By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
The Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (Una Dalit Fight Against Atrocities Committee) convenor, 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani, insists that he is not the leader of the agitation of Dalits in Gujarat, that it is a collective struggle. On Independence Day, when the Dalit Asmita Yatra ended in Una, this movement served a one-month ultimatum to the government for meeting their demands. After taking a vow to give up cleaning the carcasses of animals and cleaning jobs, they demanded that the government allot 5 acres of land to each Dalit family in Gujarat. Mevani is now touring the country to spread the word on the movement. In three public interactions in Delhi on August 20 and 21, he informed the audience about the movement, answered questions, and asked everybody wanting to support the movement in Gujarat to participate in the proposed rail-blockade on September 15 if their demands are not met. In a brief conversation with YKA at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, where his final interaction took place, he explained what the movement in Gujarat expects from the country and tells us about what is in store next:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): The impunity that gau-rakshaks get in the country as well as in Gujarat- have you observed any special characteristics of that in Gujarat?
Jignesh Mevani (JM): Since a long time, it is being observed in Gujarat that for four to four and half years, there is talk of development and ‘Vibrant Gujarat’. When elections come near, videos of dead cows are circulated and there is an effort to create a picture that the cow has been killed by Muslims. If meat is caught anywhere, it is immediately said that it is cow-meat and that this has been done by Muslims, as if Muslims have no other work except killing cows. For a long time, this politics has been going on.
Now when they have come to power in Delhi, tab charbi aur bhi chadhi hai (they have become more brazen). Now apart from Muslims, Dalits too are being tortured. Modiji said that he is angry with the people who are running shops in the name of gau-raksha, but immediately after our August 15 programme, the manner in which both cow-vigilantes and BJP hooligans together terrorised the entire Una belt- heads of over hundred Dalits were split up, over 50 people were injured- there appears to be a wide gap between Modiji’s rhetoric and the ground reality.
AJ: You said that the mainstream media is called manuwaadi and people take to social media- use Facebook and Whatsapp aggressively to spread news. Sudipto from HT who was reporting from Gujarat also said that he observed a bias in the Gujarati media against the Dalits. You were also involved with the Gujarati media. Why did you leave and what were your observations there?
JM: Casteist mentality…every facet and dimension of life in India is distorted by caste. So media is no exception. The anti-reservation riots that took place in Gujarat, there too the newspapers played a bad role. My observation too has been that caste bias is there, but more than that there is quite a callous attitude. After this Dalit agitation, a very positive thing that has happened is that the sensible journalists have got a chance to write through this movement. People all over the country are discussing what’s happening in Una, what transpired with the Dalits in Gujarat- they are discussing that. So this positive thing has happened.
My own experience from when I was in journalism is that I used to think that we will change the world by writing. Then you come closer to reality and that’s wiped that- that notion. Then I felt that this writing will go on but at the same time there must be some work done on the ground level. It is then that I decided to work as an activist in 2008.
AJ: What is this callous attitude?
JM: When a Nirbhaya is raped, the way it is covered in the media- and this was necessary, this must be covered (by the media)- but every day in India, 4.3 Dalit women are raped, which is more than 120 in a month. What is the fault of these Dalit Nirbhayas? They are not talked about in the media. Every day 2 Dalits are killed, which is not talked about. Crime against Dalits is conducted every 18 minutes, which is not talked about. The kind of sustained reporting on Dalit atrocities in the mainstream media that should happen, I have never seen.
AJ: Do you expect Savarnas to work with you and what is the manner in which you expect them to work with you?
JM: Among the Savarnas, from Brahmins, from the Patidars, from OBCs- I have been getting support from all groups. All of them are calling me up to say that this will not go on- the manner in which people were beaten up in Una- that this is wrong, the slogan that you gave is very good. Everybody is saying that if Dalits want to give up this dirty work, then they must be allotted land. So we, as I have been repeating, want to make this movement as inclusive as we can. And all people- whichever caste or religion they might belong to- who support our movement are most welcome.
They should support with tan-mann-dhan. When we do the rail-blockade, then when we are being lathicharged they too should come with us. When they work with mann, then they should not do mann ki baat like Modiji. By supporting by dhan I mean that they help us with resources. They should spread this message on social media. Outside Gujarat too, if they have any contacts, they should ask them to come to Gujarat on September 15th for the rail-roko agitation, so that Dalits get land, so that other demands of Dalits are also met.
AJ: In yesterday’s discussion and today here too, questions were raised on the role played by the Left with respect to Dalit movements. What mistakes should they not commit?
JM: The Left should jump into the Dalit movement. With heart and soul, it should jump into the movement. When they will continue with the movement with their heart and soul for a sustained period, then the hearts of Dalits will open even more to accept them (in the movement). At the same time, when they do jump in, when they associate with the Dalit movement, then what the caste, sub-caste, and religion of the Dalits is, they should not be concerned about that. Dalits too should accept them with their whole heart.
AJ: With respect to the Patidar and Jat agitation, there was also a demand for reservation on the basis of income. What are your views on that?
JM: The issue of reservation is of social justice, of leadership, not of economic upliftment- that’s it.
AJ: Since the issue of economic empowerment has been associated with the issue of social-justice in your movement, can it be used to delegitimise the movement?
JM: No, the manner in which we are talking about economic empowerment, we are talking also about the economic empowerment of farmers, tribals, and the landless. So, on the contrary, our movement is going to get more support. Apart from the Dalit community, the more we talk about the issues of all the disenfranchised, the oppressed and abused, the more support for us is going to grow.
AJ: To what other places are you going to go from here?
JM: I am going to go to Kerala, to Tamil Nadu, to Lucknow, will come back to Delhi, also to Bombay. Gujarat too we’ll tour again.
AJ: Are you doing any work with students?
JM: Yes, in Gujarat, we are starting a wing of Ambedkar Students’ Association.
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