Several weeks ago, on a drizzly monsoon morning, the bustle of a busy intersection in Mehsana, Gujarat was replaced with the quiet tension of a police lockdown. Guarding each entrance to the intersection, police officers stood warily, lathis in hand. As protesters gathered in other parts of Mehsana, they were warned not to venture to the intersection alone, since the police would find it easy to arrest those arriving in small groups.
Mehsana, a small city in western India, was meant to be the starting point of a seven-day “Azadi Kooch” or “Freedom March.” The march’s main demand was redistribution of land to Dalits, those historically at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, formerly known as “untouchables.” A rally with several nationally known political figures had been planned in Mehsana on July 12 to kick off the multiday march. Organizers had received state permission for carrying out the rally and march, but this permission had been revoked at the last minute, with government officials vaguely referring to concerns about the “law and order” situation.
Confusion reigned on the morning of the Mehsana event, as arriving protesters were unsure whether the rally would take place. Eventually, a small group formed in a Dalit neighborhood near the city center. Making its way through the narrow alleys of the neighborhood, the group shouted slogans, sang songs, and exhorted the residents to join them for the protest. As the group weaved through the lanes, its size began to swell as other protesters found the marchers and joined in. The protesters poured into a main road and made their way toward the intersection where the rally was supposed to occur. The police had, for the moment, decided to avoid a confrontation. The rally was on.
Since permission for the event had been withdrawn, proper arrangements for a stage and a sound system could not be made. The rally’s leaders improvised, standing on a road divider and addressing the growing crowd through a small megaphone. The organizers urged the crowd to sit down in front of the makeshift stage, and speeches and sloganeering began. There was a sense of restlessness in the crowd, though, which only resolved with the arrival of the rally’s star speakers, including the main organizer of the event, Jignesh Mevani. The crowd got to its feet and cheered. Mevani, the convener of the recently formed Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (National Dalit Rights Platform), has been the driving force behind the Azadi Kooch. When permission for the march had been revoked, he made it clear that the event would continue regardless. His presence on the stage confirmed his defiance of the ban.
The Una Floggings and the Gujarat Model
Mevani had planned the Azadi Kooch to mark the one-year anniversary of a horrific case of anti-Dalit violence. On July 11, 2016, near the town of Una in Gujarat, four Dalits were publicly flogged by upper-caste men. Their supposed crime was skinning cattle. The cruel irony is that Dalits have historically been forced to perform the supposedly “impure” task of handling cattle carcasses, and now they were being brutally beaten for carrying out this degrading work. The attackers identified themselves as vigilante “protectors” of the holy cow, a thriving part of an extremist movement that feels empowered by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In response to this incident, spontaneous protests broke out all over Gujarat, with huge gatherings of Dalits throughout the state.
The protests culminated in a march, organized by Mevani and others, from Gujarat’s capital of Ahmedabad to Una. At an enormous rally in Una, roughly 20,000 Dalits pledged that they would no longer carry out their hereditary work of handling cattle carcasses. Instead, there was a demand for the distribution of agricultural plots to landless Dalits. In addition to traditional forms of protest like rallies and marches, Dalits also experimented with more unusual, confrontational approaches, including dumping cow carcasses outside government offices. One of the rallying cries of the movement can be roughly translated as: “Keep your holy cow, and give us our land now!”
This militancy was all the more remarkable because it took place in Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Gujarat has long been a stronghold of Modi’s party, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), and in recent decades progressive movements have struggled to gain ground there. Modi served as Gujarat’s Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, and the state is widely seen as a laboratory for the Hindutva neoliberalism that Modi is now purveying on a national scale. Modi and his boosters have boasted of the BJP’s “Gujarat Model,” largely in reference to the state’s economic performance. However, the “Gujarat Model” is more hype than reality. Despite a high economic growth rate, Gujarat has lagged behind in human development indices, with especially high malnutrition and infant mortality rates. Further, the rapid rate of economic growth has largely been possible by granting enormous subsidies to big companies while increasing the informalization of labor and keeping wages stagnant. The Gujarat model has, in effect, enriched big corporate houses like the Adanis – whose links with Modi continue to raise eyebrows – while leaving workers to struggle with increasingly precarious lives.
