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Jignesh Mevani is busy fighting the good fight

January 01, 2018 11:20 IST

'I fight for anyone who is poor, marginalised or victimised.'
'If a Dalit factory owner is inflicting atrocities on his Brahmin worker, then I will fight for the poor Brahmin,' Jignesh Mevani tells Sohini Das.

IMAGE: Newly-elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani is felicitated in Ahmedabad. Photograph: PTI Photo

"I went to Vadgam with just Rs 8,000 in my pocket," says Jignesh Mevani, triumphant after a huge victory in Vadgam constituency in north Gujarat.

He smiles proudly as he announces himself to be the poorest member of the legislative assembly in Gujarat.

"I have not earned anything in the last eight to nine years. I do not even have Rs 50,000 to call my own. The Rs 10 lakh net worth shown in the affidavit is also thanks to an insurance policy that my father bought," he says, pointing to the elderly man sitting right behind him.

 

Natubhai Mevani grins widely with pride. He campaigned in 40 villages for his son.

Jignesh says his campaign must have been the most frugal of all.

"People came forward with contributions to keep the show going, as though they were all joining a movement," he says.

"They know I am a credible person, with no vested interests."

He feels it is this image of his that 'clicked' with voters in Vadgam, one of the dozen constituencies reserved for members of the scheduled caste community in Gujarat.

Sitting in the courtyard of his parental house in Meghaninagar, a Dalit-dominated locality that is part of the 'Old City' on the eastern fringes of Ahmedabad, Jignesh looks much younger than 37. He is wearing a white kurta over a pair of jeans.

The courtyard is full of villagers, among them his friends and co-workers who have come to congratulate him on his win.

Jignesh knows everyone by name; he hugs them, poses for pictures with anyone who asks him to, addresses the elders as 'kaka'.

An elderly man, sporting a white kediyu (traditional Gujarati dhoti-kurta), smiles through his wrinkled face, "He (Jignesh) has no airs about him. He treats everyone like a partner in his movement. Achha bachcha hai (he's a good kid)."

At H K Arts College, off Ashram Road in central Ahmedabad, a group of students is busy poring over notes right before the exams.

The bunch looks up as I mention Mevani's name. They are aware of the bright alumnus of this college. "Yes, Jigneshbhai has won. Good news. He was from HK. We haven't met him though; he rarely visits here," says one.

Do they follow politics actively? Not really, they reply.

Sanjay Bhave, a professor who teaches English literature at the college, rues the fact that few of his current students seem passionate about politics.

"On the day the results of the assembly elections were declared, we kept looking to the television screens in the staff room or checking for updates on our phones. I didn't see the same enthusiasm amongst the students," he says.

Bhave, who is also a columnist and activist, has been a serious influence on young Mevani.

Jignesh has, on several occasions, acknowledged his teacher's contribution in shaping his worldview. In fact, he called Bhave up immediately after winning the election.

Jignesh was always passionate about social causes, his teachers recall.

"I remember the day the Gulberg Society massacre happened in 2002. A seriously shaken Mevani had called me in the morning and said, 'Bad things are happening'. That was the first time I realised how sensitive he was to these issues," Bhave recalls.

Subhash Brahmbhatt, principal of H K Arts College, says the culture of encouraging dialogue on campus is the reason why social activists such as Mevani have emerged from the college.

It is no coincidence, he says, that Alpesh Thakor, the face of the other backward castes movement, too, studied at this college.

Jignesh Mevani's rise is significant in Gujarat politics -- and perhaps in national politics too.

His movement raised some very pertinent questions and changed the discourse in contemporary Dalit politics.

A lawyer and journalist, he argued that land earmarked for Dalits is never actually transferred to them.

Almost as a war cry, he raised this slogan for Dalit rights: "You can keep the cow's tail. But give us our land!" (The symbolism owes to a Hindu story where the cow is used to assist people to the afterlife, with its tail being used like a rope as a guide.)

There are two provisions for allotting land in the state: The Land Ceiling Act (where surplus land is taken from feudal landlords and distributed among the landless) and the Agricultural Land Ceiling Act (distribution of waste land amongst the landless).

In Gujarat, Jignesh says land has been allotted to Dalits under these provisions only on paper.

He now aims to take up this issue in the Vidhan Sabha where he is sure to ruffle some feathers, especially of right-wing leaders.

Around 56,873 acres of land, he says, have not been handed over to its rightful owners.

"I am in talks with a very senior lawyer in the Supreme Court," he says.

"He has agreed to fight the case for free. A PIL (public interest litigation) was also filed in the Gujarat high court. While they will fight the battle in courts, I will take the fight to the streets," he says.

This is foremost on his agenda upon assuming office.

It is his 'training' by the late Chunibhai Vaidya (Chunikaka to everyone), a respected farmers rights activist, and the late Mukul Sinha, a lawyer, that helped him get into 'issue-based' politics.

Little wonder that the parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party rallied behind him in this election.

"The Congress cadre was working for me on the ground. The Aam Aadmi Party's team was there to help, along with sympathisers such as the Bahujan Samaj Party as well as an MLA from CPI-ML (Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist), who campaigned for me," says a grateful Jignesh.

Yogendra Yadav, psephologist and founder of the Swaraj Abhiyan, as well as the Communist Party of India's Milind Ranade, were in Vadgam to campaign for him.

Rahul Gandhi, too, sought votes for him: 'This time, vote for the sewing machine (Jignesh's poll symbol),' Gandhi had said.

Jignesh agrees that he does have ideological differences with some of the parties that supported him, but emphasises the fact that they made common cause with the need to stand against the 'fascist threat'.

How does he feel about being branded a Dalit leader? Is he comfortable with the tag? 'No,' he says.

"I fight for anyone who is poor, marginalised or victimised. If a Dalit factory owner is inflicting atrocities on his Brahmin worker, then I will fight for the poor Brahmin."

In Vadgam, he says he got more than 50,000 Muslim votes and that 250 women 'observed roza' (fasted) to pray for his victory.

Where does he see himself in five years?

"We will build a very robust Dalit movement. I will fight for Muslims and tribals. We will build a strong trade union..." His list is long.

With intelligence inputs of a potential threat to his life, Jignesh Mevani has been allotted a police escort.

But his family is not particularly worried.

"He is fighting honestly," says his father. "I am not afraid of the outcome."

Nor is Jignesh Mevani -- he is too busy fighting the good fight.

Sohini Das
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