Currently the only Independent MLA in the Gujarat Assembly, ex-journalist, lawyer and prominent Dalit face Jignesh Mevani (42) is among the most vocal critics of the BJP government in the state and the Centre.
It was only six years ago that Mevani first came into the spotlight, during the protests following the 2016 flogging of Dalits in Una. Once associated with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), he had gone on to float his own outfit, Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, to raise issues of “oppressed classes” across the country. In the run-up to the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections, Mevani had emerged as one of the three youth leaders of the state, along with Patidar leader Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor.
All three went on to align with the Congress. Thakor was the first to join, and won as the party MLA in 2017, though he later moved to the BJP. Hardik is one of the Congress working presidents, though now publicly estranged from the state leadership. Mevani remains a Congress loyal, and as an Independent has extended support to the party in the House, where its numbers have dwindled since the 2017 results. Mevani was present at the ceremony when Kanhaiya Kumar was inducted into the Congress in September last year with much pomp, in the presence of Rahul Gandhi.
Early Thursday morning, around 3.30 am, as Mevani was being taken to Assam following his arrest in Gujarat, PCC president Jagdish Thakor rushed to the airport. Condemning the action against Mevani, he said: “Jignesbhai cannot be suppressed by money, or threats, so (they) mentally torture him… File complaints over complaints… This being an election year, there is talk of buying of MLAs, dossiers on MLAs being opened, talk of MLAs joining the BJP. But they (the MLAs) are refusing to be bought over, to be suppressed… So, police come, from Assam, Madhya Pradesh….”
He said the Congress would provide all legal assistance to Mevani and “will fight against this dictatorship in Gujarat”.
Mevani was already in an alliance with the Congress, when he contested from Vadgam reserved seat in Banaskantha in 2017, with the party not putting up a candidate in the seat.
Incidentally, the then sitting Congress legislator from Vadgam, Manibhai Vaghela, is expected to join the BJP soon and take on Mevani from the seat. The Congress is expected to formally field Mevani from there in the elections due at the end of this year.
Thursday’s development comes at a time when the BJP is making an aggressive push for Banaskantha, that is largely OBC dominated with a high Dalit population, and is considered a Congress bastion. Six of its nine Assembly seats were won by the party last time.
On April 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended an event in Deodar in the district where various projects of Banas Dairy headed by former BJP minister Shankar Chaudhary were inaugurated. Earlier, Union Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated the Nada Bet Border Tourism Project in Banaskantha.
One drawback for the BJP is the lack of a prominent face among Dalits in the state, making up around 7% of the population. The community has traditionally been Congress voters.
On Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14, a big rally by Mevani in Ahmedabad had underlined his preeminence as a Dalit leader in the state.
The case under the IT Act registered against him is not the first against Mevani. He faces over 10 criminal cases, registered in Maharashtra and Karnataka, apart from Gujarat.
In one of the cases, he is facing a criminal trial for blocking the Rajdhani Express at Kalupur Railway Station of Ahmedabad in January 2017. In June 2019, Mevani was booked in a criminal case for sharing a video on social media from what he claimed was a school in Valsad, after the principal lodged a complaint; Mevani had apologised in the case. He also faces criminal charges over unlawful assembly in Mehsana town for an ‘Azadi Kooch’ yatra from Mehsana to Dhanera of Banaskantha on July 12, 2017, to mark one year of the Una incident. Mevani is also charged in the Bhima Koregaon case of Maharashtra.
However, this is the first FIR against Mevani since he declared allegiance with the Congress.
Mevani is seen as having a mass appeal among not just Dalits but also minorities, and has proved an effective crowd puller for the Congress not only in Gujarat but also outside.
Hailing from Mehsana district, he lives in the Dalit-dominated locality of Meghaninagar in Ahmedabad. His father Natubhai Mevani is a retired clerk who worked with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
As a journalist, Mevani worked for Abhiyaan, a fortnightly Gujarati magazine, in Mumbai, and was a member of the late lawyer-activist Mukul Sinha’s organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch, that fought for victims of the 2002 riots.
Jignesh studied English literature at H K Arts College and journalism at Bhavan’s College, Ahmedabad.