Besides its overrated economic performance, the Gujarat model has another dark side: its targeted violence against Muslims. Modi was Chief Minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots, which many have characterized as a pre-planned anti-Muslim pogrom, with significant state support. A senior police officer suggested that Modi deliberately allowed the violence to spread, and he was denied a US visa for many years because of his association with the riots. Modi has since been cleared by the courts of any wrongdoing, but the impartiality of the investigation against him has been questioned. In the years since 2002, Modi has remade his image from “Butcher of Gujarat” to champion of development. Yet he has never renounced his staunchly Hindu nationalistic views, and violent Hindu groups have felt emboldened under his rule.
The Una movement is a telling reminder of the limits of Modi’s politics. After Modi became Prime Minister, there was an uptick of vigilante violence against Muslims, often on the pretext that the victims were carrying beef or slaughtering cows. Modi and other BJP leaders largely remained silent, implicitly condoning such attacks. But when cow vigilantes went after Dalits, Modi was quick to condemn the violence. The reason is simple: the success of the Hindu nationalist project depends on the consolidation of a united Hindu identity. But Hindu society has historically been riven by caste divisions, and the nationalist project seeks to cover up this truth while imposing a Brahmanical, upper-caste-dominated Hinduism on the country.
As the iconic Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar noted in 1936, “Hindu Society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes … A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot.” In fact, Dalits are often recruited as foot soldiers during pogroms against Muslims. But both groups have seen the hollowness of the Gujarat model, and have recognized their shared interests. For this year’s Azadi Kooch, Jignesh Mevani and other organizers worked hard to build Muslim support and participation in the event, creating a united front against the Hindu Right’s violent, divisive “cow protection” politics.
Jignesh Mevani and the Movement for Land Reform
The Una movement thrust Mevani into the national spotlight, but before that he had nearly a decade of organizing experience. A lawyer by profession, Mevani began his activism as a volunteer for the Jansangharsh Manch (Platform for People’s Struggle), a civil rights organization with a strong left-wing lineage.
In the years leading up to the Una protests, Mevani increasingly focused his attention on land reform issues. Various land reform measures had been enacted in Gujarat over the years, ostensibly breaking up large landholdings and giving plots to landless Dalit families. However, more often than not, these land transfers remained purely on paper. Both in the courtroom and on the streets, Mevani has fought to put this land in the hands of its rightful owners.
After the Una protest last year, Mevani returned to the land reform fight with renewed energy, both in Gujarat and on a national scale. In November 2016, for instance, after blocking roads and staging protests in Gujarat, Mevani and other organizers convinced government officials to begin measuring out roughly 700 acres of land to hand over to Dalits. As Mevani describes it, these are “baby steps” in building a larger movement. Mevani also traveled to the northern state of Bihar and the southern state of Kerala to step up land reform efforts in those regions.
Mevani’s focus on land reforms is an outcome of his diverse political inspirations. While he acknowledges his debts to the pioneering scholarship and activism of Dr. Ambedkar, he is equally comfortable quoting Marx and speaking of the necessity of economic struggle. He has also worked on the ground with the Gandhian activist Chunibhai Vaid, who stressed the importance of decentralization and the creation of sustainable rural economies. For Mevani, the demand for land is economic, but it is also about Dalit pride and self-respect. In order to escape from the humiliating, caste-ordained work they are forced to do, Dalits need an alternative, and land provides this. Further, by focusing on the transfer of agricultural lands, Mevani is recognizing the importance of transforming a rural structure that is deeply fragmented along caste and class lines.
