Jignesh Mevani, centre, an elected lawmaker who hails from the Dalit community, leaves after attending a rally in Delhi on January 9, which organizers said was held to demand the release of Chandrashekher Azad, founder of the pro-Dalit Bhim Army. Photo: Reuters/ Adnan Abidi
Jignesh Mevani, centre, an elected lawmaker who hails from the Dalit community, leaves after attending a rally in Delhi on January 9, which organizers said was held to demand the release of Chandrashekher Azad, founder of the pro-Dalit Bhim Army. Photo: Reuters/ Adnan Abidi

They are young, brash, unabashed and ready to take on India’s popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). The media calls them “youth leaders”. This motley crew, which has emerged from disparate causes, hopes to challenge the ruling BJP’s majoritarian and populist politics. The BJP, they also claim, panders to privileged castes at the cost of the traditionally oppressed.

Fresh from his stunning victory as an independent candidate in Modi’s home state Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani is now a member of the Legislative Assembly and the biggest draw among these ‘youth leaders’. Mevani is also a Dalit, a caste group that has endured nearly 2,000 years of oppression, discrimination – previously branded as “untouchables”. Mevani was part of a triumvirate that aligned with the Congress party to take on Modi’s BJP with impressive results.

At a gathering in Delhi, the national capital, these young leaders shared a stage to address a pan-Indian audience. Ostensibly, the gathering – labeled as ‘Yuva Hunkar‘ (“Youth’s Roar”) – was in support of another Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’ Azad. He is currently under arrest in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, on charges of instigating public violence. Azad’s contentious arrest in a state ruled by the BJP, is seen as another attack against Dalit assertion.

There were recurring themes at the rally for these youth leaders. The rights of farmers and shrinking returns from agriculture were major talking points.

Unifying the marginalized

The lack of job growth under the Modi regime is another sore point that these leaders are hoping to exploit as India moves towards a general election in 2019. They are keen to unify traditionally marginalized groups – Dalits, tribals, women, religious minorities among others – to challenge the BJP’s bid to forge a pan-Hindu identity.

“We want gender-just laws — like making sanitary napkins tax-free. Or criminalizing marital rape, which is opposed by the Modi government,” said Shehla Rashid, a former vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU). Rashid was propelled into the limelight when the president of the union was arrested by the BJP government for allegedly participating in an act of sedition. Rashid, a vocal student leader with a background in computer engineering, established herself as a charismatic and articulate youth leader. Former student union president Kanahiya Kumar was released on bail by the High Court, which made him a star for many college-going youths.

“We want increased spending on higher education and education for all children, [plus] we need to do a lot more in the healthcare sector. We also want to talk about issues like net neutrality, the Aadhaar program  [the identity number issued to all residents based on biometric and demographic data] and what the taxation structure should be like. We need to put out this agenda, without mincing words,” Rashid told Asia Times in an interview over the phone a day after the rally in Delhi.

Many causes, one goal

Another ‘youth leader’ is Akhil Gogoi, who hails from the northeastern state of Assam. He has been agitating for rights for farmers. His presence, alongside Mevani, Rashid, Kumar and others is an indication of how they hope to expand their footprint. The recently-concluded Gujarat elections saw the BJP notch up a majority, but with much fewer seats than in previous ballots.

Besides Gogoi, women’s rights activist Richa Singh, and JNU student leaders Umar Khalid were also present at the rally. “We are standing here for the Constitution, not for any particular religion or community. They try and portray [that] we are against Hindus, [but] no we aren’t. Only Nathuram [the Hindu fanatic who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi] will win if it becomes a fight between Allah and Ram,” student leader and former JNUSU president Kumar said.

Mevani mounted the harshest attack on Modi. “Corruption, poverty, unemployment and the real issues are being swept under the carpet, while… cows have been made (a) priority. We stand against this,” he said. “I believe in politics of unity. I believe in politics of love, not love jihad. Alpesh Thakor [a Gujarat Congress leader], Hardik Patel [an influential community leader from Gujarat] and I are being targeted because we demolished BJP’s arrogance in Gujarat. We are being targeted because we reduced their dream of 150-seats to 99 seats in the state,” he said.

Quick to capitalize on the underlying contradictions in the BJP’s politics, Mevani challenged the prime minister to make a choice between the Indian Constitution, which mandates equality for all, and the Manusmriti, an 1,800-year-old text that advocates the division of society on the basis of caste. For Dalits and other marginalized communities, this ancient text is viewed as the key treatise that led to their oppression and the establishment of a patriarchal society.

India’s next general election is about 14 months away but these young leaders insist that this movement is not about to culminate in an electoral battle.

‘People’s rights under attack’

Speaking to Asia Times, Umar Khalid asserted that these new alliances were not electorally motivated. “We were very clear that if someone from the Opposition wants to join us, they can – but they’ll have to keep their flags out, and they have to agree to our agenda,” he said.

“You cannot defeat the BJP without building movements in this country — movements for people’s rights, because it’s people’s rights that are under attack today… I’m a firm believer in intensifying these movements, and I don’t believe in only electoral permutations and combinations being able to defeat the BJP,” he said.

For now, Rashid hopes that youngsters will buy their agenda, and fight in upcoming elections as independent candidates — like Jignesh Mevani — to challenge the Modi regime. “At one level, we are fighting Modi… but we are not just fighting Modi. For whoever forms the next government, our questions, our agenda will remain the same,” she said.

At a time when the BJP seems unstoppable, this emerging alliance is a timely injection of young blood sure to make the 2019 political battle far more interesting and dynamic.

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