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The Dalit Chanakya

If Ambedkar was theory, Kanshi Ram was practice. Roaring practice.

The Dalit Chanakya
The Dalit Chanakya
The life and contributions of Kanshi Ram—activist, organiser and leader—can best be characterised by his drive to make our democracy more diverse and more responsive to Dalits and other unprivileged sections of society. It may be too early to fully assess his role and contribution; however, there is enough evidence to speculate about his legacy. Kanshi Ram fulfilled a vacant role in the long history of Dalit struggles that even B.R. Ambedkar was unable to fulfil. He successfully transformed Dalit society into a political force and thereby also fundamentally transformed the character of Indian politics. He not only raised the aspirations of Dalits to include the capture of political power but also demonstrated that this was possible through his leadership of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Kanshi Ram brought to fruition the unrealised vision of Ambedkar.

However, in making this dream possible, Kanshi Ram made radical departures from our received understandings of the supposedly natural character, not just of Dalit, but of Indian politics. There is no doubt that Kanshi Ram was inspired by the idea of mobilising the "bahujan" of India's society—Dalits, tribals, OBCs and Muslims, the so-called 85 per cent majority. The theoretical proposition that governed Kanshi Ram and also inspired Ambedkar to form the Republican Party of India did not really work out within the actual politics of India. This is where the genius of Kanshi Ram lies. He not only moved away from the assumption that liberation would follow the mobilisation of the "bahujan," but also reframed the theoretical and ideological proposition concerning the "bahujan", imagining for the first time the possibility of an alliance with non-bahujan communities and political parties.

He could, in the end, only target and mobilise Dalits in UP. The alliance with OBCs did not work because there was a major contradiction on the ground. The battle over land and resources was between Dalits and the OBCs in UP and not between the bahujan and upper castes. Therefore, an alliance between the BSP and the Samajwadi Party failed. Instead, Kanshi Ram ended up leading an alliance with the parties that represented caste Hindus in UP, both the Congress and the BJP. This process continues to be reworked in UP today with the BSP entering into an alliance with Brahmins by giving them more representation within the party. Such moves by the BSP have implications also for the way we understand "secular" politics and what it entails for Indian politics in the future.

Kanshi Ram was a true visionary who reinvented the ideological baggage that he inherited from Ambedkar. He was not afraid of redrawing and rethinking the nature and character of Dalit politics to take corrective measures on the way to achieving political power. The only community that was consistently part of the framework shared by both the RPI and the BSP was the Muslims, who played a significant role in the shaping of the journey of Kanshi Ram and the BSP.

Indeed, Kanshi Ram's trajectory, his vision and objectives, changed dramatically over his lifetime. When he founded the government employees' organisation bamcef in 1976, which focused on organising government employees from the "bahujan" community, such an alliance appeared to be a theoretically and ideologically feasible reality. To translate this effort into a political agenda he formed the DS4 (Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) in 1981—his first entrance into the political arena. In 1984, Kanshi Ram decided to enter politics "full-time" by forming the BSP. But the 'bahujan' framework did not yield results in the electoral arena, gaining only 13 seats in 1989 and 12 seats in 1991 in UP. It was only by entering into an alliance with the SP that he was able to break this logjam and gain a significant number of seats, but this alliance did not last. The inherent contradictions and instability of such an alliance between Dalits and OBCs (Yadavs and Kurmis in particular) forced Kanshi Ram to consider a radically new possibility. After having suffered at the hands of their supposedly "natural" ally, the SP, what was to stop him from allying with the Congress and BJP? The BSP thus responded to the many changes that had taken place in Indian society over the last 100 years and re-evaluated the equally old framework of 'bahujan.' Kanshi Ram was not afraid to evolve.

(The author has just completed a book on UP politics and teaches South Asian History at the University of Pennsylvania.)
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