Unlike Dr. Ambedkar, with whom he stands in poor contrast, he did not convert to Buddhism or give any other broad direction to his followers. Unlike Jotiba Phule he did not argue for social reform or made any case to further it. Unlike Periyar, he did not stand for Rationalism and launch an attack on the religious basis of caste based oppression.
Instead he directed all his energies to launch a monotone assault on political power and create political mobilisation among the Dalits and others under the broader sweep of what he called, after Jotiba Phule, the “Bahujan Samaj”, bothering himself little with more onerous and long term endeavours of social reform.
Yet, Kanshi Ram is significant for a number of reasons and one has to acknowledge the singular, if not stellar role that he played in the Indian political stage in general and Dalit politics in particular.
From a little known outfit called DS4, he created a political party that rose to rule the most populous state of India- Uttar Pradesh, a state that determined the power equations in the Centre- every Indian Prime Minister who has lasted a 5 year term has come from Uttar Pradesh- and has been a Brahmin, one may add (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee).
It would be difficult to ascertain whether Kanshi Ram came in at the right moment when identity based politics was asserting itself, or whether he helped to create that politics.
If it is former, then one has to credit him with having done the ground work and be prepared to seize that opportunity when it arrived. If it is the latter, then he needs to be understood better and not contrased with Dr. Ambedkar or Periyar.
For one, Kanshi Ram created, for the first time in history, a resurgence of the Dalit community in those states where little or no reform movements have taken place.
In the North, the state of Punjab, where incidentally he was born in a Sikh family, had the reform movements in Sikhism as well as the Arya Samaj, besides the Sufi influence. On the Eastern side, Bengal had Brahmo Samaj, in South, in Tamil Nadu, the Self Respect Movement and in Maharashta on the West, the non- Brahmin movement under Jotiba Phule and later Dr Ambedkar.
It is central India, the so- called Hindi heartland or also, more derisively, the BIMARU states that did not undergo a social reform movement within Hinduism. In most of those places social reform movements evolved into radical political movements- Communist in some places but also the Justice Party (and later the Dravida Kahzagam) in Tamil Nadu and the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra.
Kanshi Ram bypassed the social reform thus catapulting political assertion in the Hindi heartland.
Some may aver that this short cut is fraught with danger- it is hoisted on a fragile base and is the reason why the Bahujan Samaj Party has degenerated so quickly.
To do so would be to ignore the mammoth task that lies in the Hindi heartland states. The upper caste population is relatively large, and has never tried to reform itself in a major way. There has been an absence of any efforts to democratise education. Notably Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have historically been politically volatile and provided the fulcrum on which the Indian National Freedom movement hinged and where it became a truly mass movement.
Kanshi Ram merely extended that political mobilisation to the Dalits specially in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
In doing so, did he put the cart before the horse?
There is little reason to think so.
For one, there really was neither a cart nor a horse in the Hindi heartland before the BSP stepped in.
For another, any emancipation movement needs not only the dreamers and theorists but also the organisers and the builders. Marx needed a Lenin to make the world even aware of his writings.
Kanshi Ram was no Lenin. His legacy is flawed in many ways and fraught with dangers, indeed its fragility became evident within his own lifetime.
But it also has ensured that the word Dalit has become part of the vocabulary in some of the most socially regressive areas in the country. It poses one of the few ideological challenges to Hindutva and one of the ways that emancipation of bulk of Indians can be attempted.
Kanshi Ram’s BSP has taken Ambedkar from Maharashtra to all over the country and specially where it is needed more. Nearly every party- from the Congress to the BJP to the communists today carry a picture of Ambedkar in their posters and hoardings.
It has cast the net of possibilities of Dalit resurgence, wider.
It is for that reason alone that it would be an exercise in deception to overlook the importance and significance of being Kanshi Ram.
Related Post: Biography of a Poor Dalit Family
Picture Courtesy: ambedkar.org