In 1971, when Kanshi Ram was an employee in the munitions factory of the DRDO in Pune, he picked a quarrel with a senior officer, and allegedly struck him, over the non-appointment of a young, qualified Dalit woman. This led to his eventual quitting the government job. There is this great Indian myth that once the Dalits or other backward classes enter the realm of modernity and become a part of the apparently seamless middle class, caste would disappear, caste would wither away. Urban Indians are not casteist, it is believed, except in matrimonial columns. By 1965, Kanshi Ram and his fellow Dalit and backward class employees realized that was hardly the case. Dalit employees were routinely humiliated on an everyday basis at their workplace. And Kanshi Ram deeply resented that. If this were the fate of an educated, employed Dalit, what would her fate be in the feudal-rural scenario? Even in his early 30s, as an organiser, he nurtured his support base among the Dalit and Backward Caste government employees; the very first organization he established with his colleagues in 1971 was the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities Employees Welfare Association in Pune. The objective: to counter the harassment the
shoshit (oppressed) employees faced.
In 1996, in New Delhi, Kanshi Ram slapped a TV journalist and BSP workers assaulted other members of the media. What the provocation was we shall not know, for there was no one to report that, as Kenneth J. Cooper, then the Washington Times correspondent in New Delhi, discovered. He was shocked by the manner in which the Indian media had reported the happenings at Kanshi Ram’s residence. Cooper, a witness, wondered: Is there no one to report the Dalit side of the story? He then asked senior journalist B.N. Uniyal, among others, if there were no Dalits in the capital’s media. Cooper went on to write an article in Washington Times about the absence of Dalits in the Indian print media. Uniyal made a search for Dalit journalists and even published an article about his vain search in The Pioneer. Not much has changed in the last ten years, as a survey by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in May 2006 indicated.
Be it in 1971 when he struck a higher official or in 1996 when he slapped an overbearing journalist, Kanshi Ram was animated by the same spirit to defend the self-respect and dignity of Dalits . In 1973, he established the All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF), and in 1981 formed the came DS4 (the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti), a precursor to the Bahujan Samaj Party founded on Ambedkar’s birthday, April 14, 1984.
Since 1919 when he made his first political intervention on behalf of the Depressed Classes in the Southborough Commission till his death in 1956, B.R. Ambedkar tended to articulate the Dalit issue as essentially one of a ‘minority’ problem. In positing Dalits as India’s biggest minority group that needed political and societal safeguards, Ambedkar was reacting to the Muslim self-perception in colonial India. The British adjudication and manipulation of the politics of numbers, using Census figures, were crucial for these early debates on the scope of democratic representation in India.
Kanshi Ram, unarguably the biggest leader to emerge from among Dalits in the post-Ambedkar period, and someone who succeeded in the realm of parliamentary democracy in which Ambedkar repeatedly failed, drew heavily from Ambedkar’s political resources. However, he decided to deploy a different strategy at the ground level. Surely, the consolidation of Uttar Pradesh’s 22 percent or Punjab’s 28 percent Dalit populations alone would not ensure victories in elections; but such a consolidation would force the tormentors and opponents of Dalits to come to the bargaining table.
Kanshi Ram realized that if the Dalits had to wrest their share in political power on their own terms, they needed allies. In this sense, he was more a follower of Jotiba Phule (1827–1890). At the heart of Kanshi Ram’s politics was the concept of the ‘bahujan’—the oppressed majority, a quintessential Phule formulation that believed in the organic unity of the Sudras (BCs and BCS) and Atisudras (Dalits and Adivasis); (something with which Ambedkar differed since he saw the Sudras as essentially erstwhile khsatriyas and the untouchables as fallen Buddhists). Following Phule, Kanshi Ram believed that the Sudras and Atisudras needed to join hands with Muslims and other minorities to combat the Brahmin-Baniya-Rajput combine. The logic that drove this postulation was that if democracy was the rule of the majoritarian voice, then why was it that in Indian democracy only the voice of the dwija castes was heard? In the early phase of his political career, Kanshi Ram believed that the Dalits and their immediate tormentors in the rural landscape—OBCs—could join hands. The mastermind of coalition politics in Uttar Pradesh sought to first forge an alliance at the societal level before seeking to fortify it at the political level. This was not easy, as we shall see.
