Kanshiram Ji: Life & Struggle of Manyasri Kanshiram


Kanshi Ram Ji, who as the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party in India achieved some success in mobilizing the voting power of the Bahujan, died on Monday, October 9, 1006, in New Delhi, India, at the age of 74, died at 12.30 am at his official residence, party sources said. Kanshi Ram Ji, died here early on Monday following a severe heart attack, who had been suffering from multiple ailments like stroke, diabetes and hypertension, was virtually bed-ridden for more than two years. The last rites of the BSP founder will be held at 4 pm at Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi.

Kanshi Ram Ji was born on March 15, 1934 as a Ramdasi Sikh, a community of Punjabi Chamars converted to Sikhism in a village in the Ropar district of Punjab. 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. Mr. Kanshi Ram’s father was himself ‘slightly’ literate, and he managed to educate all his four daughters and three sons. Kanshi Ram Ji, the eldest, is the only graduate. He was given a reserved position in the Survey of India after completing his BSc degree. Soon after, he was hired by a government agency called the Survey of India through a quota system for Dalits that he later railed against. In 1958 he transferred to the Department of Defence Production as a scientific assistant in a munitions factory in Poona. Kanshi Ram Ji 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 Mr. Dinabana to prevent the abolition of a holiday commemorating Dr Anibedkar’s birthday.’4 During this conflict, Kanshi Ram Ji 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.

A heavyset man and a fiery orator in his prime, Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji was a Dalit – the people at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy, who for centuries have been consigned to Indian society’s most menial jobs and lowest levels of literacy and land holdings. In Hindi, Dalit means ground down.

Kanshi Ram Ji’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 positions to give something back to their own communities. So Mr. Kanshi Ram and Khaparde began to contact likely recruits in Poona. At about this time Kanshi Ram Ji abandoned any thought of marriage, largely because it did not fit into a life he now wanted to dedicate to public concerns. 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 proceedings. 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 Ji 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 solutions 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. Mr. 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 educated employees who feel deeply agitated about the miserable existence of their brethren. (BAMCEF Bulletin 2 1974)

By the mid-1970S Kanshi Ram Ji had established a broad if not a 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 Ji 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 educated employees Mr. 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 Bahujan Samaj Party until late 1995, recalls meeting Kanshi Ram Ji for the first time when he brought his roadshow to Lucknow (Interview: 25 November 1995). Kanshi Ram Ji 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 Ji’s agitational activities were leading him into politics. By the late 70S, he was no longer content with being the leader of reserved officeholders, a class for whom he had less than complete respect. Kanshi Ram Ji’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 Ji, the same office, and many of the same members. DS4 was a quasi- rather than a 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 Ji took the plunge and formed the Bahujan 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 Ji’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 Ji 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 Ji announced at that time that he was no longer willing to work for any organisation other than the Bahujan Samaj Party. His transition from social worker to politician was complete.

Kanshi Ram Ji is more an organiser and political strategist than an innovative thinker or charismatic public speaker. While his Ambedkarite ideology 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 expositions 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 legitimacy 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 campaign for the UP Assembly in 1993, the most notorious being: ‘Tilak, Taraju, Talwar. Maaro Unko Joote Char’. (Kanshi Ram had denied saying that this slogan was never raised from BSP’s platform.) 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 traditionally demeaning form of punishment because of the ritual impurity of leather. While Kanshi Ram Ji and Mayawati denied authorship of such slogans, they served as a simple and dramatically offensive marker of the party’s ideological position.

Kanshi Ram Ji’s strategy and his larger understanding of social change are now considerably evolved. He no longer believes in the primacy of social reform. Rather, the 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 policies 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 Ji 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 Ji 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 Ji is now hostile to the system of institutional preference that was the indispensable basis of his own personal and political career. It seems that he believes that reservation has now done enough for the Scheduled Castes. He notes that of some 500 Indian Administrative 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 Bahujan Samaj Party first made headway in Punjab, Kanshi Ram Ji’s home State, but his primary political task was to wean the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh from Congress.

It was Kanshi Ram Ji’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 Ji 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 Bahujan Samaj Party had put in five years of solid organising work in the 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 Ji 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 fundraiser. Mahsood was later put in charge of the whole of eastern Uttar Pradesh for the Bahujan 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 Bahujan 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 Ji 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 capacities 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 Ji’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 Ji’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 Ji’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 Ji’s strongest support has come from the Kurmis. In Bihar, this is an upwardly mobile peasant community responsible for several of the worst atrocities against Dalits.

But in Uttar Pradesh, the Kurmis are comparatively low on the scale of prosperity. 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 an 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 a 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 Bahujan 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 Ji.

