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New threat for BJP in Gujarat

August 19, 2016 11:01 IST

If the Anandiben Patel administration was shaken by the Patidar agitation, the Vijay Rupani government would have to deal with the Jignesh Mevani-led Dalit movement, reports Sohini Das.

IMAGE: Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, in a blue shirt, with JNU students union President Kanhaiya Kumar and Dalit community members during a solidarity rally in Una, Gujarat. Photograph: PTI Photo

Last August, 22-year-old Patidar leader Hardik Patel caught the imagination of the nation when his firebrand speeches and ability to gather masses led to a huge agitation against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. His demand: Reservation in government jobs and institutions for Patidars.

While the state government is still grappling with the Patidar movement, they have a new challenge -- Jignesh Mevani, a 35-year-old English and law graduate, the convenor of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, which is fighting against the July 11 incident in Gir Somnath district.

Mevani is also a member of the Aam Aadmi Party's Gujarat unit. As his voice gains popularity and renews interest in the Dalit discourse, it might emerge as a critical factor for the AAP in the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections next year.

Sociologist Vidyut Joshi quips, "Historically, every movement has given rise to a new leader and the Dalit movement will not be an exception."

He said the trio -- Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor (who is spearheading the voices of the Other Backward Castes in Gujarat) -- are likely to emerge as political leaders.

Why is Gujarat suddenly witnessing the rise of youth leaders who represent the voices of disgruntled communities? Joshi says Gujarat's traditional social structure is in shambles and people are struggling to ensure secured livelihood. This has set the stage for the entry of 'angry young men.'

While the July 11 atrocity against Dalits might be the trigger for mass protests in Gujarat, followed by some high-profile visits to Una -- including those of Arvind Kejriwal, Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi, in the past few weeks -- it is largely an issue of 'identity and security' for the long-oppressed community.

The death of Hyderabad Central University Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in January, and the events that followed, led to a feeling of alienation in a large section of the community, which comprises 15 per cent of the national population and had voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

With atrocities against Dalits rising in the state, especially after self-styled cow protection groups unleashed violence on Dalits and minority communities, the issue of security has taken centre stage.

This is when Mevani stepped into the scene. However, unlike Hardik Patel, he has deep roots in activism. Mevani worked with the late Mukul Sinha's Jansangharsh Manch for the rights of landless communities and municipal workers.

Many feel Mevani is filling the vacuum that existed in articulating the sentiments of Dalits in Gujarat.

Unlike Hardik Patel's demands for reservation for his community, Mevani has sought something for which the government already has provisions.

A JSM survey in 2009 covering over 10 villages in Surendranagar and Ahmedabad districts showed how land was denied to Dalits. However, the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act provides for allotting five acres of surplus government land to landless Dalits.

"This obviously has never been done. The surplus land has already been identified but the government is not willing to give it to Dalits. If they (the state government) do not initiate the process of transferring land to Dalits within the next one month, we will stage a 'Rail Roko' agitation on September 15," said Mevani.

Mevani seems to be a meticulous planner. Dalits comprise just about 7 per cent of Gujarat's population and hence cannot potentially 'swing' election results. However, nationally, they are an electoral force to reckon with.

This explains why a contingent of national leaders descended in Una last month. He says, "I am very much a part of the AAP. But the Dalit movement is open for anyone (a Dalit, or a sympathiser) to join, irrespective of his/her political affiliations."

Communist leader and Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was thus by his side when the week-long rally, which started from Ahmedabad, culminated in Una.

If the Anandiben Patel administration was shaken by the Patidar agitation, the new Vijay Rupani government would have to deal with the Mevani-led Dalit movement.

Sohini Das
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