Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956


Kanshi Ram: from BAMCEF to the Bahujana Samaj Party

Kanshi Ram was born in 1934 as a Raedasi Sikh, a community of Punjabi Chamars converted to Sikhism. The family had 4 or 5 acres of land, some of it inherited and the rest acquired through government allocation after Independence), a small landed background is characteristic of many Scheduled Caste legislators but remains a comparative rarity for Dalits in general. Kanshi Ram's father was himself 'slightly' literate, and he managed to educate all his four daughters and three sons. Kanshi Ram, the eldest, is the only graduate. He was given a reserved position in the Survey of India after completing his BSc degree, and in 1958 he transferred to the Department of Defence Production as a scientific assistant in a munitions factory in Poona. Kanshi Ram had encountered no Untouchability as a child, and overt discrimination was not a phenomenon within the educated circles of his adult life. But his outlook underwent a sudden change in 1965 when he became caught up in a struggle initiated by other Scheduled Caste employees to prevent the abolition of a holiday commemorating Dr Anibedkar's birthday.'4 During this conflict Kanshi Ram encountered a depth of high-caste prejudice and hostility towards Dalits that was a revelation to him. His almost instant radicalisation was completed soon after by a reading of Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste: he read the book three times in one night, going entirely without sleep.

Kanshi Ram's introduction to the political ideas of Ambedkar - he has never been attracted to Buddhism - was through his Mahar Buddhist colleague and friend at the munitions factory, D. K. Khaparde. Together the two of them began formulating ideas for an organisation to be built by educated employees from the Scheduled and Backward castes. Such an organisation would work against harassment and oppression by high-caste officers, and also enable the often inward-looking occupants of reserved postions to give something back to their own communities. So Kanshi Ram and Khaparde began to contact likely recruits in Poona. At about this time Kanshi Ram abandoned any thought of marriage, largely because it did not fit into a life he now wanted to dedicate to public con-cerns. He had also quite lost interest in his career, though he continued in the job until about 1971. He finally left after a severe conflict over the non-appointment of an apparently qualified Scheduled Caste young woman. During this conflict he had gone so far as to strike a senior official, and he did not even bother attending most of the ensuing disciplinary pro-ceedings. He had already made up his mind to become a full-time activist, and the movement was by then strong enough to meet his modest needs.

In 1971 Kanshi Ram and his colleagues established the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities Employees Welfare Association, which was duly registered under the Poona Charity Commissioner. Their primary object was: To subject our problems to close scrutiny and find out quick and equitable solu-tions to the problems of injustice and harassment of our employees in general and the educated employees in particular.

Despite the Association's inclusive reach, its aggressively Ambedkarite stance ensured that most of its members were Mahar Buddhists. Within a year of its establishment there were more than one thousand members and it was able to open an office in Poona: many of the members were from the Defence and Post and Telegraph Departments, and their first annual conference was addressed by the then Defence Minister, Jagjivan Ram. Kanshi Ram's next organisational step was to create the basis of a national association of Scheduled Caste government servants. As early as 1973 he and his colleagues established the All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF), and a functioning office was established in Delhi in 1976. BAMCEF was relaunched with greater fanfare on 6 December 1978, the anniversary of Ambedkar's death, with claims of two thousand delegates joining a procession to the Boat Club Lawns in New Delhi (BAMCEF Bulletin April 1979). Although the stated objects of the new organisation were essentially the same as those of the earlier body, the rhetoric had grown bolder. It was not merely the oppressors who came in the line of fire, but also many of the reserved office holders too:

As all the avenues of advance are closed to them in the field of agriculture, trade, commerce and industry almost all the educated persons from these [oppressed] communities are trapped in Govt. services. About 2 million educated oppressed Indians have already joined various types of sobs during the last 26 years. Civil Service Conduct rules put some restrictions on them. But their inherent timidity, cowardice, selfishness and lack of desire for Social Service to their own creed have made them exceptionally useless to the general mass of the oppressed Indians.The only ray of hope is that almost everywhere in the country there are some edu-cated employees who feel deeply agitated about the miserable existence of their brethren. (BAMCEF Bulletin 2 1974)