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 Ji has adapted to this game with calculating skill.

“Let the upper castes look upon us as a creeping poison,” Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji said in 1988 after his third-place finish in a race for a seat in Parliament. “We will not stop until we unite the victims of the system and overthrow the spirit of inequality in our country.”

Four years earlier, Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji had founded the Bahujan Samaj Party – the Party of the Majority – in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, where nearly 25 percent of the population were untouchables.

The creation of the party in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, reverberated throughout the nation. Along with other factors, it signalled a shift away from the supremacy of the Congress Party of the Nehrus and the Gandhis, which had governed almost without interruption since independence in 1947.

In 1990, Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji stood before tens of thousands of people in New Delhi and attacked the notion that “the weaker sections” of society were being looked after by the higher castes. He rejected the term Harijan, or children of God, which Mohandas K. Gandhi had coined for the untouchables.

“For too long we have been knocking at the doors of the system, asking for justice and getting nothing,” Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji said. “It’s time to break down those doors.” By 1994, Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji was sharing power in Uttar Pradesh with Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, in a government led by Mr. Yadav. But differences between them caused the government to fall after 20 months.

That opened the way for Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji’s follower, Mayawati, to take over as the state’s chief minister – the first Dalit woman to lead a government at any level in India. Ms. Mayawati, who has only one name, held that post for less than a year. In 2001, she again became the state’s chief minister but resigned two years ago after the governing coalition she led broke apart.

Before the UP Assembly election (held after the dismissal of the BJP Government), Kanshi Ram Ji entered into an alliance with Mulayam Singh. The primary vote banks of the two men were complementary the Yadavs and the Chamars.

This was by no means a ‘natural’ alliance since the two communities had engaged in perennial and sometimes violent conflict in the villages. Indeed, the Yadavs had frequently captured voting booths in eastern UP and prevented the Chamars from voting.

But each of the leaders could now see that his prospects were poor without the other, and they agreed on a division of seats so as to combine their vote. The alliance produced a dramatically enhanced increase in seats for the Bahujan Samaj Party (67), but its vote rose less dramatically to .11 per cent (achieved admittedly in a sharply reduced number of contests).

Meanwhile, the Samajwadi Party won 109 seats and 25.83 per cent of the vote, making it second to the BJP with its 177 seats and 33.3 per cent of the vote. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party were able to form a coalition Government, with Mulayam Singh as Chief Minister.

But Kanshi Ram Ji and Mayawati soon came to believe that their party’s interests were being infringed by Mulayam – one issue was the alleged kidnapping of one of their candidates during panchayat elections.

There was also concern at the number of ‘atrocities’ perpetrated against Scheduled Caste people, some of them by Yadavs; the belief was that Mulayam was deliberately failing to control his own followers in this matter. But above all Mulayam had brought about the defection of a number of the Bahujan Samaj legislators to his own party – some of them were Kurmis – and was daily seeking to whittle away his coalition partner from above. Accordingly, in June 1995 Kanshi Ram Ji and Mayawati brought the Government down.

Given the overwhelming importance that Kanshi Ram Ji now places on the acquisition of administrative power, his willingness to form a new Government with the support of the ‘Manuwadi’ BJP becomes more comprehensible. He took the view that so long as he did not have to take orders from the BJP then he was prepared to put up with the odium of being propped up by the party hated by the whole of progressive India. Perhaps conveniently, he argued that the Congress, the Janata Dal and the Communists were as much ‘Manuwadi’ parties as was the BJP. But there was still an enormous cultural and ideological gulf between his party and the BJP, and it was left to an outsider to play a perhaps crucial role in bridging the gap. Jayant Malhoutra, a prominent industrialist and Member of the Rajya Sabha, did much of the diplomatic negotiation between the leaders of the two parties. He and Kanshi Ram Ji had formed an unlikely friendship several years earlier, and Malhoutra claims that his
assistance to Mr. Kanshi Ram was motivated by a concern to help bring about a ‘soft landing’ for India after the inevitable clash between the haves and have-nots (Malhoutra interview: 7 November 1995). For its part, the BJP knew that neither of the other two large legislative parties would support a minority Government of its own. Since the HIP leaders had come to have a special antipathy to Mulayam’s rule, their best option was to allow the third and seemingly less threatening party to form a Government – they saw more to fear from the Yadavs than the Dalits. The HIP leadership had in mind the longer-term goal of permanently splitting the vote banks commanded by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, thereby opening up a path to their own domination of Uttar Pradesh.

