Ahmedabad: No one really knew who Jignesh Mevani was till last year, when the then 33-year-old lawyer and journalist led a campaign for Dalit rights after self-proclaimed cow vigilantes assaulted four members of the community at Una for skinning a cow.

Violent protests followed the incident—the victims said they were skinning a carcass and had not killed the animal—in July 2016, spreading from the Saurashtra region to other parts of the state. The next month, Mevani led a Dalit Asmita Yatra from Ahmedabad to Una, drawing as many as 20,000 men and women. This was followed by a state-wide Satyagraha by Dalit youth who refused to remove cow carcasses.

Mevani gave the Dalit rights movement a new turn by demanding five acres of land for landless youth from the surplus acquired by the government under the land acquisition law.

Now, his decision to contest the forthcoming Gujarat assembly elections as an independent candidate could help him emerge as an icon for Dalit youth seeking social and economic justice and mount a challenge to the “Gujarat model” of development that promotes the interests of crony capitalists.

Born on 11 December 1982, Mevani earned a degreein English literatue in 2003 and later a diploma in journalism and mass communications. He worked for Gujarati magazine Abhiyaan between 2004 and 2007, before earning a degree in law in 2013.

The Dalit activist joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for a while, but quit when he found the party—founded by current Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and born out of the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare—vacillating on the issue of reservation for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Mevani was one of three leaders of social movements in the state—Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) convenor Hardik Patel and SC, ST, OBC Ekta Manch leader Alpesh Thakore are the other two—approached by the opposition Congress party in October. At a press conference, Bharatsinh Solanki, the party’s state president, offered tickets to all three to contest the elections under its symbol.

Thakore took up the offer, joining the party in the presence of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at a massive rally organized by the Thakore Sena in Gandhinagar a few days later.

Hardik Patel and his organization, after a series of meetings and discussions with the Congress on reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the Patidar community, have agreed to support the opposition party for the elections.

Mevani, meanwhile, said he would not join any political outfit.

He kept everyone guessing about his next move even as he began addressing meetings of the Dalit community in Gujarat’s smaller towns, making them pledge, in the name of Dalit icon Dr B.R. Ambedkar, to defeat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not just in the Gujarat elections, but also in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

In a tactical move, Mevani expressed solidarity with farmers, the Patel (or Patidar) community, OBCs and Muslims—while describing the BJP as their “common enemy.”

He appealed to all political parties, other than the BJP, to not field candidates for the Vadgam seat in Banaskantha—which is reserved for members of SCs—to ensure a direct contest between him and the ruling party. (The Congress seems to have acquiesced.)

“Vadgam has a huge Dalit and Muslim population that will support me. There are also a large number of OBC members. The Banaskantha Dalit Sangathan is very strong in the area and it will work in our favour,” Mevani said, exuding confidence in his victory.

By deciding to contest as an independent candidate, Mevani is free from the discipline imposed by a political party, leaving him free to carry on his movement for social and economic justice for the Dalit community. Clearly, he has long-term plans for his public life.

Nachiketa Desai is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad and tweets at @nachiketadesai. The views expressed are his own.

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