Kanshi Ram: Leader of the Masses

Book: Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits
Author: Badri Narayan
Publisher: Penguin India, New Delhi
Year: 2014
Pages: xxi + 265
Price: Rs 499

Abhay Kumar

Not many political leaders of the twentieth century have so much changed the landscape of Indian politics as Kanshi Ram did. Born in a Ramdasia Chamar family in a village of Punjab, in 1934 he struggled through his life with the aim of politically empowering the most deprived sections of society. Among his many achievements was that he succeeded in installing a Dalit woman as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Much of his eventful life has been portrayed in a political biography authored by the noted social historian and cultural anthropologist Badri Narayan.

It comprises eight chapters, portraying his childhood, political journey, beginning from Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh, as well as his political ideas. Moreover, the book also gives a brief account of the criticisms of Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The author says that all Dalits whom he interacted with acknowledged Kanshi Ram had inculcated a strong sense of confidence and self respect in them. Narayan says Ram was a master strategist, who brought Dalits, Adivasis, Backwards, and religious minorities under the social category of Bahujan, making them realise the value of their vote, floating the BSP in1984 that represented freedom and respect and brought about social transformation.

The first chapter discusses his childhood. Born on March 15, 1934 in a relatively-well off family, he had his early education at Government Primary School Milakpur, Punjab. Like most of Dalit students he also faced discrimination at the hands of teachers. At the school a different pot for Dalits was kept to drink water from. Yet another incident of caste discrimination that had a deep impact on his life was when a senior officer mistreated and humiliated his father.

Overcoming barriers of caste, he continued to do well in his studies and kept his interests in sports as well. In 1956, he became a graduate in science from Government College, Ropar.

The second chapter discusses his foray into politics as a member of RPI (Republican Party of India), founded by Ambedkar at the last stage of his life, and then with  BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation). He finally launched the BSP. The author has divided the political life of Kanshi Ram into four periods. The first phase from 1958 to 1964 was when he found a job in Pune and  got associated with the RPI. Moreover, he worked with the People’s Education Society, established by Ambedkar, with a mission to work for Dalits.

The second phase (1964-1978) began when he quit the job in 1964 and joined the RPI, which he later criticised for being faction-ridden and overshadowing its “original objective”. He criticized the RPI for entering into opportunistic alliances with the Congress in Maharashtra. In 1971, he formed the SMCEA (SC/ST/OBC Minorities Communities Employees Association) in Pune, which was later renamed as BAMCEF. The third phase (1978-1984) began with the formation of the BAMCEF, which was established as a formal organisation on December 6, 1978.

The third chapter is based on Kanshi Ram’s book The Chamcha Age: An Era of Stooges (1982), which he published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Poona Pact of 1932, when Gandhi blackmailed Ambedkar to sign a pact that he would give up on the demand for a separate electorate for the depressed classes awarded by the British Government. The author has fallen short of critically engaging with the text of Chamcha Age. On many occasions the author inserts long quotations, disturbing the coherence and flow of the text. Kanshi Ram wrote Chamcha Age to awaken the masses about the genuine and counterfeit leaders who were born into the oppressed community but had been serving the interests of the oppressors.

The fourth chapter talks about how Kanshi Ram used subaltern culture, history and myths as political resources to build a self-respect movement among Dalits and Backwards. For example, the BSP in order to mobilise Bahujans, constructed and popularised the subaltern icons such as Buddha, Kabir, Ravidas, Daria Sahib etc. While the author has done a fairly good job of analysing the cultural politics of Kanshi Ram, he mentions in passing a problematic paragraph about Guru Ravidas whom he interprets as a bulwark against “frantic” Muslim rulers who wanted to convert lower castes to Islam. According to Badri Narayan, “In addition, the Mughal rulers were frantically converting the lower castes to Islam through various allurements and temptations in order to expand their numbers and consolidate their position in India. Sant Ravidas, through his preaching, tried to reform Hindu society so that the lower castes were not tempted to convert to Islam and the Varna system was maintained (p. 121).

  The myths and propagandas of the Hindu Right that the medieval period saw the forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam has been refuted by many secular historians. They have largely agreed that the egalitarian ideology of Islam provided a relief to lower castes, who were suppressed by the Brahminical social order.

The fifth chapter is about the BSP, its bid for power and the role of Kanshi Ram. The author rightly acknowledges Kanshiram’s ability to “sway and mobilize large crowds”, who realised that in democracy if the oppressed majority are made conscious of their votes the master key, or Guru Killi, which Kanshi Ram would often refer to, can be seized. As he always spoke in people’s language, his concept of democracy is expressed in these  simple yet profound words: “Lokshahi mein rani aur mehtarani ki keemat ek hi hoti hai”. (In a democracy the worth of a queen and that of a maid is the same, p. 165). Kanshi Ram, rejecting the radical armed struggle pursued by a section of communists mobilised the Bahujan through Constitutional means and democratic processes.

The sixth, seventh and eighth chapters are a discussion of the criticism and limitations of Kanshi Ram and his party. For instance, he was alleged to have indulged in opportunism as a strategy. For example, the BSP, according to his critics, welcomed defectors like Arif Mohammad Khan and Akbar Ahmed Dumpy, while it forged alliances with the BJP which it had opposed. “Kanshiram”, writes Narayan, “faced the greatest flak in his political career over the BSP coming to power twice in UP with the support of the BJP” (p. 181)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2015 on page no. 21

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