By the mid-1970S Kanshi Ram had established a broad if not dense network of contacts throughout Maharashtra and adjacent regions. During his frequent train trips from Poona to Delhi, he adopted the habit of getting down at major stations along the way - Nagpur, Jabalpur and Bhopal, among others - to contact likely sympathisers and to try to recruit them to the organisation (Kanshi Ram Interview: 1996). Once he had moved to Delhi he pushed into Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, as well as further into Madhya Pradesh. Parallel to his work among edu-cated employees Kanshi Ram was also contacting a wider audience with simple presentations of Ambedkar's teachings. Thus in 1980 he put together a roadshow called 'Ambedkar Mela on Wheels'. This was an oral and pictorial account of Ambedkar's life and views, together with con-temporary material on oppression, atrocities and poverty. Between April and June 1980 the show was carted to thirty-four destinations in nine

States of the north. Jang Bahadur Patel, a Kurmi (Backward Caste) and President of the Uttar Pradesh Branch of the Bahujana Samaj Party until late 1995, recalls meeting Kanshi Ram for the first time when he brought his roadshow to Lucknow (Interview: 25 November 1995). Kanshi Ram talked persuasively about how Ambedkar had struggled for all the down-trodden classes, and how the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and also the Backwards and Minorities were all victims of Brahminism. Because of their weight of numbers, these people had the potential to convert them-selves from 'beggars to rulers'. It was all a matter of organisation. Patel immediately joined BAMCEF, though he was in a distinct minority as a non-Untouchable: Untouchables constituted about 90 per cent of the membership, with the other io per cent being split between tribals and Backward Caste people.

BAMCEF's motto, 'Educate, Organise and Agitate', was adopted from Ambedkar, and its activities were formally divided into a number of welfare and proselytising objects. But increasingly Kanshi Ram's agita-tional activities were leading him into politics. By the late 70S he was no longer content with being the leader of reserved office holders, a class for whom he had less than complete respect. Kanshi Ram's first attempt to create a radical political vehicle capable of mobilising the larger body of Dalits was the Dalit SoshitSamaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) formed in 1981. This was conceived as a political organisation parallel to BAMCEF: it shared the same President in Kanshi Ram, the same office, and many of the same members. DS4 was a quasi- rather than fully fledged political party, partly because government servants were forbidden to take part in electoral politics. But DS4 made little concrete progress, and late in 1984 Kanshi Ram took the plunge and formed the Bahujana Samaj Party (a variant on the name of Phule's nineteenth-century organisation). Inevitably, this caused major strains in BAMCEF ranks. Their agitational activities had placed many of his colleagues from the Poona and early Delhi periods in a delicate position as government servants and, in any case, the political loyalty of many of them was to the several strands of the Republican Party. There were also strains arising from Kanshi Ram's will to total domination of all three organisations. And the need for money was rising with the push into politics: one of the Maharashtra workers recalls delivering Kanshi Ram a purse of forty thousand rupees collected from Maharashtra in 1984. These several strains grew more severe over the next two years, and early in 1986 a major split took place. Kanshi Ram announced at that time that he was no longer willing to work for any organisation other than the Bahujana Samaj Party. His transition from social worker to politician was complete.

Kanshi Ram is more an organiser and political strategist than an innov-ative thinker or charismatic public speaker. While his Ambedkarite ideol-ogy has remained constant and lacking in any innovation, there has been a progressive sharpening of his rhetoric. The early issues of BAMCEF's monthly magazine, The Oppressed Indian, were full of his didactic exposi-tions of Ambedkar's views on Indian society. These have now given way to simpler formulations, repeated in numerous newspaper accounts and both public and private speech. The central proposition is that Indian society is characterised by the self-interested rule of io per cent over the other 90 per cent (the bahujan samaj or common people). Although the ruling io per cent is composed of several castes, they derive their legiti-macy and ruling ideology from Brahminism. All the institutions of society reflect this ruling ideology and distortion, including the press. These institutions can therefore be termed Manuwadi (after the great Brahmin-inspired text) or Brahminwadi. In the marketplace of elections, such simplicity has been further reduced to crudeness and epithet. A slogan coined after the formation of DS4 was, 'Brahmin, Bania, Thakur Chor, Baki Sab Hem DS-Four'. Loosely translated, this rhyme states that Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs are thieves, while the rest of society are their victims. The epithets reached their height during the election cam-paign for the UP Assembly in 1993, the most notorious being: 'Tilak, Taraju, Talwar. Maaro Unko Joote Char'. This slogan, with its insistent rhythm in Hindi, advocates that Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs, each identified by a slighting term, be beaten four times with a shoe - a tradi-tionally demeaning form of punishment because of the ritual impurity of leather. While Kanshi Ram and Mayawati denied authorship of such slogans, they served as a simple and dramatically offensive marker of the party's ideological position.

