Is Jignesh Mevani going to be the next big thing in dalit politics? His victory at the Badgam Assembly seat in Gujarat as an independent candidate is a feather in the cap for dalit activism. Hardik and Alpesh may not have much of an impact outside Gujarat due to the localized nature of caste politics but there is no gainsaying the fact that if Jignesh channelizes his energy in the proper direction, he could transcend the regional boundary. In this age of optics and increased visibility where perception matters as much as reality, Jignesh’s Una agitation not only caught the imagination of the entire nation but also hurt its conscience. The refusal of thousands of dalits to dispose of cattle carcasses in protest against the public flogging of 4 dalits by cow vigilantes was a defining moment in dalit activism.
Yes….the grammar of dalit politics has changed. It’s no longer Rudaali-style activism but it is some sort of —-an eye for an eye—type of confrontation marked by a new found confidence and assertion. Unlike Chandrasekhar led Bhim Army’s protest against Saharanpur incident which made bad optics due to acts of arson and violence and defied logic, Jignesh’s Una movement was better organized and had logic which made the task of public approval easier. Saharanpur was kneejerk activism which failed to secure public empathy while Una was pragmatic thoughtful activism.
Though Mevani has won from a reserved seat with the support of Congress and has not yet managed to come out of the caste bracket, his politics offers hope. Unlike most of the politicians of his community, he does not talk much about caste or reservation but has espoused an issue that is not on the menu of present day dalit politics. He has filed a PIL in Gujarat High Court seeking 5 hectares of land to every dalit family and has even led agitations for land entitlements of dalits. The lower social status of the dalits has been there for centuries due to their historical dispossession from land something that has made them rootless and broken.
Investing energy in useless rhetoric against Manuwad and Hindu religion is not going to solve the problems of dalits; dalit activism needs to focus on land rights for dalits. The post independent land reforms have hardly benefited the dalits because a major chunk of the distributed land has gone to the OBCs/intermediate castes; even where dalits have got lands, they have failed to take possession due to muscle power of OBCs. Dalits have been massacred in caste wars over land, they have been reliable recruiting grounds for Naxals seeking to destroy feudal order but does this issue bother dalit politics?
Apart from a land movement in Maharashtra in early fifties under the banner of Republican Party, has any dalit agitation centred on land rights? Dalit politics needs to move out of reservation because reservation has reached a point of no return. Moreover, reservation policy has created layers among the dalit population and gains are getting restricted to just 15-20 percent of the entire dalit population.
The fact that Mevani has raised the issue of jobs for youths as a whole and not only dalits manifests that he is willing to come out of the sectarian bracket. His emphasis on leading a movement of sanitation workers is also a welcome move. Dalit politics can’t work in isolation and sectarianism. It has to join the mainstream in this integrated electorate system if it has to survive. Isn’t it shocking that despite more than 70 years of independence dalit politicians are not able to win from general seats in elections?
Dalit politics needs to take a departure from past modus operandi. Mevani can’t afford to fall into the black hole of rabid virulent left inspired dalit activism. Continuous virulent bashing of Hindu religion & Manuwad, pontifications over Buddhism and Ambedkarism, debates over who is better – Ambedkar or Gandhi and frivolous discourses over Vedas are not going to fetch dividends for dalit politics; the fight has to be strictly political. All this talk of Mulnivasis and solidarity of 85 percent Bahujan Samaj is rubbish as contradictions galore between dalits & OBCs; moreover caste is hierarchy seeking and is prevalent even within so called Bahujan societies. Kanshiram tried to prepare a common platform between OBCs and dalits but his experiment was short-lived and failed miserably in UP.
A constitutional Ambedkar would do wonders for political empowerment of dalits but a religio-socio cultural Ambedkar would marginalize dalit polity and push it to the periphery. A Periyar inspired dalit activism might look macho but it can’t gain acceptance from majority of non dalit castes; just look at Tamil Nadu, despite more than 7 decades of Dravidian politics, power remained confined to non Brahmin castes at the intermediate level, refusing to percolate downwards to the dalits and to cap it all, virulent caste struggles for domination between dalits and OBCs are every day news in the state.
Mevani needs to guard against all of these if he wants to make a long stride in dalit politics. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on how he is going to take the plunge.