg, Sardarpura, and Best Bakery... they have no other option. How will they live in Hindu areas? They do not want to leave their religion and look for shelter. Anandiben comes from Mehsana, PM Modi also comes from there, and the state home minister comes from there. In the same Mehsana district, in the last three months, from four villages, Dalits have been socially boycotted and removed from their homes. Riots led to an internal displacement of Muslims from places they had grown up in to move to ghettos. In the same way, these Manuwaadi forces are forcing Dalits out of their villages.

SV: What do you think of the recent calls for Dalit-Muslim unity?

JM: This is something really, really positive. I worked with Mukul Sinha and Nirjhari Sinha [Mukul Sinha was a prominent activist and human-rights lawyer. He was a vocal opponent of the Modi government in Gujarat along with his wife Nirjhari Sinha, who now heads Jan Sangharsh Manch that they started] for about 8 years. I have been looking into the aftermath of the 2002 riots and the role of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi in the encounter killings in the state. I was just as concerned and delved into those issues with the same reasons that I started working for Dalit rights. Therefore, I always wished that there should be a Dalit-Muslims call for unity that they should be brought on the same stage. In the coming days, there will be more concrete steps towards uniting the two groups.

SV: Do you see connections or differences between what is happening in the rest of India with regard to Hindu vigilantism, and the situation in Gujarat?

JM: Ever since Modi went to the centre, the Sangh Parivar fringe groups have become more assertive. Corruption, corporate loot and forwarding Hindutva agenda remained focal points of her [Anandiben Patel] government also. One key difference was that Anandiben could not continue the reign of terror.

This interview has been edited and condensed.