The birth of the BSP in 1984 did not happen in the most conducive circumstances. Rajiv Gandhi swept to power on a sympathy wave. The BJP’s hindutva agenda was looming large and Rajiv played along, allowing the shilanyas and the telecast of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana. Not the best of times for a man without any previous political foothold in Uttar Pradesh—born on March 15, 1934 is a Raidasi Sikh family in Khawaspur village, Ropar district, Punjab and bred on Phule and Ambedkar’s ideas in Pune—to pose a challenge to both the Congress and BJP. The challenge could bear fruition only when the OBCs and Dalits joined forces, Kanshi Ram reckoned. One of the early DS-4 slogans was ‘Brahmin, Bania, Thakur Chor, Baki Sab Hum DS-Four’ (meaning, Brahmins Banias Thakurs are crooks, the DS-4 are their victims). In the 1993 UP assembly elections ‘Tilak, Taraju, Talwar. Maaro Unko Joote Char’ was on every BSP worker’s lip. This slogan to give the boot to the oppressors was not just imbued with anti-caste sentiments but anti-hindutva as well; the tilak invoking the Brahmins, the taraju the Baniya and the talwar the militant Kshatriya, all in the service of hindutva. This was essentially an inversion of anti-Dalit traditional rhymes that equated chamars with chors (thieves).
An alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajawadi Party followed. This remained an uneasy alliance at the core because the OBC mindset was such that it would never accept a Dalit as leader. Sharing power with OBCs proved a tough task. Be it a Brahmin like Lalji Tandon, or OBCs like Mulayam Yadav or Kalyan Singh, they resented the idea of being headed by a Dalit . (Even an MBC of Nishad caste like Phoolan Devi preferred to join the Samajwadi Party, a reflection on how the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati leadership could not be stomached by most non-Dalits .) Moreover, in rural UP, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 (PoA Act) assumed meaning whenever the Mayawati-led BSP was in power. While the media preferred to highlight only her excesses with Ambedkar statues and parks, under her regime the PoA Act came to be termed the Dalit Act and UP became the only state where it was not possible to casually insult a Dalit and get away with it. To refer to a Dalit with contempt—which caste Hindus had done as matter of convention and traditional right—became a crime that could result in a FIR and booking under Section 3 (I) X of the PoA Act. Police officers were given instructions to fearlessly implement the Act, both unprecedented and never emulated in any other state under any other regime. The implementation of the Act went a long way in recognising and restoring a sense of self and dignity among the Dalits of UP. This was seen by the caste Hindu society and the media—inured by routine, everyday humiliation of Dalits —as the registering of false cases in the name of the Dalit Act. (According to a study, the UP Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission says 80-85 per cent of the cases brought before it are genuine.) In these cases, the OBCs were named as the primary tormentors of Dalits . The Dalit -OBC political alliance in Lucknow could not be translated into a Sudra-Atisudra social harmony. The slew of FIRs, with OBCs shown as aggressors, strained the BSP-SP alliance. This was a fundamental societal contradiction that Kanshi Ram could not resolve. The echoes of the free and fair use of the PoA Act could be heard in faraway Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh where the BC and OBCs groups demanded the repeal of the Act.
It is an irony of our times that in her last term as CM, Mayawati sought to dilute this very Act in order to please her ally, now the Brahmin/Thakur/OBC-filled BJP. In July 2002, the Mayawati government issued a directive signed by chief secretary D.S. Bagga and special secretary Anil Kumar with respect to the PoA Act which instructed the entire administrative machinery, to prevent ‘misuse’ of the Act and asked them to direct the state’s penal and executive bodies to be ‘extra careful’ about registering the cases under the Act.
How and why did Kanshi Ram ally alternately with BJP and SP and even the Congress—in other words, with BCs and OBCs, as well the Brahmin-Baniya-Thakurs? Here, we need to invoke Ambedkar on the place of minorities in the midst of communal and political majorities. He argues in his neglected, late work Thoughts on Linguistic States:
People who rely upon majority rule forget the fact that majorities are of two sorts: (1) Communal majority and (2) Political majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it. How can a communal majority run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule? … This tyranny of the communal majority is not an idle dream. It is an experience of many minorities.
Kanshi Ram understood that what was being played out in Indian democracy was the rule of communal majority in the name of the rule of the political majority. For a communal minority like Dalits , the only way to democracy was by kneading its way into the forces that constituted political majority in electoral politics. Dalits could not join the communal majority constituted by Baniyas, Thakurs and Brahmins, for, as Ambedkar says, the door to communal majority is closed. But they sure could join the political majority, since the class and caste composition of the political majority could change. This was manageable through alliances. Under Kanshi Ram’s stewardship, the BSP practically demonstrated what Ambedkar had theoretically formulated. In this sense, Kanshi Ram redefined and expanded the scope of parliamentary democracy in India.
If Kanshi Ram did not ally with one force, it was with the Left. The Left of course had hardly a presence in Uttar Pradesh. At the national level the CPI and CPI(M) preferred to do business with the ‘secular’ Mulayam, Karunanidhi or even Jayalalitha, but refused to engage with the BSP.
Kanshi Ram painfully realised that Phule’s bahujan concept would not work under Dalit leadership. Kanshi Ram therefore successfully wedded Phule’s advocacy of the bahujan with the Ambedkarite idea of negotiating space for a communal minority in a political majority. With this premise, within a decade he managed to build a national party that became the sole challenge to the supremacy of the Congress and the BJP in the Hindi heartland.