In June 1995 Kanshi Ram Ji ceded to Mayawati the task of leading the new Government in Uttar Pradesh, and her period as Chief Minister has been a platform upon which Mayawati has built a now considerable political presence in Uttar Pradesh. Early on the much younger Mayawati was properly regarded as a mere lieutenant of Kanshi Ram Ji, to whom popular accounts suggest she is romantically as well as politically linked. But Mayawati has been able to bring charisma and liveliness to the hustings that Kanshi Ram Ji himself has lacked. She has represented a novelty – a direct and forthright Dalit woman with courage sufficient to run hard against the powerful institutions that so oppress poor Indians. In short, Mayawati has become both considerably popular and also a force to reckon with.
The Government of 1995 is properly regarded as a joint Kanshi Ram Ji-Mayawati Government – Kanshi Ram Ji continued to reside primarily in Delhi but made frequent trips to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and was consulted on all major decisions. In terms of new policies or administrative programs, there was little to be seen from the four months of their rule. But this is by no means to say that this was not a significant or a distinctive administration. Part of its significance resides in the intrusion of a different culture into the machinery of government of the State. Mayawati demonstrated that the Bahujan Samaj’s antipathy to ‘Brahminwadi’ culture was no mere abstraction but was to serve as a guide to the identity of the actual bureaucrats who could be trusted to direct the administration. In a word, Mayawati chose to promote and work through a small coterie of Scheduled Caste officers. For example, the high-caste incumbents in the Chief Secretary and Chief Minister’s Principal Private Secretary positions were both replaced by Scheduled Caste officers. Even more controversially, a number of more junior Scheduled Caste officers were favoured with accelerated promotion and positions at the centre of the administration. This change inevitably provoked resentment and the claim that merit had been replaced by casteism.

Within the larger administration of the state, Mayawati made energetic resort to the device of transfers and disciplinary action against officers found delinquent in one aspect or another. The transfer of senior officials for reasons other than completion of a normal term has become commonplace in a number of states of India, but by common consent, Mayawati engaged in the practice more richly than before in Uttar Pradesh. Quite deliberately she created a climate of fear in order to motivate officials to work to her agenda. She dealt particularly severely with officials judged to have failed to protect the most vulnerable people in a particular District, the Dalits above all. Overwhelmingly condemned in the press, her actions appear to have evoked a sense of satisfaction among common people routinely subjected to official arrogance and callousness. And a number of commentators both within the administration and outside believed that Mayawati had administered a powerful and long overdue lesson to bureaucrats that their place was as servant, not master, of the people.’

The most persistent complaint about the Bahujan Samaj Government was the degree of illicit money it exacted, particularly in the matter of obliging individual bureaucrats regarding their transfer or non-transfer. Given the habitual misuse of public office to derive funds for the party if not personal purposes, it would be surprising indeed if some of these stories were not true. What cannot be established is whether such official wrong-doing was conducted on a scale greater than that of earlier administrations in Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps a good deal of the problem arose from the callowness of Mayawati and her lieutenants – some of the stories suggest that their insufficient knowledge of the system, and also the hurry they were in, made it difficult for them to derive funds efficiently and quietly. Official corruption is something of an acquired art.

It is clear that Mayawati was not an accessible Chief Minister. Apart from the question of the tightness of her bureaucratic team, she was inaccessible to many of her own Ministers and to representatives of the BJP who felt entitled to a hearing in return for their support of the Government. Some of this inaccessibility may have arisen from motives that were not unreasonable. Thus Mayawati and Kanshi Ram Ji were determined not to run a Government that freely granted favours to people for reasons other than the welfare of the party itself. They were particularly suspicious of requests from politicians where the request seemed to arise from personal pecuniary interest. The problem of inaccessibility was compounded by Mr. Kanshi Ram’s continuing to reside in Delhi rather than Lucknow throughout the life of the Government. There were also issues of personal style. Mayawati’s reputation is one of meting out the harshness and even humiliation to those with whom she finds fault, though it is also true that many informants report having experienced no such treatment. On the other side, the practice of showing elaborate respect to the leaders became something of culture within party circles. This sometimes took the form of touching the feet of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram Ji, a ritual form of respect that now tends to be seen as demeaning and ‘feudal’ in origin. The complaint is that the two leaders encouraged this practice. In short, there were problems of both process and style that gave rise to considerable resentment and disaffection in Lucknow. This is one, but only one, the reason for a large number of defections from the legislative party that took place after the Government fell.