This mix of ideological inspirations makes Mevani a flexible, creative leader, but it also puts him on a delicate tightrope. Ambedkar, Marx, and Gandhi have been posed as antithetical figures, not least by their followers in India. By combining elements of all three philosophies, he risks alienating supporters of each. The divide between Ambedkarite, Marxist, and Gandhian movements goes to their very beginnings in India. Ambedkar was deeply critical of Indian Communists, whom he once referred to as “a bunch of Brahmin boys.” Even today, the leadership of most Indian Communist parties is dominated by upper-caste men. The Communists, in turn, dismissed Ambedkar as a mere reformist who only represented one small section of society — and not, in their view, the section that counted: the proletariat. Ambedkar’s tensions with Gandhi are also well-documented. Gandhi’s patronizing claim to speak for all Dalits infuriated Ambedkar, as did Gandhi’s refusal to condemn the caste system as a whole and his idealization of village life.
Despite these historical tensions, and their contemporary analogues, there are precedents for creative synthesis of these different movements. Ambedkar himself, though wary of Indian Communism, took inspiration from Fabian socialism (he adopted its motto, “Educate, agitate, organize”) and analyzed caste as an institution of both social and economic control. In a 1938 speech, he stated unequivocally: “There are in my view two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with. The two enemies are Brahmanism and Capitalism.” After Ambedkar, there was the militant activism of the Dalit Panthers, a group admired by Mevani. Inspired by the Black Panthers, and drawing from both Marx and Ambedkar, the Dalit Panthers combined bold self-assertion with an inclusive vision for economic and social justice. Their manifesto famously defines Dalits as “all those who are being exploited politically, economically, and in the name of religion.” Mevani takes a similarly broad view.
For such beliefs, and for his willingness to partner with Left activists, Mevani has attracted the ire of some mainstream Ambedkarites. Pointing to both historical and contemporary cases, many Ambedkarites assert that Communists are not truly interested in caste issues; they simply want to appropriate the energy of the Dalit movement. Mevani is aware of this, and he is careful in choosing his allies. Last year, he declined an invitation to an event planned by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), in Kerala, pointing to the party’s poor treatment of a talented state-level Dalit leader, as well as its slowness in handing over land earmarked for Dalits in the state.
Emerging Alliances? Dalits and Farmers
If Mevani’s ideological positions have created tensions with both Dalit and Communist groups, it has also opened up opportunities for potential alliances with a range of progressive forces. This was evident during the recent Mehsana rally, when Mevani was joined on the stage by Yogendra Yadav, a nationally known political analyst-turned-politician. Arriving late in Mehsana due to the uncertainty surrounding the event, Yadav joined the tail end of the rally and voiced his strong support for the Dalit movement and Mevani’s land reform efforts. He was attending the event as a representative of the farmers’ movement, which was also in the midst of a multiday march and was passing though Gujarat. The farmers’ march, called the “Kisan Mukti Yatra” or “Farmers’ Freedom March,” had two main demands: debt relief for farmers and higher prices for agricultural products. It drew support from over 100 organizations, including Yadav’s “Swaraj Abhiyan,” and covered six states before ending in Delhi.
The farmers’ protests — and its possible alliance with Dalits — should be seen in the context of an increasingly thorough penetration of capitalist agriculture in India, with its market dependence, reliance on finance capital, and prioritization of short-term profit over social, economic, and ecological sustainability. Farmers’ struggles against moneylenders and other manifestations of capitalist agriculture have been a feature of Indian history since colonial times. But the crises — and the corresponding protests — in the agricultural sector have multiplied since the neoliberal reforms of 1991. Since then, both Congress and BJP governments have promoted a model of capitalist development that explicitly prioritizes urban and industrial sectors over agriculture. The human costs of this model are staggering; over the past thirty years, by government estimates (which are extremely conservative), roughly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide, largely due to indebtedness.
