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, Mevani 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. Mevani 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 (Mevani) 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, Jignesh bhai
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. Mevani has, on several occasions, acknowledged his teacher’s contribution in shaping his worldview. In fact, he called Bhave up immediately after winning the election.
Mevani was always passionate about social causes, his teachers recall. “I remember the day the Gulbarg 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 recollects.
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 (OBC) movement, too, studied at this college.
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, Mevani 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). Mevani claims that in Gujarat, 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. He claims that around 56,873 acres of land 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 Mevani’s “training” by the late Chunibhai Vaidya (Chuni kaka 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. Aam Aadmi Party’s team was there to help, along with sympathisers such as the Bahujan Samaj Party as well as an MLA from CPIM (L), who campaigned for me,” says a grateful Mevani.
Yogendra Yadav, psephologist and founder of Swaraj Abhiyan, as well as the Communist Party of India’s Milind Ranade, were in Vadgam to campaign for him. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too, sought votes for him: “This time, vote for the sewing machine (Mevani’s poll symbol),” Gandhi said. Mevani 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, Mevani claims he got more than 50,000 Muslim votes and that 250 women had “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, Mevani has been allotted 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 Mevani — he is too busy fighting the good fight.