Dalit politics in the late 20th century India owes its rise to the vision and work one man–Kanshiram.
The bedrock for this movement was laid in the mid-20th century by its tallest leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Despite his brilliance and lifelong commitment to the cause of the dalits, Dr Ambedkar had been largely forgotten in the national consciousness till the rise of the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and then the Bahujan Samaj Party- both creations of one man, Kanshiram.
Born in a Ramdasia Sikh family in Punjab, Kanshiram was named after a local baba who apparently predicted that he would grow up to be a big leader. He grew up more or less unaffected by the stigma that his caste was subjected to in most of the country.
Kanshiram’s eyes opened to the reality of caste oppression when he was employed with a government research laboratory in Pune. Spurred by the extant Dalit movement, primarily led by the Mahars in Maharashtra, he went on to dedicate his life to the cause that he took upon himself. He decided not to marry or have any relations with his family. His encounters with his family back in Punjab were sporadic, and interspersed over many years. For a long time, his parents and siblings did not know his whereabouts.
There is limited first-hand information about Kanshiram–he left behind no autobiography or work except a very short pamphlet titled “The Chamcha Age.” Badri Narayan has collected the facts of Kanshiram’s life from accounts of some of his associates and later, with the BSP’s emergence as a major political force in the late 1980s, from the media.
The lack of any writings on the theoretical aspects of the Dalit movement is particularly unfortunate because though Kanshiram gained recognition as a political activist and leader, the basis of his politics lay in his deep understanding of the dynamics of caste. He both built on the theoretical legacy of Ambedkar and at the same time challenged many of its key formulations.
The most significant of these departures was the transformation of the movement from a minority “dalit” movement to its claim of being the majority or the bahujan. This altered not only the self perception of the formerly “untouchable” community but also transformed it into a potentially favourable electoral arithmetic.
He also overturned Ambedkar’s mission of annihilating caste. Instead, Kanshiram sought to practice reverse casteism- and came up with the idea of politicizing caste consciousness.
He declared that just as the Brahmans had long ruled on the basis of casteism, the Dalits would now do the same, seeking to eradicate Brahmanism from society.
There was little room for myths in Ambedkar’s thought. Kanshiram reversed this and utilized the myths of caste genealogies. This perhaps also led to his ambivalence of converting to Buddhism–having leveraged caste consciousness, how could he now ask his followers to give up their caste?
For Kanshiram, unlike Ambedkar, the end–attainment of political power–justified the means. Kanshiram came in for heavy criticism for this during his own lifetime, particularly when the BSP came to power in UP and accepted the BJP’s support.
Kanshiram’s vision of building the “bahujan” put the BSP in a corner when confronted by the ground reality of caste. In “The Chamcha Age”, he had observed that the backward castes were at the receiving end of the Brahmans and upper castes, so naturally they were part of the 85% oppressed bahujans.
The BSP supported a government run by the OBC based Samajwadi Party in 1993. However, it found that Mulayam Singh Yadav was trying to undermine the BSP by enticing the local BSP leaders. This led the BSP to withdraw support to the SP government. This put an end to the bahujan alliance between the Dalits and the OBCs. The drift intensified to such an extent that the BSP tried to convert the “bahujan samaj” to “sarvjan”- in essence an alliance of the Dalits and Brahmans. The BSP’s fiasco in the 2014 general elections has put a question mark on this as well.
Narayan draws attention to the Nara-Maveshi Movement, from the memory of which, Dalit activism in UP drew strength. The “national” media never reported the movement, and it was re-discovered entirely through oral traditions. The Chamars were isolated even from other Dalits who were not willing to support them.
The Nara-Maveshi was a lesser-known but major social movement of the Chamars which swept the villages of UP and Bihar between the 1950s and 1980s. The Chamars had risen up, seeking social dignity. The men refused to dispose the carcass of dead cattle (maveshi), which they skinned and tanned, while the women declined to cut the umbilical cords of newborn babies (nara), traditional caste-based professions that eroded their self-esteem.
Kanshiram exhorted his followers to rise above reservations and economic gains and instead become agents of social and political change. His “The Chamcha Age”, brought out on the 50th anniversary of the Poona Pact, critiqued Dalit leaders like Jagjiwan Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan who had been co-opted by ruling parties, particularly the Congress.
The educated dalits he approached had taken advantage of the reservation policy, like he had, and were employed in both the government and private sectors. But Kanshiram always held that ‘reservation should not be just for gaining jobs but for getting a meaningful share in political participation and through it a control in the power.
Kanshiram’s legacy is, like that of any other historical political figure, flawed in many ways and fraught with dangers, indeed its fragility became evident within his own lifetime.
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. Ambedkar needed a Kanshiram to resurrect him in the 21st century. Just like Marx lived in the 19th century but wrote for the 20th; Ambedkar lived in the 20th century and wrote for a 21st century India.
Kanshiram’s BSP has taken Ambedkar from Maharashtra to all over the country, especially where it’s most needed in the socially regressive North India. Nearly every party–from the Congress to the BJP to the communists today claim to carry forward Ambedkar’s ideas, despite them being ideologically opposed to his thoughts.
Badri Narayan has performed a yeoman’s service to bring together the first biography in English of the harbinger of a new age, not withstanding his adulation and obvious hagiography in places.
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