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.