MUMBAI, Dec 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The victory of a Dalit activist in elections in India's Gujarat state is a boost to efforts to secure land for the lower caste community and free them from the dirty jobs traditionally thrust upon them, campaigners said.
Jignesh Mevani, 36, won by more than 19,000 votes over his rival from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Vadgam in north Gujarat, state officials said Monday.
Mevani contested elections for the first time, standing as an independent candidate just over a year after he came into the spotlight for leading protests after four Dalit youths were stripped and flogged by upper-caste Hindu men in Una, Gujarat.
In rallies and fiery speeches, the former lawyer had called for land for landless Dalits and led them in a pledge to boycott dirty, menial jobs such as cleaning toilets.
"This victory is an important first step in Gujarat, and is a big boost for Dalit rights in the state and the country," said Ramesh Nathan, general secretary of the National Dalit Movement for Justice in New Delhi.
India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups including Dalits are among the most marginalised communities.
Many are still restricted to unwanted jobs such as manual scavenging - a euphemism for clearing faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand - rag picking and the disposal of animal carcasses.
Landless Dalits are at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, vulnerable to discrimination and attacks by upper-caste Hindus, including recent ones by hardline vigilantes who regard cows as sacred.
Mevani, who sports big-framed spectacles and a beard, led protests with the slogan, "you keep the cow's tail; give us our land".
He has filed a petition in the Gujarat high court, saying while each landless Dalit family is entitled to five acres (2 hectares) of land from the state, land earmarked for them had not been handed over.
"My victory will ensure the voice of every marginalised and poor (person) is raised in the Gujarat assembly," Mevani told reporters.
While India recently appointed its second Dalit president in 70 years, Dalits remain under represented in politics.
Mevani's victory will help mobilise the community, said Martin Macwan, founder of the charity Navsarjan in Gujarat.
"But it can't be down to just one man. We have to keep fighting, keep pushing for our rights, including land," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.