THE emergence and evolution of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in mainstream politics in the past 40 years has been one of the most historic achievements of the Indian polity. Not only did the BSP disrupt the firmly entrenched patronage politics practised primarily by the upper castes but it successfully radicalised the political space by continuously asserting and mobilising the Dalit voice, which often went unnoticed in the politico-ethical environment dominated by postcolonial hangovers. The corruption profited only the upper castes and so did the idealism. In such a juncture, the BSP became a force that set out to make Dalits and other marginalised communities equal stakeholders in Indian politics.
This did not come without hard work. The Congress’ strategy of creating splinter groups within Ambedkarite politics and bringing up Dalit leaders who spoke the language of the Congress and not that of their own community worked very well in the party’s favour. The highly successful model of a patron-client relationship that it had with its electoral constituencies created a status quo, which was gradually becoming more and more brutal for the marginalised communities. It required Herculean efforts by some leaders to stem this exploitative tide.
Kanshiram was perhaps the tallest of them all, if mainstream politics is considered a vantage point. His success as a leader coincided with the growth of neoliberal capitalism in the post-Emergency period. As the absence of Dalit representation in the political mainstream was becoming evident, Kanshiram emerged as the leader of these people, whose hope of having a political voice was the most fragile. From an ordinary Ravidassia Sikh, he became the most idolised leader of Dalits after B.R. Ambedkar.
Badri Narayan’s Kanshiram is one of the most important biographies that have come out in recent times. It provides an understanding of the leader from up close. Narayan, a devoted admirer of Kanshiram, has written a hagiography, but his analysis of the BSP leader’s political journey is lucid. He has chronologically charted Kanshiram’s growth and struggles from his early days of social discrimination to his evolution as a leader of Dalits.
Narayan lays the ground for an understanding of Kanshiram’s origins and his political trajectory. At the outset, he talks about the various socio-religious reforms that sought to uproot caste-based discrimination and exploitation in production processes and shows how Ambedkar, for the first time, initiated a modernist discourse on caste-based exploitation.
The author makes the reader aware that the Indian welfare state model could never provide Dalits and other backward classes a space that was emancipatory in nature. Instead, it sought to perpetuate caste as most of the resources were cornered by the upper castes, with caste-based reservation working as a good bargain for the upper castes. Narayan explains how Kanshiram saw the Indian state’s anti-caste measures as mere sops and how he felt that caste could be annihilated, as envisioned by Ambedkar, only when Dalits seized power to ensure representation.
Narayan explains that in this Kanshiram differed from Ambedkar without being conflictual. While Ambedkar felt caste could be annihilated by active interference of the independent state, Kanshiram thought it would not be possible until Dalits had greater representation in the government. For him caste was the only thing that Dalits took everywhere.
And it was important for them to use their caste for political mobilisation, by asserting that they have a greater share in the Indian space. Kanshiram visualised a state where bahujan , or the majority of the Indian people comprising Dalits, minorities, and other backward classes, formed the state. Only then, he felt, caste could be annihilated and they freed from the larger political system that the upper castes perpetuated to suit their interests.
While Kanshiram was rooted in Ambedkar’s philosophy, he was much more pragmatic. Dalit mobilisation, for him, was no longer about bargaining with the upper caste-dominated government.
Narayan quotes Kanshiram: “The people who want to maintain casteism say that we should not talk about caste. If there is any need to do so, they will do it on our behalf, meaning that we should continue to suffer indignities. We are consolidating people on the basis of their caste so that the caste system can be removed. So it is in the benefit of the people who suffered due to casteism that they come together. We want them to subvert this feeling of inferiority complex linked with their caste due to Brahminism, and convert it into a matter of pride and in this process we are talking about caste. I tell them we will not tolerate oppression but break the audacity of the tormentors.”
Kanshiram was a pragmatic leader and understood Hindu irrationality so well that he used it to organise Dalits. Assertion and mobilisation was at the core of his political praxis. While Ambedkar dreamt of a new social order based on rationality and modernisms, Kanshiram sought political power first to see this transformation pass the test of reality. In doing so, he recreated and reinterpreted Hindu myths, idols, and texts to instil a sense of pride among the backward classes. In order to achieve his goal, Kanshiram used upper-caste methods to grab power for his brethren, which was often dubbed by his critics as political opportunism. Nonetheless, Kanshiram advocated militant politics with caste as its core. This was a novel method in Indian politics, which jolted the existing political parties and forced them to notice the new phenomenon.
Describing Kanshiram’s selfless dedication in making efforts to achieve this goal, Narayan says he lived in extreme penury despite the fact that he came from a fairly wealthy family; he left his family and he collected funds for the party by making every member an equal stakeholder. Right from the time he played an active role in consolidating Dalit government employees in the All India Backward (S.C., S.T., OBC) and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) and took his ideology forward first with the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and later with the BSP, Kanshiram immersed himself in the cause he believed in. The author explains the BSP’s bottom-up organisational concept and the new methods of politicisation that Kanshiram used to garner support.
Narayan delves into the BSP’s evolution and how it navigated politics by entering into strategic alliances, for which it faced considerable criticism, particularly from secular parties. The BSP lost much ground as a socially transformative party when it aligned itself with the communal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Biggest contribution In charting Kanshiram’s political journey, Narayan seems to have ignored the political contexts that presented themselves before him. Undoubtedly, Kanshiram’s biggest contribution was the consolidation of Dalits of northern India under the banner of the BSP but the processes of such consolidation had begun with the ushering in of the Naxalbari movement in 1967. The Naxalbari uprising saw the rise of Dalit agricultural labourers against their feudal landlords.
Since Kanshiram’s work was mostly concentrated in rural India, it was important for the author to investigate how his politics engaged with the Left movements. In other Left movements, too, Dalits found some political voice within the trade unions.
It would have been interesting to know how Kanshiram responded to national political emergencies from time to time. It is only towards the end of the book that Narayan talks about coalition politics and how Kanshiram advocated a weak government to create space for Dalits. However, such a strategy requires political manoeuvring, which the reader remains unaware of. While Narayan gives a vivid picture of Kanshiram’s political creativity in the initial stages of Dalit consolidation, the reader does not get much idea about how the BSP faced Indian realpolitik once it became an important player.
Further, Narayan implicates Mayawati, and not Kanshiram for the BSP’s current problems. For instance, he hints at the existing inequalities among Dalits, which the BSP perpetuated by focussing on Chamars. However, this aspect is shown as one of Kanshiram’s masterstrokes. The author also implicates Mayawati for her resentment towards anti-displacement struggles in Uttar Pradesh. He says Kanshiram would have fully supported the people against corporate-induced displacement. These issues automatically orient a reader to examine the sustainable nature of identity politics, however transformative they may be in the political context. As and when political contexts changed, political parties evolved and so has the BSP. But whether it has been adequate or not is something the author does not try to answer.
Further, how Kanshiram resolved some of the internal differences of the BSP is an area the author has not touched upon. In fact, the reader does not get an idea about how Kanshiram responded to the various principled debates within the Ambedkarite political streams as he charted his own course and in the process significantly altered Ambedkar’s views.
The story that Narayan has so succinctly and painstakingly laid out before the reader deserves not only praise but also gratitude. The book establishes Kanshiram as a revolutionary figure and gives him a space in history.