Phew! Exhausted students take a bow for Jignesh Mevani’s Gujarat success

What drew them to the Dalit activist? How was campaigning different from campus elections? They answer in their own words.

WrittenBy:Sahla Nechiyil
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Running a political campaign is challenging. Thankfully, Gujarat’s newly victorious leader Jignesh Mevani had alongside him students who sweated out to ensure his victory in the recent Assembly election. A considerable number of Mevani’s campaigners were student activists from various universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and University of Hyderabad (informally known as HCU). Their efforts paid off on Monday, when Mevani won comfortably from Vadgam constituency, a victory that made headlines and history.

Mevani, a Dalit activist supported by the Congress in Assembly election, had established a direct connection with young student leaders in the aftermath of the Una movement. Although many of the youth are affiliated with different student organisations, they made it clear that none of them had gone all the way to Gujarat on the backing of any political party.

Mohit Pandey, former president of JNU students’ union, was with Mevani throughout the campaign. “This is a different battle. When you contest in students’ union elections, you have the luxury of being backed by established parties. Here you have to build a movement,” he said. “Interacting with the youth in the constituency was indeed an enriching experience.”

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Mohit Pandey 

Shivam Mogha, an integrated second-year sociology student from HCU, reached Gujarat on December 6. When asked why he went all the way to the state to campaign for Mevani, Mogha said: “The question of land that he raised was the primary motive. Being a Dalit, I know how important it is and I think it has not been given equal importance in other Ambedkarite movements.” Mogha had also taken part in the Una movement last year. “In history, we study about Dalit Panthers and all, but I think this is the first time a Dalit is demanding land,” he added.

His experience of campaigning for Mevani was new at many levels. “When we went to the villages where the Chaudhary community was politically active, we were advised to come back by 6 pm. Because they are influential and they can do anything to you once it gets dark,” said Mogha. In villages, although the demographic condition was very much in favour of Mevani, there were other hurdles. “Ashwin Parmar, who was in the fray for a ticket and was refused by the Congress, had decided to contest as an independent candidate. He was working from Vadgam constituency for the last four years. A lot of Muslims thought that Parmar was the candidate and needed to be voted for. It was a major task for us to make them understand that the Congress was supporting Mevani,” Mogha added.

Despite being a Dalit leader, Mevani faced opposition from within the community due to the sub-caste system they practice. “People told us they won’t vote for Mevani because they are not Dalits (‘we are scheduled castes, but we are not Dalits’ they said). ‘We will vote for Chakravarty (Vijay Chakravarti was contesting against Mevani on a BJP ticket) because he is from our caste’ people told us. In campuses, it’s easier to talk to people. But people on the ground give their vote only based on caste. This is what I found in Gujarat. Caste-based voting is very dominant in rural areas,” Mogha revealed.

Aditi Chatterjee, convener of the JNU students’ union at the School of Language, was in the state for almost two weeks as a social media campaigner. “I was managing Mevani’s official Facebook page, doing lives, putting up videos and messages on the local media groups there,” she said.

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Aditi Chatterjee 

“Not just us, there were students from Karnataka and Mumbai. We all had the hope that something good is going to happen. Also, that guy (Mevani) has come through a large movement and we all have seen the struggle he went through,” added Chatterjee.

Pradeep Narwal, an MA history student who was an ABVP activist in JNU and left the party after the February 9 sedition row, said he saw Mevani as an alternative to both the BJP and Congress. “I used to go to the field and distribute parchas and all. The anti-Modi and anti-government factor in people was very evident,” he said. Narwal is now associated with the Bhim Army, the Dalit rights organisation started by advocate Chandrashekhar.

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Narwal with Mevani 

Narwal pointed out the major differences and similarities between the JNU elections and Assembly elections in Gujarat. “In JNU, we never lack resources to fight the election because we spend very less money. But the Assembly elections needed money in a lot of ways and Mevani lacked it, yet he organised everything very well,” he said. Talking about what was the same, he said “in JNU we fight elections as activists, not politicians. It was the same with Mevani. He fought as an activist, not as a politician”.

Vishal Kumar, who passed out from JNU in 2012 and is now pursuing PhD studies in HCU, said his experience from two politically vibrant campuses helped him in Mevani’s campaign.

Master’s student Sarfaraz Hamid campaigned for the Dalit leader because he wanted to campaign against the BJP. “People like Mevani have to go to the Assembly. In my life, I haven’t seen anyone going to the Assembly who is an activist and outside an established political party. In that sense, this is a new phenomenon and I hope (more) people who are Dalit activists and rights activists make it to the Assembly,” he said.

According to Hamid, he encountered two sets of people in Gujarat – one section was looking for someone outside the BJP and Congress, and the other comprised traditional Congress workers. “It was our job to make them understand that the Congress is supporting Mevani. Fortunately, Rahul Gandhi’s rally made it easier,” he explained. “We told the people who wanted an alternative that whether he wins or not, Mevani will be with you. They seemed more or less convinced. We also told them that we are students coming from different universities and we neither have an agenda nor affiliation to any political outfit,” Hamid added.

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Sarfaraz Hamid during campaign 

Like the others, he too spoke about how his experience of state politics was different. “In students’ union election, we just have to talk about ideas and ideology. As the students’ union doesn’t hold any power to decide things, we don’t need to convince students that we will do this and that. But in Vadgam, if Mevani wins, he will be an MLA and he will get power. Then there will be so much that he can do. Hence, we felt more responsible while talking to people and asking them to vote for Mevani,” he pointed out.

Bano Jyotsna passed out from JNU this year and has been in touch with Mevani since the Una protests. “I campaigned for Mevani because he has been an active voice not just against the BJP but also because he articulated a very important question (of land) beautifully and that is when we got in touch,” said Jyotsna. “Since Mevani’s election symbol (sewing machine) was not a traditional symbol, it was important to make sure the symbol reached the entire population. For that we had to make small teams and go to villages,” she added.

She emphasised that Mevani’s contest in the election was not just an electoral game, but more of a political battle against the BJP at the state and Centre and against fascist ideology. “I felt it is an alternative which is emerging and not a mainstream notion of politics – therefore Mevani’s politics needs to be established. He doesn’t have a party, he doesn’t have backing. So the groundwork required sympathisers and supporters to stand by him. That is why I went and worked for him,” Jyotsna said.

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Bano Jyotsna

For her, it was an ideologically driven battle. “Jignesh was not making false promises like ‘yeh kar doonga, woh kar doonga’. He clearly articulated why this election was important, why politics is important and moreover why it is important to defeat the BJP’s fascist forces,” added Jyotsna.

Another JNU alumnus, Shahid Nakkas, met Mevani personally three months ago. “When the Una incident happened, I had gone to the state to show solidarity. After that, I was following the developments in Gujarat. When Mevani decided to contest the election, we reached out to each other and decided to campaign,” Nakkas said.


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