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Gujarat 2017: The

Meaning of Jignesh

This is a moment full of possibility for the

articulation of a Dalit-Bahujan oriented left-wing
politics – not just in Gujarat but elsewhere in the

Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. Credit: PTI

The rise of Jignesh Mevani is a landmark in the present moment, as

the Congress rises from a state of disarray toward a possible political
realignment in the near future. The process had already begun when a
part of the powerful Patidar community, long understood to be the
bedrock of the BJP’s social base in the state, had broken away from it.
But alongside this, the rise of the young leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh
Thakore and Jignesh Mevani together produced the new young face of
emergent Gujarat. There is no doubt that the vacuum that
characterised the space where the opposition should have been, no
longer exists. The masthead of a new opposition formation is evident
on the horizon. But this turnaround in the fortunes of the Congress
too would not have been possible without the re-alignments in the
non-electoral arena, facilitated in no small measure by the rise of this
young leadership.

Jignesh Mevani’s resounding victory from Vadgam constituency in

Banaskantha district, by over 18,000 votes over his BJP rival Vijai
Chakravarti, is an important event in the state’s history.

Mevani’s political rise came in the wake of the Una floggings

family-still-waits-for-justice/) of four Dalit youth supposedly suspected of
having killed a cow. That vigilante action of the cow protectors, in
July 2016, called forth a massive movement of unprecedented
militancy from sections of the state’s Dalit population. And leading
that struggle was the 36-year-old lawyer, Jignesh Mevani, who
famously coined the slogan the ‘you keep the cow’s tail/ give us our
land’. The movement took the form of an ‘Azadi Kooch’ or the ‘March
for Freedom’, where Dalits in large numbers took an oath that they
would not henceforth lift carcasses of dead cows.

The decisive intervention by Mevani in that struggle was

characterised by two very distinctive features. First, it raised the
question of land that had supposedly been earmarked for Dalits but
had never been transferred to them. Mevani’s demand for the transfer
of land to Dalits was not just a vacuous slogan for he had done
detailed homework about the precise lands in question and their legal
status. His interest in the land question has been quite unique insofar
as contemporary Dalit politics is concerned, for it is based on the
recognition that while questions of identity and self-respect are
important they cannot be ensured while remaining in the prison-
house of what has come to be called ‘identity’ politics. His was not a
mere middle class oriented Dalit discourse for it recognised without
hesitation that questions of class and economic freedom were central
for the large masses Dalits throughout the country.
Second, Mevani’s stamp was evident in the very selection of the name
for the movement ‘Azadi Kooch’ – recalling the viral Azadi slogans
that had reverberated in and from JNU earlier and which had been
cast as ‘anti-national’ by the government, the ruling party and the
RSS. Azadi was deftly tied up with the question of Dalit emancipation
and immediately established connections with other movements and
struggles elsewhere in the country. And the connection was not
simply ideational. He established direct connections with young
student leaders from JNU – Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, Umar
Khalid – and many others like the late Gauri Lankesh, who became
part of the new kind of emergent left-wing sensibility in different
parts of India.

Jignesh Mevani had had his earlier ‘training’ in politics of a different

sort with the charismatic lawyer Mukul Sinha, who had been fighting
many of the cases of the victims of the 2002 carnage as well as of ‘fake
encounters’ in the state. Sinha was a lawyer but he was also an
organiser and ran a left wing organization by the name of New
Socialist Movement based in Ahmedabad that works among the city’s
poor residents. Mevani is quite forthright in accepting his debt to
Sinha insofar as his exposure to a certain left-wing sensibility is

Later, as Mevani began to get involved in mass politics he also got

involved with the Aam Aadmi Party in Gujarat and left it only when
the Una movement gathered gathered momentum and the BJP used
his AAP connection to attack the movement as ‘politically motivated’.
However, repeatedly, it has been evident that Mevani’s fidelity to the
Dalit struggles notwithstanding, he was not just another Dalit leader
who was unconcerned about the other political questions that India is
faced with today.

Repeatedly, through his election campaign, Mewani has made it clear

that confronting the ‘fascist threat’ was of paramount importance –
without the defeat of the Hindutva forces there would be no liberation
for the Dalits. Hence his insistence that it was not only about
supporting the Congress against the BJP, in the false equivalence that
Big Media continuously tried to set up.
In fact, it was this that not only made possible Mevani’s emergence as
a leader, a point of articulation, where a range of different kinds of
people could invest their hopes in him. His election campaign too
bore the stamp of this distinctiveness. The funds were crowd-sourced
and many different kinds of people contributed to his campaign. But
actual monetary funding is only a small part of the huge mobilisation
that took place as volunteers from all parts of India landed up in
Vadgam to help in the campaign and local supporters provided their
hospitality in putting up and feeding the volunteers.

Whatever the pitfalls of entering the privileged portals of the

Assembly against which Jignesh will no doubt have to guard, there is
little doubt that this is a moment full of possibility for the articulation
of a Dalit-Bahujan oriented left-wing politics – not just in Gujarat but
elsewhere in the country. And Jignesh, who stands at the intersection
of many different currents, is the messenger of that new politics.

Aditya Nigam (https://thewire.in/author/aditya­nigam/) is a professor of
political science at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Disclaimer: The author donated to Jignesh Mevani’s campaign.

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