The public style of the Mayawati Government was more abrasive than radical. Indeed, Mayawati’s own most provocative gesture was enacted even before she formed her own Government. In March 1994, during the Mulayam Singh government, Mayawati had somewhat casually condemned Gandhi as ‘an enemy of the Dalits and the Bahujan samaj at large’ (The Telegraph: in March 1994). Despite the frequency of previous Ambedkarite attacks on the Mahatma, Mayawati’s remarks occasioned a storm of protest in the pages of the press. The extravagance of this reaction was a pointer to the sensitivities aroused by the Dalits’ proximity to power in Uttar Pradesh. During her own Government, Mayawati curbed her rhetoric – indeed, she felt constrained to lay the customary wreath on the occasion of Gandhi’s birth celebration. The most flamboyant gesture of her Government – and here Mr. Kanshi Ram’s hand is clearly evident – was to build a Pariwartan Chowk or Revolution Square in Lucknow that was to have huge statues of the great figures of anti-Brahmin activism: Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar, Shahu Maharaj. In the event, the Government fell before the statues could be completed. Construction of the Ghowk proceeded around the clock in order to coincide with the staging of a Periyar Mela: this was a celebration of the life and works of the great figure of the Tamil non-Brahmin movement, Periyar E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker. The event was less than a resounding success in Lucknow, where Periyar is almost unknown, but the symbolism was probably directed more to Dalits in the south of India.

After the fall of the Bahujan Samaj Government it became fashionable to declare that a great opportunity had been lost by Kanshi Ram Ji and Mayawati: they could have struck a blow for the liberation of the Dalits but they squandered their opportunity in corruption, crassness and the politics of business-as-usual. This is a dubious interpretation. Throughout their brief period of power, Kanshi Ram Ji and Mayawati had little room to manoeuvre. They had a small minority of MLAs, and they knew they existed on borrowed time from the beginning. At best they could have had about a year in power before elections in mid-1996. There was simply no time to initiate solid administrative or development programs, even if they had the capacity to formulate such initiatives. In these circumstances, the politics of symbolism was bound to be the most effective way to encourage their own constituency. But strong symbolism breeds savage reactions in contemporary India, and the New Delhi leadership of the BJP found it increasingly difficult to hold State leaders to the bargain of supporting Mayawati in the name of strategic electoral gain. It surprised no one when this leadership bowed to the pressures welling up in Uttar Pradesh and decided to end the life of the minority Government. President’s rule intervened until a new Government could be formed after the general election of April 1996; in the event, it was not until March 1997 that a new Government took office.

The last several years have been an exhilarating roller coaster ride for Kanshi Ram, replete with towering peaks and deep troughs. His ambition has been to become the kind of national leader the Dalits have never had. In 1994 he made his most concerted bid to build a national movement by conducting rallies and meetings in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The Bahujan Samaj had contested seats in a number of these States as early as 1989, but Kanshi Ram was now more serious about taking his message throughout the country. But these efforts came to little, particularly in the strong Communist States of Kerala and West Bengal. There, his caste-based analysis failed to cut into the prevailing ideology constructed out of the language of class. Kanshi Ram developed a considerable following in Andhra, where he staged a number of impressive rallies. It seemed for a time that he could have entered into a governing alliance with NTR’s Telegu Desam Party, but negotiations broke down and the Bahujan Samaj was soon a spent force in Andhra. After the fall of Mayawati’s Government in Lucknow, it became clear that the national and provincial elections of 1996 would be crucial to the very survival of the party.

Although candidates were to be put up in a number of States, Uttar Pradesh was by far the most important arena. Given the close competition between the three leading political forces – Congress, the BJP and the ‘Third Front’ of leftist and regional parties – Kanshi Ram hoped to be in a position to dictate outcomes at both State and national levels. But the whole history of his party suggested that there could be little electoral success without an alliance with another major force. The logical partner was the Janata Dal, but Kanshi Ram declared himself against any new alliance that included Mulayam (Interview: 1996). This stand appeared tantamount to political suicide. It was clear that Kanshi Ram’s movement could not easily survive a poor result in Uttar Pradesh in 1996. Unlike the figure of Ram Vilas Paswan, Kanshi Ram had set his sights on great and rapid victories. His age and ill health seem to have intensified the sense of urgency that had succeeded the patience of his earlier years in politics.

Considering its lack of strategic alliances, the Bahujan Samaj Party did surprisingly well in the Lok Sabha election of 1996. It won a total of eleven seats, six of them in Uttar Pradesh, three in Punjab and two in Madhya Pradesh. (In the previous Parliament its only UP seat was the one occupied by Kanshi Ram himself.) It was clear that Mayawati had become something of a cult figure in Uttar Pradesh. And in order to compensate for its lack of partners, the party had energetically sought to woo communities other than its own vote bank of Chamars. The still leader-less Muslims were a particular target, and about one-quarter of the party’s tickets in Uttar Pradesh had been conceded to Muslims (The Pioneer: i8 September 1996). There were also a number of Backward Caste candidates.

