Kanshiram’s legacy of Dalit empowerment left adrift

In republican India’s history, there is no politician who can match Kanshiram’s life story. No one else could have carved a niche for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and the Minorities as much as he did. He came on the Indian political scene without a resumé popping with credentials of legacy, inheritance, wealth, title, surname or party. Irrespective of all these barriers, he sculpted a solid, unremitting, electrifying Bahujan movement in India.

He hailed from an agriculturist Chamar family, but being a Sikh had no impact on caste exclusions of Dalits in the region. Kanshiram, born on March 15, 1934, was aware of this, yet not to the extent of grasping the nuances of such discrimination. He had naively thought of Brahmins as being a poor and backward community due to their low status in Jaat-dominant Punjab.

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In his later life, there was one incident in his diverse working stints that had an impact on him. In 1957, he settled for a job as a research assistant in the Ministry of Defence’s Explosives Research and Development Laboratory (also called the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory), in Pune. A colleague, a class IV employee, Dinabhana from Rajasthan’s Bhangi caste, had taken it upon himself to protest the administration’s cancellation of holidays for Ambedkar and Buddha Jayanti. As a consequence, he was fired for raising the issue. He chose to fight it in court. Looking at Dinabhana’s unrelenting struggle, Kanshiram turned towards activism to seek social justice and political freedoms.

Much of Kanshiram’s memories are lived through anecdotes and his speeches. A.R. Akela, a foremost scholar of the Bahujan movement, has compiled a series and published them in Hindi.

Political disrupter

It must be noted that Kanshiram did not leave extensive written records or archives barring the classic, The Chamcha Age (An Era of the Stooge). Dedicated to Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, The Chamcha Age was later to be the founding ground of a party that would be a disrupter in India’s casteist political spectrum — the Bahujan Samaj Party. Kanshiram started by wanting to do nothing with the tokenised, genuflecting leadership of Dalit leaders that the Poona Pact between Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar had produced. Such a leadership was willing to be the secondary elements of the dominant Congress party.

Review of Kanshiram — Leader of the Dalits: A look back at the colourful history of a bahujan leader

Following simmering resentment against the political attitude towards Dalits, Kanshiram gathered middle class government employees who were seeking leadership that had a spine and self-pride. He recruited disgruntled intellectuals and government employees to give wheels to the caravan of the Bahujan movement.

In current times, Kanshiram’s struggle continues to be more popular and his ideas acceptable to second and third generation Dalits who are unwilling to settle for anything less than what they deserve. Educated and with a confident outlook, the young breed of Dalits are now aiming to give life to Ambedkar’s vision — of becoming a part of the ruling class of the country. Through Kanshiram they see a feasible, methodical approach to getting that throne.

Almost every student organisation, social and political outfit subscribes to the legacy of Ambedkar. The Bhim Army Ekta Mission, for instance, wants to be seen as a part of Kanshiram’s Ambedkarite legacy. The Bhim Army’s status is complicated on a national scale. Though its flamboyant leader, Chandrashekhar Azad, has an appeal across caste, religion and regional lines, the organisation’s social base has still to be firmed up. Its apolitical work such as pre-school training, having an atrocity grievance cell and cultural activism needs to be expanded. There needs to be a multi-organisational strategy.

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There are several Bahujan organisations that work towards Dr. Ambedkar’s dream of a non-caste India. But the origins of this can be traced back to the BAMCEF, or the All India Backward (SC, ST, and OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation.

Along with his colleagues, Kanshiram began one of the largest unions of government employees. Through BAMCEF, he connected SC, ST, OBCs, and other minorities to fight back against atrocities and discrimination. With a structure in place, he was able to help create a strong sense of accountability towards the community. Thus, the widely popular initiative ‘Pay Back to Society’ was inaugurated in 1973. As a part of BAMCEF there were simultaneous initiatives such as the BAMCEF Datta Grahan, -Bhaichara, -Sahkarita. In 1981, the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS-4) with 10 wings (students, women, etc.) was established to experiment with socio-political possibilities. Eventually the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was formally established in 1984. Kanshiram declared that he wanted the community to become givers rather than receivers. For that to happen it required training and preparation. Cadre camps and various events filled the gap.

Instead of downplaying the importance of caste, Kanshiram opted to strengthen oppressed caste associations which was one way to weaken the structures that sustain caste. Every ‘upper’ caste had an investment in caste, which is why it transferred this into structures that catered to its needs. Kanshiram invested in the cultures of caste and cultural methods of anti-casteism. He understood well that artists and in turn their art were organic intellectuals who were a part of the grass-roots. He sought them out and trained them. It is no accident that the ‘Ambedkar Mela on Wheels’ was among the many first Dalit History Month projects that featured Ambedkar’s photographs, books, pamphlets and posters.

Also read | Mayawati, rebel leaders fight for Kanshi Ram’s legacy

Kanshiram understood that emotional appeal was a far more powerful way to use radical anger that would help tackle the oppressor. Thus, the artwork and paintings depicting atrocities on the communities played a pivotal role in his outreach initiatives. He had grasped early on that while emotions are essential, a strategy was also needed to direct people’s thoughts into producing material.

His deft editorial skills also found expression. The popular The Oppressed Indian and the Bahujan Sanghatak were his organisation’s mouthpieces. There were others that dealt with land reform, nationalisation of industries and a labour welfare regime such as Aarthik Utthan (1980) and Economic Monthly (1981) in addition to the impressive Bahujan Times (1984).

Kanshiram can be said to be the leader who introduced Periyar to villages in north, central, eastern and western India. Like Periyar, there were many unsung heroes who were given space on the canvas of the BSP. They include Nandanar, Iyothee Thass, Nangeli, Birsa Munda, Savitribai Phule and Jhalkaribai.

Growing void

In hindsight, we are yet to find similar investments by his protégés. There are certainly no intellectual research wings, as was the case earlier, which can provide guidance to the movement. There is no media that can converse with the public on a daily basis on Dalit issues; neither is there any trust-building mechanism.

Finally, moving to the present state of the BSP, it appears that the party leadership lacks a committed young cadre that can be trained to take over the reins of the leadership. Kanshiram’s legacy remains alive and kicking in the words of the BSP’s chief Mayawati. But in the absence of any credible sourcing of talent, organisations such as the Bhim Army and many BAMCEF-BSP inspired regional parties could step in and fill the vacuum.

Suraj Yengde, the author of Caste Matters, is a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 12:25:14 PM |

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