Book: Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits
Author: Badri Narayan
In the political scene in Uttar Pradesh and the country, BSP leader Mayawati has always attracted considerable attention. However, most observers of UP politics have forgotten Kanshiram, the visionary founder of the BSP, who introduced transformative changes in Dalit politics and Indian democracy. Hence, this political biography of Kanshiram by Badri Narayan is both timely and noteworthy.
A comprehensive and well-written book, it covers Kanshiram’s early formative years and his long and illustrious career during which he constructed his political ideology and a strong Dalit-based party. Not much is known about the early life of Kanshiram as he left behind no memoirs or personal letters. Yet Narayan argues that the life and career of this “Great Dalit Messiah” epitomise the new social forces that emerged due to democratisation and affirmative action in post-independence India.
Born on March 15, 1934, Kanshi Ram was a Chamar Ramdasia from Khawaspur village in Ropar district (now Rupnagar), Punjab. Brought up in Punjab, a state comparatively free from the stigma of untouchability, it was an incident of caste discrimination while working at the Explosive Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) in Pune and a subsequent reading of Ambedkar’s writings, particularly The Annihilation of Caste, which instilled pride in his identity and a desire to mobilise Dalits.
His meetings with Dalit leaders in Maharashtra shaped his future thought and action. Kanshiram briefly toyed with the idea of joining the Republican Party of India (RPI), and, later, the Dalit Panthers. But he found the former divided into many factions, and the latter engulfed in endless debates on the relevance of Marxism and Buddhism to the Dalit cause, which blurred the clear political focus needed for organising a movement.
The book ably illustrates Kanshiram’s abilities as an organisation builder and master strategist. From his Maharashtrian experience, he first established the BAMCEF (The All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation), a unique organisation of educated, employed Dalits, designed as “a think-tank, talent-bank and financial-bank of the oppressed”, which played a significant role in uniting Dalits.
It was while building the BAMCEF that he met Mayawati. His recognition of her leadership qualities and conscious grooming of a second-in-command is an important legacy, which has kept the Dalit movement alive in UP and the country. The movement’s appeal broadened with the formation of the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS-4) in 1982, a quasi-party that mobilized through jagrans and cycle rallies. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), conceived of as a “mission”, was formed in 1984. By then, Kanshiram had decided that only by capturing state power — for him the “master key” — could a Dalit movement affect fundamental change in society.
During its initial years, the party’s trenchant critique of the Indian state, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party as manuvadi, and its reinterpretation of the nationalist movement and the project of nation-building as not inclusive of disadvantaged sections, appealed to a politically conscious, younger generation of educated Dalits. Consequently, under Kanshiram’s leadership, the BSP was able by 1990 to replace the Congress as the party of the Dalits in UP, and capture power together with the Samajwadi Party in 1993 and the BJP in 1995.
More critically, Narayan writes that the message of Kanshiram has been diluted by Mayawati’s adoption of the Sarvajan strategy, which being inclusive of the upper castes, has weakened the Dalit movement. The idea of Sarvajan was based on Kanshiram’s notion of Bhagidari, or representation to social groups supporting the BSP from within the Bahujan fold, according to their strength.
But, Narayan says, it goes against the original goal of the BSP-led movement of removing social hierarchies and discrimination. The biography raises the questions: who has inherited the legacy of Ambedkar? Is Kanshiram the foremost post-Ambedkarite Dalit leader? Narayan draws attention to significant features of Kanshiram’s thinking as constituting an “agenda beyond Ambedkar”.
Kanshiram’s use of the term chamcha (stooge) for Dalit leaders such as Jagjivan Ram or Ram Vilas Paswan in his book The Chamcha Age (1982) was a powerful idea that appealed to Dalits. Here, he built on Ambedkar’s book What Gandhi and the Congress Have Done to the Untouchables to provide an ethical context to the politics of Dalit liberation.
He translated Bahujan, a Buddhist concept reformulated by Phule to denote original settlers and disadvantaged groups, into a successful, electoral concept. He invoked local, mythological Dalit heroes/heroines such as Bijli Maharaj or Jhalkaribai with whom the poorer sub-castes were able to identify and built Ambedkar statues and memorials that helped Dalits deal with an oppressive past.
Critics, particularly Maharashtrian Dalit leaders, have pointed to compromises that Kanshiram believed would further the BSP’s cause, such as joining hands with the BJP in the 1990s to capture state power, and a reluctance to embrace Buddhism. More realistically, Kanshiram’s thought and actions can be described as a successful adaptation of Ambedkarism to the political situation in the north Indian countryside.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University