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Why Jignesh Mevani is a Symbol of Resistance

Mevani, who was recently arrested over a tweet, raises fundamental questions about communalism, gender and caste. This does not sit well with the RSS-BJP combine.
Jignesh Mevani

Image Courtesy: NDTV

The Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine hates the Muslims but fears the Dalits. For the Dalits have the capacity to call the “Hindu unity” bluff and raise potentially uncomfortable questions about the social character of Hindu society. The BJP might have designed a strategy to give Dalits representation, but it does not disturb the social character of Hindu society, which assures members of dominant castes unquestioned social power and ritual superiority.

Under the BJP formula, one can be a Dalit and claim a sub-caste to gain representation, and a Hindu for the purpose of gaining recognition. Such an arrangement shifts the focus of conflict to amongst Dalit sub-castes and OBCs and Muslims. In this way, Dalit political inclusion strengthens the hegemony of caste Hindus and entrenches the vulnerability of Dalit-Bahujans. In such a model, silent inclusion is traded against any resistance which is seen as a threat to Hindu society.

The model has been working well with the co-option of the more mobilised and vocal Dalit-Bahujans and their political leaders. The aspirational and educated middle classes among the Dalit-Bahujans also saw merit in this arrangement. They viewed it as another step towards gaining power. It is also something Dr BR Ambedkar stressed, to achieve emancipation and match class mobility. It was assumed that class mobility had given the Dalits a new bargaining capacity that rendered old-style anti-caste politics redundant.

The new model was more about bending the system to favour them. With the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its shift to Sarvajan mobilisation, this mode of negotiation has replaced resistance. Then the BJP came along and expanded the scope of this inclusion manifold, creating a dead-end for old-style social justice politics, as seen in the BSP falling out of favour.

In all of this, Jignesh Mevani, the independent legislator from Gujarat, stands out as somewhat unique. He combines old-style resistance with, possibly, a new imagination and set of demands to go with resistance. His style of mobilisation and clear-headed posturing challenge not only the hidden social hegemony of traditionally dominant castes but also identitarian Dalit-Bahujan politics that has shifted from resistance to bargaining.

Resistance is necessary to gain mobility with dignity. Identitarian Dalit-Bahujan politics harps on representation but lacks a social agenda. It offers an exaggerated critique of the Left to hide its own inability or unpreparedness to articulate the plight of all those Dalit-Bahujans who have not yet got opportunities for the mobility that some have gained due to reservations. It is against such an articulation that Mevani stands.

Mevani came into the limelight after he mobilised Dalits against the flogging of Dalits in Una, Gujarat over allegations of consuming beef. As an educated Dalit who has experienced mobility, he was willing to resist violence against that section of Dalits which still languishes in abject poverty and absolute vulnerability. The politics he stands for attempts to link the social agenda to political representation—not indulging in a trade-off between them.

Therefore, Mevani is not the “ideal” middle class Dalit who sees mobility in his ability to remain separated from the rest of the community or articulate demands that do not benefit the majority. This model is not agreeable to the BJP-RSS, for it challenges their hegemony. It demands mobility with dignity, which requires retaining the autonomy to question traditional elites. Such a world-view will seamlessly bring in strategies needed to mobilise the majority of Dalit-Bahujans. It would include questions of land and education and not reduce them, as the identitarian version does, to so-called leftist demands. It questions the puerile formulations of identitarian and old-style social justice politics that make no distinction between Left and Right or between BJP and Congress.

In short, Mevani is attempting to turn the tide. He acknowledges non-Dalit mentors such as Mukul Sinha and is willing to condemn the role Dalits and Bahujans played in the Gujarat riots. In this sense, he is organically combining the Dalit identity with the need to go beyond identity, which, to begin with, is an imposed one. He claims Dalithood to identify with his community but can turn his gaze inwards and go beyond the limits of identity.

It is this seamless articulation, which surpasses hegemonic limits, that the BJP-RSS cannot come to terms with. He is raising fundamental questions about communalism and its roots in gender and caste. He is not demanding that Dalits get appointed as priests of temples in Ayodhya. He is demanding public education for all, not Dalit-Bahujans alone. And he does not stop at highlighting the importance of English education. He is questioning the consequences of privatisation, not merely demanding more reservations through the private sector. Such questions hold the potential to seek fundamental changes.

Mevani moved beyond social activism when he entered electoral politics, even then calling the bluff of those who believed articulating substantive demands does not lead to electoral victories. In its elementary form, he is combining the popular with the progressive, one of the stiffest challenges of our times on which the current regime is flourishing. The decline of the Left in India is partly due to its inability to appropriate popular forms and re-signify regressive content by replacing it with more universalist, progressive demands.

Mevani has offered a new model where Left/progressive and Dalit/anti-caste forces can come together without getting caught in endless circularity. While the Left struggles with popular modes of mobilisation, Dalit-Bahujan social justice politics has struggled to identify with universalist-progressive demands. It goes beyond the BSP kind of mobilisation or even other experiments like Chandrashekhar Azad’s, which got into the nitty-gritty of electoral success but lost sight of the larger process.

In my brief conversation with Mevani at a protest site, he said one cannot be an Ambedkarite without being Left-progressive. He said any mobilisation on the ground would require both demands for land and questions against caste-based exclusion. He was somewhat dismissive of debates on university campuses. While the issue might be more mediated and complex, his willingness to go beyond set parameters was refreshing. It was, at least, the right direction to be moving in. The BJP-RSS combine will have to do better than indulge in intimidation. That seems to not work with what, hopefully, will become a new-age anti-caste politics, if not more.

The author is an associate professor at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His book, Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’, is due to be published by Routledge, London, in 2022. The views are personal.

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