Jignesh Mewani: The first woman I loved was a Muslim

In a conversation with Utpalkant Anish, Jignesh Mewani emphasizes Dalit-Muslim unity. He says the leadership of Left parties needs to change its orientation, and Dalit organizations should include bread-and-butter issues in their movement. Mewani also dwells on the history, background and future of the Dalit movement

Your slogans are “You can have the tail of the cow, give us our land” and “No Dalit will dispose of the carcass of dead animals”, etc. The same sorts of things were said in Bihar when the Naxal Movement was at its peak about 35-40 years ago. The Naxal Movement emerged in all the states with substantial tribal populations at one time or the other but it could never strike roots in the tribal areas of Gujarat. Similarly, Gujarat never witnessed a Maharashtra-like radical movement of the Dalits. Historically, Gujarat never saw any organized social or political movement except the retrograde ones like those opposing reservations. It also has a long history of communal riots – three of which were major. The people returning from a meeting called to protest the Una incident were attacked. Against this backdrop, do you think your movement has any chance of success?

Jignesh Mewani

The first thing we should be asking ourselves is why we need Naxalism. We don’t need it. We will fight with democratic means. We have an unshakeable faith in democracy. We will vociferously raise issues pertaining to economic exploitation. If we cannot build a classless society, we can at least build a society where the gap between the rich and the poor is narrower and economic exploitation is lesser. As for Gujarat, it is true that the Dalit Panthers were not able to strike roots here. The manifesto of the Dalit Panthers was comprehensive. They talked about land reforms. Besides landlords, they also wanted to fight against feudalism and capitalism, and against economic exploitation. So then, who are our natural allies? All those who want to end the hegemony of class and caste. Thus, all leftist parties and organizations should support us. Had the Dalit movement taken up a wide range of issues, if it had talked about “roti, kapda aur makaan” (bread, clothes and a house), besides identity issues, caste-based oppression and exploitation, a radical movement could have been built. As far as the non-Dalits are concerned, their movements were retrograde and not progressive. I believe that, besides Dalits, the non-Dalit progressives should have introduced progressive thoughts to their religions and castes and built a progressive movement. The Dalits are not responsible for the retrogression of non-Dalits, for the lack of progressive thoughts in them. Gujarat is a state of businessmen – the Bania culture rules the roost here; profit is the most powerful motivation for the people.

Babasaheb Ambedkar had called on the Dalits to convert to other religions to end Hindu religious domination. Do you have any such plans with respect to Gujarat? Or, are you against conversions?

I believe that religion should not be on the agenda of any political programme. Religion should be confined to homes. What Babasaheb did was dictated by his times and had a particular context. He had put the entire Hindu community in the dock. But we should investigate how far Buddhism has spread 50 years since, whether those who had embraced Buddhism have been freed from considerations of caste and sub-caste. If, in this laboratory of Hindutva, someone who is conscious and awakened becomes a Buddhist to hit out at the fascist Hindutva, brahmanical and casteist culture, I will have no issues. But I am against giving an across-the-board “turn Buddhist” call as part of a political movement. The Gujarat government has promulgated an anti-conversion law. While our Constitution says every citizen is free to profess any religion, the Gujarat government has made it mandatory to seek prior permission of the district collector for converting to another religion. If, tomorrow, Buddhist friends raise this issue, I will join them because I believe that anything that is against the basic tenets of the Constitution should not be allowed. Moreover, in a sense, Buddhism is not a religion. If the Dalit community adopts Buddhist principles, I will see it as a cultural reform.

You are demanding gun licences for the Dalits. Maybe the government will give in to your demand. On the other hand, the feudal elements already have unlicensed weapons. Given this situation, how will the Dalits be able to fight them?

I am not saying that we should fight only with weapons. I am also not asking anyone to fight with weapons. I only want to culturally counter the politics of trishul and swords. But Dalits should get weapons for self-protection. If the government gives firearms to, say, even 100 Dalits, it is possible that this will instil some fear in the hearts of their oppressors. This may happen but I do not say that this will happen. But I have no qualms in declaring that I would welcome Dalits physically counterattacking those who want to oppress them. Every morning, we read in newspapers that Dalits were attacked here, assaulted there. At some point in time, Dalits will have to take up arms, they will have to resist, and they will have to resort to counter-violence. But, of course, they should not take on the police; they should not damage public property.

You are talking of Dalit-Muslim unity. Why not Bahujan unity? Why not a joint front that will also include Tribals and OBCs? Secondly, will this unity be only at the social level or also a political one? And whom or what will they be uniting against?

Forging a joint alliance of Dalits and Muslims is a difficult proposition. It is not that we don’t talk of Dalit-Tribal unity or that we don’t say that all oppressed and exploited people should come on a common platform. Dalit-Muslim unity is important because of the fact that the Sangh and the BJP used Dalits as their foot soldiers in many places during the 2002 riots and have saffronized them. This has to be countered. The slogan of Dalit-Muslim unity is important, and it can be both social and political.

A similar attempt was made in the 1980s under the leadership of Haji Mastan and Prof Yogendra Kavde. But it did not last long. Do you think it will be successful this time?

