NEW DELHI — As we approached a wall of yellow barricades and a cluster of police personnel near Parliament street on Tuesday, the cab driver asked me what was going on inside the closed-off space. I replied that it was a "youth rally" being fronted by Jignesh Mevani. The cab driver responded with a blank look.
When I explained that Mevani was a young Dalit leader, recently elected a lawmaker from Gujarat, the Delhi-based driver nodded politely and then seemed to lose interest. "I haven't heard of him," he said, ending the discussion.
While Mevani has been grabbing headlines since he won the seat from Vadgam in December, and most recently for his rousing speech at an event to mark the bicentenary celebrations of the Bhima-Koregaon battle of 1818, the 37-year-old leader is not yet a household name. And while his Twitter following is growing by leaps and bounds, the MLA from Gujarat undoubtedly has more than a few miles to go before we think of him as a national leader in the real world.
And yet, the event on Tuesday, which had a diverse group of young leaders challenging the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government and divisive Hindutva forces, was reduced to a popularity contest by Mevani's critics. The moderate turnout at the rally was in part the result of misinformation spread not just by the BJP sympathizers but also the Delhi police, who kept insisting that the event had been cancelled, stymying its momentum.
While it was fair game to point out the empty seats at the venue, it was absurd to dismiss the rally, which was ultimately a democratic exercise in dissent, as a flop.
Surrounded by thousands of security personnel, who had tear gas and water cannons on standby, youth leaders like Mevani, Akhil Gogoi from Assam and Manoj Manzil from Bihar, in step with student leaders such as Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, forged ahead with the rally even after the police denied them permission. And they were joined by what looked like hundreds of concerned citizens in taking a stand against things like rising religious intolerance, the incarceration of Bhim Army leader Chandrasekhar under the draconian National Security Act (NSA), the high number of farmer suicides, unemployment and growing economic disparities.
Who came and why
This HuffPost India reporter spoke to several people from different backgrounds who attended the rally, and not just with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students who were accompanying the speakers. BJP's online army of supporters routinely accuse JNU students of propagating a leftist and divisive agenda to break up national integrity.
One MBA student, who attended the rally, kicked off the conversation by telling me that he's enjoying a good life and is confident of a bright future. "I come from an upper middle-class family, my family has the monetary means to pay for my education, I am not suffering in any way....," said Aakash, who hails from Bengal.
And yet, while his friends spend their time "doing what all MBA students do," Aakash has found himself increasingly ill at ease with the state of the nation, which in turn has piqued his interest in politics.
"I feel a youth movement in India is necessary and Mevani is the perfect candidate. He is speaking against the manuvad Brahmin society. Look at the administrative posts in the country. These are all filled with people from the upper castes. This is just one example. We need to remove casteism from this country. It has to go," he said.
When I asked Aakash to pick the issue troubling him the most, he said, "India is not a Hindu country. I don't know why everyone has started acting like it is. It makes no sense," he said.
India is not a Hindu country. I don't know why everyone has started acting like it is.
Another 25-year-old in the crowd, Samudra Gogoi, a research scholar in the field of sociology, refused to settle on just one issue, rattling off several such as attacks on minorities, unemployment, weakening of constitutional institutions and the budgetary cuts in higher education and research. "These are the issues that should be raised, not Hindu rashtra and temples," he said.
Looking in the direction of the stage, he said, "They are the real voices of India."
They are the real voices of India.
As we got talking of Mevani, and the criticism he was facing from some quarters for trying to break out as a national leader, Gogoi said, "If the prime minister can represent himself as a Hindu leader, then why can't he (Mevani) project himself as a national leader if he wants to."
For Gogoi, who hails from Assam, dissent is the hallmark of democracy. "I'm a highly political person, are you not? I think we all are, at least, we all should be."
Manoj Bharti Gupta, who was sitting all by himself in the back row, believes there is no time like the present to be "politically conscientious citizens." "If you don't have to be here because of your work or for earning your salary, but you still decide to take the time to be here, then you are a politically conscientious person. Honestly, I don't know why more people are not here. I don't understand why Mayawati is not here, why Virat Kohli is not here, why Amitabh Bachchan is not here..."
I don't understand why Mayawati is not here, why Virat Kohli is not here, why Amitabh Bachchan is not here..."
While the MBA student was our most surprising find at the rally, it was the 35-year-old street photographer who gave us an extraordinary reason for attending.
Gupta told me that he doesn't have an iota of trust in the news media and that is why he frequently attends political rallies to hear the politicians speak for themselves. "I came to hear things for myself. I don't want any information from the media ever again. Whether it is one rally a year or ten, I will take my own information," he said.
I came to hear things for myself. I don't want any information from the media ever again.
Interestingly, Gupta said that he wanted to hear Mevani talk about his plans for his constituency of Vadgam, and how the Dalit leader planned to be an inclusive politician.
"An upper caste politician says they will work for everyone. Even Modi says that he wants to be a leader for the Dalits. But I want to hear what a Dalit leader would say to me, someone from the upper caste. How else can one be a national leader?" he said.
On the other hand, Rajesh Kumar, a freelance journalist who was attending the rally, sees Mevani as a Dalit leader, first and foremost. "He is an MLA but there is no question in my mind that his main work is that of Dalit assertion," said the 56-year-old.
He is an MLA but there is no question in my mind that his main work is that of Dalit assertion.
For Aftab Ahmed, a 55-year-old social worker who was attending the rally, the youth leaders are the only genuine opposition the country has left and its last stand against religious polarization.
"The Congress for many years played communal politics, but mostly danga fasaad. That is why they have been out of power from states like Bihar and UP for so long. The BJP also did danga fasaad, but now they have stopped with the riots. They are now creating a distance between Hindus and Muslims. The BJP's leaders give statements like Muslims are terrorists, they are producing more children to take over Hindu land...," said Ahmed.
"The wounds of danga fasaad can eventually heal but once the distance becomes too much then it is very hard to go back," he said. "These young leader are creating awareness and I think we will see a difference in the next election."
The wounds of danga fasaad can eventually heal but once the distance becomes too much then it is very hard to go back.
And finally, for a Delhi University professor, who was attending the rally on Tuesday, the youth leaders were practicing something called the "politics of humanity."
When I asked her to explain, the English professor, who declined to give her name, said that they represented the flip side of death, whether it be farmer suicides or the killing of Muslims, which was fast becoming routine.
"Dying has become normal in this country but they are talking about living," she said.
Dying has become normal in this country but they are talking about living.
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