In short, India is in the midst of an unprecedented agricultural crisis, which has led to widespread protests across the country, including the recently concluded Kisan Mukti Yatra. The march began in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where police had recently opened fire on protesting farmers, killing six — an indication of the state’s violent response to rural unrest. While the immediate demands of the Yatra are relatively narrow, groups like Swaraj Abhiyan have embedded these demands in a larger vision of agricultural transformation, one which prioritizes both ecological considerations and social justice. Yogendra Yadav’s support of Mevani and his land reform movement is in keeping with this larger vision, as it has the potential to build an alternative agricultural system that is both socially and environmentally sound.
Yadav has had a long and varied career, but he places his political activities within the context of Lohiaite socialism. Inspired by freedom fighter Ram Manohar Lohia, this school of socialism has distanced itself from the Communist movement in India, basing itself instead on a radical reading of Gandhi’s politics. Lohiaite socialism takes Gandhi’s distaste for industrial development and elaborates it in explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-caste terms. For Lohia, the debate between state-led capitalist development and private sector-led capitalist development was simply an internal fight within the upper castes: specifically, between Brahmins (priestly castes, who dominate the government machinery) and Baniyas (merchant castes). Lohia argued for rejecting this false choice, instead advocating building a decentralized system in which the producers themselves — workers and farmers — are in control. Popular in rural areas, Lohiaite socialism has been a long-time ally of farmers’ movements, and Lohiaites like Yadav insist that Dalits should be key players in such movements.
The coming together of Dalit and farmers’ movements is not without its tensions. Historically, farmers’ movements have been led by intermediate, locally powerful castes, which often clash with Dalits on the ground. Further, many Dalits in rural India are landless laborers, and their interests do not always align with those of landed farmers. However, despite these factors, there have also been persistent efforts to bring together Dalit and farmer struggles, as Yadav reminded the audience in Mehsana. Such efforts have potential both because a significant percentage of Dalits in rural areas are small landholders and because higher prices for agricultural goods benefits the entire agricultural sector, including landless laborers.
Yadav and Mevani both recognize that land reform for Dalits is only the first step in a much longer struggle for social and economic transformation. It is essential that Dalits become full and equal stakeholders in the rural economy, but even then, they will still confront the dire crises facing the entire agricultural sector and the country in general. This has led Yadav and Mevani to critique the fundamental premises of the Gujarat model, and of the Brahmanical capitalism it represents.
Emerging Alliances? Dalits, Students and Communists
At the Mehsana rally, the most biting critique of Modi and his Gujarat model came not from Yadav, but from Kanhaiya Kumar, a leader from the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). It is odd that a speaker as dynamic as Kumar has come from a party as moribund as CPI, which represents the last remains of India’s original, Second International-era Communist Party. The CPI has suffered from a series of splits and is now a minor, reformist party focused on electoral politics. But Kumar’s fame comes less from his association with the CPI than from his role in the students’ movements that swept across India last year.
Kumar, previously the president of the student union at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), shot to fame when he was arrested on trumped-up sedition charges following a contentious campus event. If they had known the attention that Kumar would receive after his arrest, government officials may have been more wary about targeting him. A remarkably gifted speaker, Kumar uses accessible, pithy language to demolish Modi’s “Gujarat model” and present a vision of India animated by economic and social freedom.
Kumar and Mevani have established a strong rapport, appearing on stage together at several major protests and events. They are both young charismatic leaders with considerable mass appeal who emerged on the national stage at the same time and found much common ground between them. However, this partnership gives ammunition to Mevani’s Ambedkarite critics, who have noted that Kumar’s arrest and the resulting “Save JNU” student movement drew attention away from a simultaneous movement demanding rights for Dalit students.
Nonetheless, during the Azadi Kooch, Kumar was clearly just a supporting player, stepping back while Mevani and his team led the way. Further, Mevani’s bonhomie with Kumar should not be seen as an endorsement of the CPI. On the ground during the Azadi Kooch, Mevani drew support not from sclerotic parliamentary parties like CPI and CPI(M), but from various groups in the more radical CPI(Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(ML) tradition. The CPI(ML) has its roots in a 1967 rural uprising in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal. In the face of severe government repression and internal discord, the CPI(ML) has since splintered into dozens of factions, which now take a wide range of ideological and strategic positions. Given this diversity, it is difficult to make generalizations, but ML groups have generally been ahead of their parliamentary Communist counterparts in recognizing the importance of both peasant and caste struggle. ML support for the Azadi Kooch is further evidence of this trend.
