Jignesh Mevani, a 36-year-old lawyer and activist, has been at the forefront of the Ambedkarite movement in Gujarat where Dalits comprise about 7% of the State’s population. Last month, a year after a Dalit backlash at Una, Mr. Mevani organised an Azaadi Kooch (a march for freedom) from Mehsana to Dhanera in Banaskantha district. This march ended with four Dalits in Lavara village getting possession of 12 acres of land that was theirs on paper but until then was being controlled by a local dominant caste family. During the formal takeover of the land by its new Dalit owners, the police asked Mr. Mevani not to plant any flag on the reclaimed land, as it could spark caste tensions. Mr. Mevani read out the police’s instructions to the crowd of assembled Dalits, and then defiantly planted the blue Ambedkarite flag featuring the words ‘Jai Bhim’, enacting a symbolic and literal retrieval of land and pride by Dalits.
What happened at Una?
He first shot to prominence in July 2016 when he became the face of the Dalit backlash after four Dalit youths at Una were tortured by vigilantes for allegedly skinning a dead cow.
As a member of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladhai Samiti and the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, he led a Dalit Asmita Yatra (a march for self-respect) from Ahmedabad to Una that mobilised thousands of Dalits across the State to come together and demand justice for the Una victims.
His campaign hit the national headlines for the first time when several hundred Dalits took a pledge to abandon the occupation of picking up cow carcasses, and in some districts, protesters dumped cow carcasses in front of government offices. This movement met with some success as most of the vigilantes involved in the Una assault were arrested by the police.
How did he broaden the fight?
Until the Una episode, Mr. Mevani’s activism had channelled itself through court battles on behalf of Dalits. But Una marked an inflection point. Sensing an opportunity, he sought to utilise this moment of Dalit assertion to broaden the ambit of Dalit politics – from one largely focussed on atrocities and identity, to one that also raised material issues, such as land ownership. The idea animating Mr. Mevani’s politics is a simple one: in large swathes of rural and semi-rural India, ownership of land is a major signifier of (caste) status. So the most direct route to equality for Dalits is through demanding land that is rightfully theirs, he argues. Mr. Mevani has built his politics around the demand that every landless Dalit should be given 5 acres of land. He has taken up — in courts as well as on the streets, through rasta roko and rail roko agitations — the cases of Dalits who have been allotted land on paper but not given physical possession of the land.
Is his land demand realistic?
His critics have pointed out two problems with his approach: one, that it is unrealistic to expect that every landless Dalit could be provided 5 acres of land, as the State doesn’t have so much idle land at its disposal; and secondly, in an era of widespread farm distress, rendered more acute by fragmented land holdings, it is foolish to expect that Dalits could abandon their traditional occupations and support themselves by farming their 5 acres. Mr. Mevani has answered both charges with catchy slogans. To the first criticism, he responded with “Land to the tiller, not to the tycoon.’ To the second, he said that even if farming the 5 acres is unviable, the mere coming into existence of masses of Dalits who own land would be a powerful blow against the caste hierarchy in villages.
What's the way ahead?
By late 2016, Mr. Mevani’s land rights movement was successful in pressuring the Gujarat government to start the land mapping process for handing over 220 bighas to 115 Dalit families in Ahmedabad district’s Saroda village. Following last month’s success, Mr. Mevani plans to undertake land ownership campaigns in other parts of Gujarat later this year. His main challenge remains the same as it has been for every Dalit leader over the years: finding a way to unite the various Dalit sub-castes into a potent political force, and build a common platform with other marginalised groups. Toward this end, he has tried reaching out to Ambedkarite groups in other States. But those efforts are yet to bear fruit.