Kanshi Ram's strategy and his larger understanding of social change are now considerably evolved. He no longer believes in the primacy of social reform. Rather, expenditure of effort on any object other than the capture of government is seen to be superfluous. It is administrative power that will bring about desired social change, not vice versa. So he declines to spell out policies on basic issues such as the liberalisation of the Indian economy or on land reforms. His view is that such issues are irrelevant to the project of gaining power, and that the appropriate poli-cies will fall into place once power is attained. His picture of India is of a kind of holy war on the part of the bahujan samaj against their Brahminwadi oppressors. In the context of this war debates about policy are almost frivolities. This is a stance of pure fundamentalism, but it also frees him to engage in the most ruthless pragmatism in the name of capturing power.

Consistent with this stance, Kanshi Ram has become increasingly critical of the institution of reservation in government employment. Reservation is a 'crutch' - useful for a cripple, but a positive handicap for someone who wants to run on his own two feet (Kanshi Ram interview:1996). He now throws off the line that once the bahujan samaj get to power throughout India, it will be they who can condescend to the Brahmins by giving them reservation proportional to their own meagre population. There is more than a little bravado in this, but there is no doubt that Kanshi Ram is now hostile to the system of institutional preference that was the indispensable basis of his own personal and polit-ical career. It seems that he believes that reservation has now done enough for the Scheduled Castes. He notes that of some 500 Indian Admin-istrative Service (LAS) Officers in Uttar Pradesh, 137 are from the Scheduled Castes. By comparison, there are only seven lAS officers from the Backward Castes, six of them Yadavs (Hindustan Times, 6 April 1994). His point is not that there are now too many Scheduled Caste officers -their number conforms strictly to the legal quota - but too few from the Backward Castes. He apparently assumes that the capture of political power will automatically transform the composition of the bureaucratic elite.

The Bahujana Samaj Party first made headway in Punjab, Kanshi Ram's home State, but his primary political task was to wean the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh from Congress. It was Kanshi Ram's fortune that he built the party at the historical moment that the long-term Congress decline became a landslide. The formal entry of his party into Uttar Pradesh was in a by-election in 1985 for the Lok Sabha seat of Bijinor, in which its candidate was Mayawati. She is a Jatav (or Chamar), the daughter of a minor government official in Delhi, and had completed a BA and LLB from the University of Delhi. Mayawati had made contact with Kanshi Ram in 1977 while she was a student, and had gradually been drawn into his organisation. Her opponents in Bijinor included Ram Vilas Paswan - the two have had poor relations since this contest - and Meira Kumar, Jagjivan Ram's daughter, representing Congress. Rajiv Gandhi was at the height of his popularity at the time, and Meira Kumar won the seat easily. But by 1989 the Bahujana Samaj Party had put in five years of solid organising work in UP and also in the neighbouring regions of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, and parts of Haryana. And mean-while the Congress Party had slumped in popularity. Kanshi Ram had prepared the ground carefully. He had selected organisers and candidates from a variety of social backgrounds. One of his organisers was Dr Mahsood Ahmed, a temporary lecturer in history at Aligarh Muslim University. Mahsood had become disillusioned with Congress when Indira Gandhi made her infamous tilt towards the Hindus in the early 1980s (Mahsood interview: 27 November 1995). He joined BAMCEF and then switched to DS4 in 1983 as a full-time organiser and fund raiser. Mahsood was later put in charge of the whole of eastern Uttar Pradesh for the Bahujana Samaj Party.