In the subsequent UP Assembly election in 1996, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati reverted to the approach of constructing a strategic alliance. This time their ally was Congress. Amazingly, given its glorious past, Congress was relegated to the position of junior partner, and it was agreed that the combination’ s candidate for Chief Minister would be Mayawati. Kanshi Ram was reported to have asked Congress to field 100 Brahmins in the 125 seats allotted to it, so as to wean the upper castes from the BJP and attract them back to Congress (The Pioneer: 9 July 1996). Again Kanshi Ram was playing the caste game with the ruthless application. His own list of candidates was carefully mixed according to the appropriate communitarian formula: of his sixty-seven successful candidates, nine are upper caste representatives, twelve are Muslims, twenty-six from the Backward Castes and twenty Dalits (The Times of India: 27 October 1996).

The overall result of the 1996 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was strikingly similar to the previous Assembly election: the BJP won 174 seats in the Assembly of 425 seats; Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party won 110 seats, and the Bahujan Samaj (67) and Congress (33) jointly won too. Again there was a stalemate. For a time it appeared that Mulayam Singh, now installed as Defence Minister in New Delhi, would be forced by his coalition partners at the centre to back a Bahujana Samaj-Congress Government in Uttar Pradesh. This plan ultimately collapsed under the weight of multiple rivalries and suspicions. President’s rule from the centre persisted until finally, a Bahujan Samaj-BJP coalition Government took office in Lucknow in March 1997. This time the agreement was that Mayawati would serve as Chief Minister for six months and then give way to Kalyan Singh from the BJP for the same period. Again Kanshi Ram and Mayawati could argue that it did not matter which of the ‘Manuwadi’ parties they made an alliance with Congress or the BJP. Their task was simply to get into government and remake the system from the inside. And the second time around their abrasiveness has been even greater. During the drawn-out struggle to form a Government Mayawati was so fearful of her Assemblymen defect-ing to other parties that she locked them up in the Party headquarters in Lucknow for a period of weeks. They were not allowed out of the building, not even for Diwali, and visitors could see them for no more than fifteen minutes at a time (The Asian Age: November 1996). During this same period Kanshi Ram’s always strained relations with the ‘Manuwadi’ media deteriorated to the point that he ordered an attack on a group of journalists outside his official residence in New Delhi. He personally assaulted one of the journalists, and criminal charges are pending.

It is far too early to make a mature assessment of the Kanshi Ram- Mayawati phenomenon. Early on it might have been thought that the two leaders had achieved little more than the transfer of Congress Chamars to their own party in the context of the overall collapse of Congress in the north. It is certainly true that their only stable ‘vote bank’ is the Chamars, and no doubt a principal reason for the Chamars’ support is their understanding that this is ‘their’ party. The Chamars have also responded favourably to Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s arrogant disdain for orthodoxy and their denunciation of the large and petty oppressions that still characterise the lives of many Chamars. This community is now richer, better educated and bolder than when it gave its support to Jagjivan Ram. But Kanshi Ram and more recently Mayawati have also worked hard to dispel the notion that their party represents only the Dalits, let alone simply the Chamars. They have had considerable success in attracting other groups, including Muslims, to their cause, despite their willingness to cultivate relations with the anti-Muslim BJP. To what extent their approach is more than opportunistic exploitation of the multiple divisions of contemporary Uttar Pradesh society remains a question. Perhaps this question will partly be answered by the impact Mayawati can make on the apparatus of government in Uttar Pradesh, such that a culture of governance less hostile to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy begins to emerge. Undoubtedly Kanshi Ram and Mayawati have their faults, but they do represent a more aggressive attack on the order of social orthodoxy than has previously been seen from participants in the mainstream of Indian electoral politics. Kanshi Ram has shown that a person of Dalit origins can lead a party that wins seats at the ballot box and is not afraid to form a Government that puts the interests of the most subordinated Indians at its very centre. Throughout India, it will now be more difficult to ignore the interests of Dalits.

Mr. Kanshi Ram Ji then began working for Dalit equality by organizing self-help projects among educated people of the lower castes who held government jobs. He supported affirmative action programs in jobs and education for poor people. But he bitterly opposed “political reservations” – the setting aside of parliamentary or state-level government seats according to caste.

The political reservation system, he said, created “token seats” for “stooges” of the majority parties, all of them controlled by Brahmins or other high-caste people.

“Where Brahminism is a success, no other ‘ism’ can succeed,”
he also said,
“We need fundamental, structural, social changes.”

Author – Sandip Patil


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