Why you should care
Because he’s rising up for the lowest caste.
Wearing a blue linen shirt under a hooded jacket, paired with track pants and running shoes, Jignesh Mevani has a mild demeanor that belies his fiery activism and opposition politics. The freshly minted member of the legislative assembly (MLA) had come to India’s capital city from his home state, Gujarat, to prepare for a rally at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. He says he hasn’t slept much lately — and then asks for a charger to revive his cell phone.
In December, the 37-year-old Dalit activist turned politician won a legislative seat as an independent candidate from Vadgam district in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. Even though Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) managed to take the majority seats and form the government in Gujarat, Mevani has since risen to be his most vocal critic at a time when India’s major opposition parties have failed to do the same with any conviction.
Faced with the BJP’s massive political machine, Mevani knows the odds are against him.
Mevani belongs to the Dalit community, the lowest caste in Hinduism, which constitutes at least 15 percent of the country’s population. Historically, they’ve been led by caste-based regional parties, the largest of which, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is from Uttar Pradesh. But electoral compromises, corruption and broken promises have left many of these parties discredited, allowing the Hindu nationalist BJP, traditionally dominated by upper castes, to bring Dalits under its umbrella. Mevani lacks the institutional backing of a party, but he enjoys street cred earned through pitched battles in defense of Dalits. And if he can replicate the Dalit-Muslim unity he forged in Vadgam at a national level, he can threaten Modi’s domination of Indian politics in time for 2019, when the world’s largest democracy will hold its next elections.
By challenging Modi, Mevani has become the target of online trolls and received death threats. But he’s not bothered. He may be an MLA, but he says he’ll always be an “agitator” first. “I don’t have a personal issue with [Modi], but to be honest, he has now become a grand failure,” Mevani says. “Modi has conned the entire country.”
Mevani has been engaged with activism since his days as a student. He later worked as a reporter on Dalit issues in Mumbai before returning home in 2008 to advocate for sanitation workers and landless Dalit farmers and earn a law degree. A Dalit-rights activist who operated under the radar until recently, his ascent into mainstream Indian politics has been rapid. In August 2016, after a Dalit family was publicly beaten by upper-caste men in Gujarat, Mevani organized an anti-government protest. The 10-day Aazadi Koon (March for Freedom) drew nearly 20,000 Dalits, joined by members of the Muslim community, to the state capital. As they marched, with Mevani at the helm, they pledged to seek “freedom from atrocities and caste-based discrimination.” In an empassioned speech, Mevani laid the groundwork for Dalits to find a new self-consciousness — and for his entry into politics.
Mevani doesn’t mince words. His training as a journalist and lawyer translates to scathing attacks directed at Modi and his party for failing to protect the rights of India’s minority groups. His social media posts and zealous approach to politics have won him legions of young supporters. And his appeal embraces both Dalits and Muslims — a rare feat for an Indian politician. Drawing on their support, Mevani hopes to galvanize both groups — who constitute a sizable chunk of India’s population but have historically had meager representation in the government — to take on Modi’s BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
It’s a massive task, and Dr. Bizay Sonkar Shastri, national spokesperson for the BJP, believes Mevani is nowhere near toppling Modi. “He is that kind of Dalit leader who only opposes Hindus and Brahmans,” says Shastri. To be a real leader, he needs to diversify his politics and not rely on “an island of Dalits.”
Modi sailed to power in 2014 with an overwhelming majority, and since then his party has steamrolled the opposition. “To mount a real challenge to Modi, we may have to sit with those we don’t really share our ideologies with,” Mevani says. “And even if we are unable to stop him from being reelected, we will continue agitating on the streets.” In addition to the government’s harsh treatment of minorities, Mevani faults the prime minister for failing to deliver on key election promises, such as job creation. “He had promised to create 20 million jobs for the youth in the country when he was elected. He hasn’t managed to create even 1 percent of that,” he claims.
During Mevani’s campaign in Gujarat, both Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party — two of the largest opposition parties — withdrew their candidate in Vadgam to consolidate support around Mevani. It’s a strategy that could prove a double-edged sword. If Mevani is seen as part of the same discredited political opposition, it will hurt his image as a harbinger of change. But alone, he lacks the institutional resources to take on Modi and the BJP, the world’s largest political party.
Dr. Hari Desai, political analyst and former head of the Sardar Patel Research Institute, says Mevani will not emerge as a national leader until he attains a level of political maturity. “Modi has RSS at his disposal, which even the Congress can’t match. Unless [Mevani] matures and develops his own cadre and followers, he doesn’t stand a chance against Modi.”
At the Meerut rally, Mevani tears into the prime minister and his party’s chief minister in the state, Yogi Adityanath, who has faced allegations of instigating riots against Muslims. Then Mevani invokes Bhim Rao Ambedkar, India’s foremost Dalit icon who led the team that drafted the country’s constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all, and how those rights are under threat. “Jab Dalit Ek Hoga to Desh Badal Dega [When Dalits come together, they will change the country],” he declares to thunderous applause.
Faced with the BJP’s massive political machine, Mevani knows the odds are against him. But two years ago, no political pundit would have bet on his getting this far. Modi and the BJP know they can’t rest easy. Mevani isn’t done yet.