The years of organisation bore fruit in 1989 and 1991. In the four State Assembly and Parliamentary (Lok Sabha) polls for Uttar Pradesh between 1989 and 1991 the Bahujana Samaj Party's share of the vote varied only marginally between 8.7 and 9.4 per cent. But this impressive vote produced a disappointing number of seats - in 1989 the party won thirteen out of 425 State Assembly seats, and in 1991 it won twelve. The party won only two Parliamentary seats in 1989, and one in 1991; Kanshi Ram himself subsequently won a by-election from UP in 1992. Both the strength and the weakness of the party is that its primary 'vote bank', the Chamars, are relatively evenly spread across the State. This spread gives the Bahujana Samaj a chance in a large number of seats, but also make it logically impossible to win even a single seat without strong support from other communities. Although it has attracted a measure of Muslim, Backward Caste and other Scheduled Caste support, it has encountered considerable resistance in these target communities. We need to look more closely at this problem.

First, there is the question of why the majority of Jatavs of western UP deviated from their kinfolk in the eastern part of the State, and continued to vote Congress in 1989 and 1991. The answer to this question is not entirely clear. Some have blamed the result on the poor organising capac-ities of Mayawati - she was in charge of this region - but the deeper reason may be the Jatavs' historical association with B. P. Maurya. In a move of some desperation, Congress resurrected the 70-year-old Maurya as one of four national Vice-Presidents in the run-up to the 1996 elections. But by then Mayawati had become an electorally popular figure in eastern UP. As to the Scheduled Castes other than the Chamars/Jatavs, only Pasis appear to have voted for Kanshi Ram's party in large numbers. The Valmikis (formerly known as Bhangis) voted solidly for the BJP in the 1993 Assembly elections, and the sole Valmiki in the Lok Sabha elected in 1991 represented the BJP (though in 1980 he had been elected for the Janata Party). Mangal Ram Premi MP - his biography is sketched in chapter 8- accounts for the Valmiki support of the BJP by simply advert-ing to the community's dislike of the Chamars (Interview: 4 November 1995). The Chamars are more numerous, better educated and more successful in acquiring reserved positions than the Valmikis, and this tends to produce resentment. Many of the Dhobis too have recently voted for the BJP. In short, Kanshi Ram's party has not solved the problem of how to mobilise all or even most of the Scheduled Castes. The problem that dogged Ambedkar has thus repeated itself in Uttar Pradesh, though Kanshi Ram's Chamars are both more numerous and numerically more dominant among the Untouchables than were Ambedkar's Mahars in the western part of the country.

Among Backward Castes, Kanshi Ram's strongest support has come from the Kurmis. In Bihar, this is an upwardly mobile peasant commu-nity responsible for several of the worst atrocities against Dalits. But in Uttar Pradesh the Kurmis are comparatively low on the scale of prosper-ity. Moreover, they have had a history of anti-Brahmin radicalism - Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur remains a source of inspiration to some of them. And a sprinkling of them had been members of the Republican Party. The Kurmis could see advantage in being associated with a party that was not dominated by the more numerous Yadavs (whose firm affiliation is with Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party). As to the large number of other Backward Castes in UP, over the last several years there has been an intense three-way tussle between the BJP, the Bahujana Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party to capture their support. All three have had some success, but perhaps the larger part of this vote is a floating one that will flow with the main political current of the time. The last community to consider is the Muslims. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid the Muslims have been politically leaderless. They have shunned Congress for what they see to have been its culpable failure to prevent the demolition of the mosque, and have given considerable support to Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and some support to Kanshi Ram. Thus in the municipal elections of Uttar Pradesh in November 1995 and in the national and UP elections of 1996 it seems that UP Muslims were prepared to vote for whichever party was locally the strongest anti-BJP force. In short, the politics of post-Congress Uttar Pradesh are currently cast largely in terms of community vote banks. Political strategy is a matter of positioning one's party so as to retain one s core vote bank and also attract others at the margins. At least as much as any other player, Kanshi Ram has adapted to this game with calculating skill.


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