Rakesh Maheria, co-convenor of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), resigned from his post to join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Ahmedabad on October 1. Maheria is one of the 43 faces the AAP has fielded so far in Gujarat.
The 35-year-old Dalit activist, who has been working as a social worker for about eight years and joined the Dalit Asmita Yatra with Jignesh Mevani after the Una flogging incident last year, will contest the upcoming Gujarat assembly election from the Vejalpur constituency.
Maheria had been in talks with AAP for a month. “The party needed a youth leader and who can be a face for Dalits, Maheria fits the bill. While we were looking for an apt Dalit leader, he came to us. He put across the issues of Dalits and how he would expect AAP to take them up, and we agreed,” said Rajesh Patel, secretary of AAP’s Gujarat unit.
“We have decided that we will contest only on the seats where we are confident of winning or giving a good fight. We have declared 43 such candidates so far, who are confidant of leaving a mark. When it came to Maheria, Vejalpur was a natural choice as he is a resident of the area and is quite popular because of his social work. It is he who inspired 200 young Dalits to join AAP as workers,” added Patel.
Maheria has been living in Vejalpur for 30 years now and had been working amongst the Dalits in the area before he met Mevani. The Vejalpur constituency seat came into existence after the delimitation of 2008. Earlier, it was part of the Sarkhej constituency represented by Amit Shah. It is a non-reserved seat which saw BJP candidate Kishorsinh Chauhan defeat Congress candidate Murtujakhan Akbarkhan Pathan by over 40,000 votes in the election of 2012.
The constituency comprises about three lakh Muslims (who live in Sarkhej and Juhapura, one of the biggest Muslim ghettos in India), of whom about 1,10,000 are registered voters. Dalits have a considerable vote share in the constituency, with a population close to 40,000.
The polarisation of votes in the area has mostly worked in favour of the BJP in the past. However, for the last year, there has been a wave of change in the area. Multiple protests have been held in the area involving both Muslims and Dalits.
“Muslims and Dalits have both suffered at the hands of the people in power. After the Una incident last year, things started changing in the area. Dalits, who used to be divided into Chamars and Vankars (sub castes), began to come together. Many movements, even though on a small scale, have been carried out in the area. Once, Dalits a public meeting by BJP councillor Arvind Parmar to demand discussion on certain issues that were being consistently ignored. In another incident, the BJP wanted to hold a programme to rename a chowk (crossing) in the area after Babasaheb Ambedkar. But after Dalits in the area insisted, the renaming event had to be brought forward by a month and was done in the presence of locals. This is new in the constituency,” Maheria told The Wire.
The 15-day Dalit Asmita Yatra began from the Babasaheb Ambedkar chowk in Vejalpur on August 5 last year. The unprecedented movement saw Dalits and Muslims come together on the same platform for the first time after the riots of 2002.
“The message that the Asmita Yatra brought with itself has also affected the minds of people in Vejalpur. Many of the Muslim men who joined the yatra are either from Sarkhej or Juhapura,” said Kalim Siddique, a social worker and a member of AAP.
Maheria hopes to become the face of Dalit-Muslim unity in the area, using in his favour both socially and electorally. He will also be a Dalit candidate contesting from a non-reserved seat, which he thinks will be in his favour.
“Amid all the cases and instances of caste discrimination and atrocity, frustration of Dalits for the first time now has been manifested towards the elected leaders of the community. They feel the political representatives who won from reserved seats have failed to represent them. Last month, in three major meetings of Dalits held in Vadnagar, Ahmedabad and Surendranagar, a referendum was held on the issue. More than 9,000 Dalits voted for a separate electorate and only seven voted for the present system of political representation,” Martin Macwan, a Dalit rights activist and head of the NGO Navsarjan, told The Wire.
“A sense of growing mistrust in elected representatives of the ruling party is palpable across the state. The incident where BJP councillor Hasmukh Patel was tied to a tree and beaten by the public a week ago says a lot about that,” he added.
Out of 13 assembly seats reserved for Schedule Castes in Gujarat, the BJP had won ten and the Congress three in the last elections. But Maheria is not fazed by the fact that the political battleground in Gujarat has always been about two parties – the BJP and Congress. The activist says he views this as an opportunity to take issues of Dalits to a larger platform.
A class ten dropout, Maheria earns his living as a street food vendor. “I never thought I would come this far,” he said.
In the course of his work as an activist, he was detained about 30 times last year and has multiple FIRs against him. The food cart where he sells Maggi for a living was also seized twice last year without notice by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Maheria, however, remains undeterred. “I have struggled all my life,” he said. “My father, then a technician at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, abandoned my mother and five children. Our mother worked as a domestic worker to raise us.”
“Growing up, I never had to face discrimination as a Dalit. However, when I married a Brahmin girl in 2004, my father-in-law filed a case of abduction against me,” he continued.
“Meeting Jignesh Mevani has changed the course of my life. I heard him speak at a public programme a few years ago and was impressed. When the Dalit Asmita Yatra was announced, it was a natural decision to walk by his side through the yatra. RDAM was formed shortly after we got back to Ahmedabad,” said Maheria.
Maheria has participated in rail roko and rasta roko agitations demanding land for Dalits, and travelled across the state addressing different concerns. Over the last year, Maheria became an important RDAM leader and a close aide of Mevani.
“I have my own values and understanding of issues, and I will never stop working for them. I will fight for the rights and dignity of Dalits and other down trodden groups,” said Maheria, who is confident of securing more than 50,000 votes.
AAP, a party that will be contesting elections in Gujarat for the first time, has not been very successful in recent elections. As a new party in Gujarat with a novice candidate, it is unlikely to fetch a win from Vejalpur, a crucial seat with complex caste and religious dynamics.
What stands out about Maheria is that he is talking about issues and not vote banks politics, the party is saying. The AAP poster introducing him says “Parivartan matey vote aaapo” – vote for a change.