Jignesh Mevani, the face of new- found Dalit assertiveness in Gujarat, made his debut on the national political stage on Tuesday with a rally here where he called the Narendra Modi government a "threat" to democracy and the Constitution.
Thumbing his nose at the Delhi police, which did not give official permission to the Yuva Hunkar (roar of the youth) rally held to demand the release of UP Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad, Mevani used the platform to attack Modi over the "Gujarat model" of politics.
"The 125 crore people of this country are watching that someone is not being allowed to speak for merely demanding the release of Chandrashekhar Azad and effective implementation of the Constitution and two crore jobs for the youth," he said.
"If an elected representative does not have the right to do so, then this is the Gujarat model," Mevani said to loud cheers from a crowd comprising student activists from Delhi, Lucknow and Allahabad, among other places.
The 35-year-old MLA from Vadgam shot to prominence after he launched a campaign across Gujarat against the BJP following an incident in Una where Dalits were flogged by vigilantes for skinning a dead cow. With Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, he formed a troika that substantially helped revive the Congress's fortunes in Modi's home state.
The rally -- held on Parliament Street in the heart of the national capital where prohibitory orders are in force through the year -- was primarily called to demand the release of Azad, the founder of Dalit outfit Bhim Army.
Azad, 30, was arrested under the tough National Security Act over Thakur-Dalit clashes in Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur district last year.
Though the crowd at the rally was thin with most chairs empty, former and current JNU student leaders, including Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla
Rashid and Umar Khalid, were on the stage, metres away from the Parliament Street Police Station.
Assam peasant leader and anti-graft activist Akhil Gogoi and senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan were also present, apart from students from JNU, Delhi University, Lucknow University and Allahabad University, among others.
An organiser claimed the police and media had "created confusion" about the rally, which accounted for the modest turnout. A senior Delhi Police official said no "formal permission was given for the rally, but it was allowed to be held to maintain peace.
"No formal permission was given for the rally but it was allowed in view of peace and law and order. We wanted to ensure law and order so it took place amid heavy police deployment," he said.
Mevani told the gathering he would stand against the politics of hatred and embrace constitutional values and the "politics of love", along the lines of what Congress president Rahul Gandhi had said after the Gujarat polls.
"I believe in politics of unity. I believe in politics of love, not love jihad. Alpesh Thakor, Hardik Patel and I are being targeted because we demolished their (BJP) pride and arrogance in Gujarat... There's a looming threat to our democracy and Constitution today," he said.
Mevani attacked Modi and focused on issues such as the arrest of Azad and the death of Dalit student Rohith Vemula.
"The prime minister has to reply to all these issues including Koregaon, incarceration of Chandrashekhar Azad, the murder of Rohith Vemula," he said, referring to the Hyderabad student who committed suicide in 2016.
"I want to ask him: what do you choose - Manusmriti or the Constitution," he said.
Organisers of the event said they would submit a copy of the Manusmriti and the Constitution to the prime minister, asking him to chose between the two.
Former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, who also addressed the gathering, was welcomed by supporters with his trademark Azadi slogans seeking freedom from all forms of socio-economic and political ills.
Kumar alleged that the BJP-RSS was known for "violence" and spreading "hatred" and appealed to the young "not to fall into their trap".
"No matter how much difficulty you undergo in life or anger you have, do not get into their trap," he said.
The BJP reacted sharply to the rally, with Union minister and party leader Ravi Shankar Prasad saying that it was the Congress which had "spread hatred" in the country.
"The nation is watching who is working to break it. It is the Congress which has spread hatred in the country for the longest period," he told reporters, using the Congress's association with Mevani to launch an attack on Rahul Gandhi.
He said Mevani, supported by the Congress in the Gujarat Assembly polls, had joined hands with Umar Khalid, accused of raising anti-India slogans in JNU, and added that Gandhi had strengthened Mevani and his allies.
Speakers from various states narrated tales of atrocities and vowed to fight what they called BJP-RSS "fascism". The gathering also raised slogans against some TV channels and booed a reporter, leading to police intervention.
At one point of time, the sound system failed, prompting Mevani to liken it to Modi's niyat (intention).
"This is like Modi's niyat," he said, to the crowds' loud cheers.