The Jignesh Mevani interview: People are on the streets because of the Jamia students

Dalit leader and Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani talks to  about student uprising and the anti-NRC-CAA protests in the country
Jignesg Mevani in Kochi (Pic: A Sanesh)
Jignesg Mevani in Kochi (Pic: A Sanesh)

It was half-past nine when we drove into the compound of the Kerala Government Guest House in Kochi. There was barely anybody on the road as most of the shops and restaurants in the area were shut by then. But the lights inside the guest house were shining brightly. "Mr Mevani has gone out. He will be back soon," said the pleasant-looking receptionist. So, we settled onto an old couch in the lobby, with our eyes fixed on the glass front door, waiting for our interviewee to return. One by one - in the next five minutes - activists, young politicians and event organisers stared trickling in - all waiting to meet Jignesh Mevani.

Over the past few years, the Dalit leader has risen in prominence, emerging as the poster boy of political change in the country. In 2016, he led the Dalit Asmita Yatra - to peacefully protest the treatment of Dalits in Gujarat - where thousands of Dalits pledged to give up traditional jobs. A journalist-turned-politician, this 39-year-old then contested the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections as an independent candidate and won against BJP's Chakravarti Vijaykumar Harkhabhai, with a majority of 19,696 votes. While waiting for Mevani, we spoke to a member of his team who showed us videos from December 31, 2019, when Mevani visited Sir Syed College in Taliparamba, Kannur District. Along with JNU student Dolan Samanta, he raised slogans of 'Azadi' amidst the NRC-CAA protests. Before that, he had also addressed protests in Kozhikode.

Thirty minutes later, we noticed a grey car slow to a halt in front of the guest house lobby door. Dressed in a crisp, long black kurta and a pair of chinos, Mevani stepped out of the car. We were informed that he had a bad throat and that was unwell. However, he managed to masquerade it with a courteous smile. Mevani was also two hours away from catching a flight. With his bags packed and ready to go, Mevani sat down with us for a quick chat. "Don't worry, we'll make sure that you don't miss your flight," we said to him. He smiled in response.

The rise of the common

Just a couple of hours before all this, Mevani was at Kochi's Marine Drive, addressing close to 5 lakh people who had come together to protest against the Government of India's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Even though his entire speech was in English, the protestors easily related to every fact that Mevani had stated. They cheered him on from start to finish for standing against the CAA. "Rulers like Modi and Amit Shah will come and go. In the end, what will survive in India is our Constitution, our unity and our diversity," he stated.

Commenting on the uprisings happening across the country, Mevani said, "Every good thing must come to an end." But he was happy about how it united the country. "The current protests against the CAA, NRC and NPR will soon transform into a people's movement. We never expected to witness a protest this large, merely months after this government came into power," he said and added, "What is happening right now is a culmination of past and present events. We have seen arbitrary policies being taken up unapologetically by this government — be it the amendment of UAPA, the abrogation of Article 370, the detention of political leaders in Kashmir, the internet shutdown in various places across the country, the swearing-in of a government at 5 am in Maharashtra or downgrading of a state. We have seen how intellectuals are arrested and people are targetted on the basis of religious identity, caste, hate campaigns against universities and students, and how student lives are put in danger by the police. CAA was the saturation point," he stated.

He lists the issues that the government must concentrate on, instead of introducing the CAA or implementing a nationwide NRC. "Our country has over 40 million malnourished children. More than 5,000 schools are being shut down in Gujarat. The government must concentrate on these issues," he says, vociferously. Quickly, he makes a snide remark at the country's Prime Minister and asks, "When Modiji cannot show us his degree certificate, how will he expect us to show him our documents?"

Students lead the way

Mevani doesn't forget to laud the students who began the protests in the first place. While addressing the gathering earlier that day, he said, "Had it not been for the girls of Jamia Millia Islamia, we would not have taken to the streets today in such large numbers to protest against what is happening in the country." He also tells us how he is proud of the students across the country who have led protests against the CAA and the NRC.

Mevani previously campaigned for former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar when he contested the Lok Sabha polls from Begusarai, Bihar. He also addressed the participants of the Young India Adhikar March last year in Delhi. "I am happy to see all these young student leaders leading movements across India. In fact, I hope more women rise up to take leadership positions in the future," he said. That being said, Mevani admits that he never raised his voice against issues during his college days. "I was reading poetry and roaming around with my girlfriend," he chuckled and added, "I got into activism only after starting a career in journalism."

The clock was ticking. The 10 minutes that Mevani promised us were almost over. "Our demands are certain and specific. The government must withdraw the CAA and implementation of the NRC. Also, it not withdrawing the CAA doesn't mean that it is unaffected," he signs off. He had to rush away - he had a flight to catch and a cause to fight for.

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