Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram — so alike, yet so different

A merger of their separate approaches can lift the Dalit movement out of its current crisis and lead it towards success

May 11, 2012 12:13 am | Updated July 11, 2016 03:53 pm IST

Educated in the West, Dr. Ambedkar placed values at the centre of Dalit emancipation.  Photo: V. V. Krishnan

Educated in the West, Dr. Ambedkar placed values at the centre of Dalit emancipation. Photo: V. V. Krishnan

The Dalit movement in India, which started nearly 100 years ago, is going through a crisis today. This crisis is at both the ideological and political levels. Although nothing like a pan-Indian Dalit movement probably exists today, scattered Dalit movements are found in some form or the other at various State and regional levels. The common factor in all these movements is that they are all based on Babasaheb Ambedkar's ideas and have evolved directly from them.

The emergence of Kanshi Ram — and his success in politically empowering Dalits in Uttar Pradesh — is undoubtedly the second-biggest event in the history of Dalit movement since Ambedkar. The Dalit movement in U.P was inspired by Ambedkar and was born of the womb of Ambedkarism. However, while the U.P. movement has helped to empower Dalits in the State, it has also created tensions within the Dalit movement because of the conflict between Ambedkar's values and ideals-based ideology and Kanshi Ram's practical and pragmatic politics. The Dalit movement in Maharashtra which followed the path shown by Ambedkar has not yet been able to fulfil his dreams.

Kanshi Ram organised the Dalits of U.P into a wider category called Bahujan Samaj. Mayawati brought them under the bigger umbrella of ‘Sarvajan'. The experiment failed in the last U.P. Assembly elections. To understand today's Dalit movement in U.P., it is important to study the ideological differences between Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, since a lot has already been said about their similarities.

The ideological differences between Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar arose mainly from their education and backgrounds. While Ambedkar studied at Columbia University and was trained in Western knowledge tradition, Kanshi Ram was born in a small village in Punjab and trained in the school of Pune's Dalit politics. Because of Ambedkar's western training, his ideological ingredients were derived by seeing Dalits in the context of history. Kanshi Ram's political arguments in favour of Dalits on the other hand merged historical and mythological contexts. This is because he understood the mythology and folk-based culture and society of U.P. Kanshi Ram initially tried to follow Ambedkar's path that had been adopted in Maharashtra. However, he changed course and asserted that although Dalit politics got its grounding in Maharashtra, it grew and was nurtured on the soil of U.P. Ambedkar called the politics of emancipation of marginalised groups the ‘Dalit movement' while Kanshi Ram preferred to term it the ‘Bahujan movement', avoiding the use of the word ‘Dalit'.

Ethicality vs. pragmatism

Ambedkar provided an ethical context to the politics of Dalit liberation since morality was very important to him. Kanshi Ram chose to be pragmatic in his attempt to politically empower Dalits. He was unmindful of the means of acquiring political power, emphasising the end, i.e., attainment of political power. If he was criticised for his ‘opportunism' he used to immediately reply that if Brahmins can become influential by being opportunistic then Dalits too could use opportunism to empower themselves. Kanshi Ram believed that until a casteless society was formed it was necessary for Dalits to strategically use their caste as a tool in their own emancipation and to dethrone Brahminism. While Ambedkar saw the abolition of the caste system as vital for Dalit emancipation, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati favoured the awakening of Dalit and backward identities in order to link these with the Bahujan movement. Kanshii Ram and Mayawati transformed Ambedkar's ‘slogan, ‘abolish the caste system' — propagated in his book, Annihilation of Caste — into ‘promote the caste system' to mobilise Dalits towards the restoration of their caste identity and self-esteem.

Kanshi Ram viewed caste as a double-edged sword and he wanted to use it in a way that benefited the Bahujans but destroyed Brahminical hegemony. He wanted to rouse the consciousness of the Dalit and backward classes and believed in associating them with Bahujan society. However, he disagreed with Ambedkar's demand for a separate electorate for Dalits even though, like Ambedkar, he too wanted Dalits to attain respectability and glory in mainstream society. Kanshi Ram's idea was to transform society into a samta muluk (equal) society with all castes seen as equal and each having its own caste identity. This dream of a samta muluk society was the philosophical underpinning of the BSP.

Kanshi Ram's and — by consequence, the BSP's — ideology was based on Ambedkar's theory of the ‘origin of the Dalits' (arising from a Aryan-non-Aryan difference). But crucially, Ambedkar had refused to accept Manu as the founder of the caste system in India while Kanshi Ram gave Indian politics the new concept of ‘Manuvad'. Kanshi Ram always kept in mind Ambedkar's motto that political power was the master-key for Dalit liberation and that acquiring this master-key should be the Dalit war-strategy. But he used to say that Ambedkar learnt from books while he had learnt from his own life and people. He further said, ‘He used to gather books; I tried to collect people.'

If the Dalit movement in India is to succeed, it is important to analyse both the similarities and differences between Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar so that a new strategy can be developed for the movement. The Bahujan-Sarvajan movement in Uttar Pradesh may want to borrow from Ambedkarite values in its U.P. experiment while the Dalit movement in other parts of India may learn from Kanshi Ram on how to mobilise new Dalit Politics.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.