During the Azadi Kooch, the coming together of Dalits, Muslims, farmers, socialists, students, and Communists suggests, however tentatively, that new alignments may be forming, ones capable of challenging the emerging right-wing hegemony. Such alliances are not easy, not just because of their historical baggage, but also because of the persistent inequalities and power dynamics within each movement and between the movements. However, at a larger level, it is clear that the capitalist development championed by the BJP — upper-caste dominated, industry oriented, and corporate-friendly — hurts Dalits, farmers, and workers. Coalition building is a fraught, difficult process, but a necessary one to combat the current right-wing dominance and push for transformative change.
The Struggle Continues
The appearance of Mevani, Yadav, and Kumar on the same stage provides a glimpse of potential coalitions in the making. Kumar was billed as the last speaker at the Mehsana rally, and he gave a rousing speech, showing his widespread appeal as passing onlookers joined the crowd, nodding their heads at Kumar’s arguments and laughing at his jokes. Kumar ended his speech with the sloganeering that has now become his trademark, centered on the demand for azadi (freedom): from capitalism, from Brahmanism, from patriarchy, from all oppressive forces.
At this point, event organizers received word that Yadav would be able to join the rally, along with other leaders of the farmers’ movement. Organizers urged the crowd to stay and wait for these leaders, who soon arrived and gave speeches describing their movement and voicing support for the Azadi Kooch. After everyone had spoken, Yadav asked Kumar to once again raise his “azadi” slogans — which he happily did.
After sharing the stage, Mevani, Kumar, and Yadav went their separate ways, each pledging to support the others’ efforts. Police officers stopped Yadav’s car as he made his way back towards the Kisan Mukti Yatra and questioned him briefly before letting him proceed. Kumar was tailed by the police as he headed back to Ahmedabad and was detained for a longer period of time. In the meantime, the march began. Protesters, led by Mevani, started walking toward the march’s next destination. The police waited until the crowd thinned out and reached the outskirts of Mehsana before detaining Mevani and over a hundred other protesters. Inside the police station, the mood remained defiant and celebratory. An activist theater group performed a short play, and slogans echoed throughout the station.
After detaining the leaders, the police asserted that they would arrest them on non-bailable charges if the march continued. Mevani, in consultation with those attending the march, decided that the event would continue, but via bus rather than on foot, thus abiding by the letter of the law but letting the spirit of the march continue. The day after the Mehsana rally, Mevani and other Azadi Kooch participants rolled into the village of Brahmanvada. In a playful mood, Mevani and his father clicked pictures of themselves in front of Modi’s in-laws’ house, which happens to be located in this village. At a public meeting with villagers from Brahmanvada, Mevani showed his skills as a speaker and organizer, expertly shifting from jokes and banter to impassioned pleas for Dalit rights and for solidarity among oppressed groups. By the end of the visit, many villagers had agreed to join the Azadi Kooch’s culminating event, on July 18.
Similar meetings took place over the course of the seven-day Azadi Kooch in villages and towns across northern Gujarat. With cultural performances, songs, slogans, and speeches, Mevani and his fellow travelers built up grassroots support and continued their efforts to consolidate the energy of the Dalit militancy that emerged during the Una movement. On its seventh day, the march reached Gujarat’s Banaskantha district. Mevani has been working on land reform issues there for many years. The event culminated with a rally of around 2,500 people and a symbolic reclaiming of a plot of land in Lavara village, which had been handed over to a Dalit family on paper but remained in the hands of another family in reality. As Mevani prepared to march to the plot of land, a police officer handed him a sheet of paper urging him not to go through with the action. He defied the order, leading a small group of core activists to plant the blue Ambedkarite flag on the land.