I am an incorrigible optimist. Let us see how things work out.

In Una, you said that if you had two sisters, you would have married one to a Valmiki and the other to a Muslim. Instead of saying this, you could also have said, “I will marry a woman of the Valmiki or Muslim communities”, because you are unmarried.

The video of the Dalit Sammelan in Una held on 15 August is available. You can see it. What I had said was that I would have been happy if I had two sisters and one of them had married a Valmiki and another a Muslim. I never said I would have married them to someone. This would have been patently patriarchal. As for me, I am not planning to marry now. But tomorrow, if I fall in love with a Valmiki or a Muslim woman, we will see. By the way, the first woman I loved was a Muslim girl. I am making this fact public for the first time.

There are around 30 Dalit sub-castes in Gujarat but they neither inter-dine nor inter-marry. The Dalits are not united culturally. Given this fact, won’t it be difficult to mobilize them? 

The Dalit sub-castes do not have ties with one another. This is very dangerous. That is why our slogan is “Dalits of the world unite”. We want to unite Dalits of all sub-castes. There are two or three builders in our organization. I have asked them to develop housing complexes where all Dalit sub-castes can live together. That would aid cultural exchanges between them, divisions among castes would break down and there would be a possibility of marriages between persons of different sub-castes. Unless there is social-cultural exchange, marriages can never take place.

Dr Ambedkar used to demand separate settlements …

I support it. Suppose there are five Dalit families in one village, eight in another, two in the third and they all are on the margins; they face assaults and humiliation day in, day out. It would be better to settle them together at the taluk headquarters or around cities and provide means of livelihood. Around this “separate settlement”, there should be colonies where people of different religions and castes live. Today, we live in settlements outside the villages where social and cultural exchange is next to nothing. Today, Ambedkar Awas Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana, Sardar Awas Yojana are there under which people of all castes and communities who do not have a roof over their heads live together. These complexes should be built around the “separate settlements”. If you live together, you come closer. It creates possibilities.

There is talk of a meeting ground between Marxism and Ambedkarism. Your take?

Ambedkarism and Marxism will come closer, and that is logical and desirable too. Just do a comprehensive analysis of Ambedkar. We have the Ambedkar of Republic Party of India, we have the Ambedkar of Buddhism, but we also have the Ambedkar of State and Minorities who says that the entire agricultural land of the country should be nationalized. This is what the Left also says. He had founded the Independent Labour Party. Its flag was red. It was a party of workers and farmers. It was not a party of Dalits. Just look at Ambedkar in his entirety. There are many in the Dalit Movement who interpret Ambedkar according to their convenience. This is what I say: If Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, if he founded the Scheduled Castes Federation, he also established Republican Party of India and he also wrote State and Minorities. At the time of the historic Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar had said that besides Brahmanism, Capitalism is also an enemy of the Dalits and the working class. Why don’t they want to see Ambedkar as a whole? That would show them the path ahead. The Left may have a committed a thousand mistakes but if some of its leaders are now developing a decent caste perspective, we welcome it. If some of them sincerely associate themselves with the Dalit movement or raise the issue of caste violence, I will stand by them. Why should we think that only one ideology is capable of emancipating us?

Some Dalit activists of Gujarat allege that you are promoting Marxism and not Ambedkarite ideology. Where do your ideological leanings lie?

Ambedkar of the Independent Labour Party is the biggest influence on me. Radical Ambedkar of State and Minorities inspires me. As for Marxism, it has also influenced me. There can be no two opinions about that. I would have raised slogan of Jai Bhim if my objective were the emancipation of Dalits only. I want the entire world’s working class to be freed from exploitation. That is why I also say Lal Salaam.

You are talking of the unity of Dalit and Left ideologies and movements. But, who would lead the coalition? Those associated with Dalit movement say that a Dalit should be its leader, ie they say they won’t be content with only representation, they want leadership.

The Left parties and Dalit movements have committed many a historic blunder and they are continuing in the same vein. One of them is that they never allowed a true Dalit representative to emerge. I often say that the Dalits will have to give up their narrow mindset and the Left will have to shed its ideological narrow-mindedness. If the Dalit movement has problems with the Left, if it does not want to associate itself with Left, then it should develop a decent class perspective. Let them vociferously raise the issues of roti, kapda aur makaan; let them form trade unions; let them work for labour reforms; let them raise issues of land; let them speak out against corporate loot, against globalization and imperialism. Let them develop their own perspective, let them raise their voice and struggle. But not doing that and only abusing the Left won’t work. Similarly, the Left only harping on class also won’t work. The Left will have to raise issues of Dalits and caste – not only raise them but also provide leadership to solve them. They will have to create an atmosphere in their parties where Dalit leadership can arise.

Last question. The talk of Bahujan Movement is also in the air. How do you view it?

One of my comrades Jayesh Solanki has come out with a new term. He says that we are the “Bahujan proletariat”. This word “Bahujan proletariat” combines Ambedkarism and Marxism and it means that the front against both caste and class which Ambedkar wanted to launch, which Bhagat Singh wanted to launch.


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