Politics of liberation

Print edition : November 03, 2006

Kanshi Ram leaves behind a legacy of social struggle that has changed the politics of Uttar Pradesh.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

KANSHI RAM (1934-2006)-K. RAMESH BABU

WATCHING the thousands who came to pay their last respects to Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), on October 10 and 11, one realised that there were, broadly, two categories of people among the mourners. A minority looked at the leader's contribution to the polity and society from a distance and were awed by the enormous influence he possessed in the marginalised sections of the population in north India. But the vast majority of mourners were ordinary people belonging to various Dalit and other downtrodden communities, who were part and parcel of the dynamics of Kanshi Ram's political practice.

Many among the `minority group' had become Kanshi Ram's admirers out of an assessment that his politics would help establish a more egalitarian society. This group also had people who had associated with him merely on account of their own political needs or electoral compulsions. A wide array of political leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani and former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, belonged to this group. The `majority group' was driven not by political concepts or electoral calculations but by the realisation that Kanshi Ram had impacted their lives so immensely as to change the character of their day-to-day existence.

Daulat Ram, a 70-year-old agricultural labourer from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, who had led a jeep-load of people for the funeral in Delhi, described the change brought about by Kanshi Ram's politics in his village in a couple of telling sentences: "But for Saheb [Kanshi Ram] we would never have had the courage to rent a vehicle and travel outside the village. Saheb told us and showed us that we too have the right to make use of all the facilities enjoyed by other communities."

Daulat Ram might well have been talking for millions of Dalits across Uttar Pradesh. Kanshi Ram's politics helped them to cast off the shackles of physical, economic, social and even emotional slavery.

Over the past two decades, this correspondent had occasion to witness some vignettes of this process of liberation. The transformation of the Dalit community of Jatavs, most of them landless labourers in hundreds of villages across western Uttar Pradesh, is a case in point. Even as late as the mid-1980s, the Jatavs lived in unremitting social and economic misery. An oft-repeated saying in rural Uttar Pradesh at that time was that the Jatav man did not possess anything; not the land he tilled, not the cattle he reared and not even the bride he married. Those who made bold to talk would do so only after making sure that they were not being overheard by upper-caste people. Retribution was quick and harsh if they were found out.

But the Jatavs started asserting themselves gradually, as Kanshi Ram's politics grew in strength.

Today, they are a vibrant community; their villages ring with gunshots from country rifles whenever there is a function in their families. Their rights over their belongings, however meagre, are far more strongly held. They still do not enjoy the kind of social standing that upper-caste people do, but they are now far more confident as a social group than they were 20 years ago. Kanshi Ram's politics is largely responsible for this change. The scale of this change is unmatched in northern India.

Kanshi Ram's methods to bring about this change were marked by aggressive politics and lacklustre politicking. The most striking feature of this mixture was its unpredictability. His rivals and friends could never really gauge when he would switch from an aggressive posture to a moderate one, or vice versa. He picked up and dropped political allies at will, least bothered about considerations such as political philosophy or ideology. He joined hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in 1993 and came to power, only to dump the alliance in 15 months. The break-up was immediately followed by an alliance with the ideologically disparate, Hindutva-oriented BJP. This alliance broke in less than six months, but it was revived one and a half years later, only to be broken again in a little over eight months.

Kanshi Ram justified these flip-flops as part of the strategy to advance the politics of the Bahujan Samaj. According to him, the larger and the only interest of the Bahujan Samaj was to enhance its political space and ultimately capture power. "Once this is done," he told this correspondent 12 years ago, "social emancipation would follow, keeping in line with the most progressive political philosophy and ideology." All activities of the party were focussed towards this end. His trenchant opposition to caste-based political reservation in Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies was also in keeping with this perspective. Though Kanshi Ram welcomed caste-based reservation in educational institutions and jobs, he saw it only as a crutch.One of his oft-repeated formulations on reservation was: "If you have a broken leg, crutches do help you to walk, but if you want to run crutches are of no help, but a major impediment."

The constant appeal to party workers to ensure that more and more Dalit voters exercised their franchise was also in keeping with this "power first" premise. At BSP meetings that followed the formation of the S.P.-BSP government in 1993, Kanshi Ram emphasised that the alliance had helped more BSP voters to reach polling booths, and that the next alliance should help even more Dalits to vote.

There were flip-flops at the level of social alliances too. The early days of the BSP were marked by aggressive casteist slogans such as: Tilak, tarazu aur talwar/Inko maaro joothey chaar. Roughly translated, it means: Beat up Brahmins, Banias and Thakurs with shoes. Kanshi Ram used to say at meeting after meeting that if a Dalit meets a Brahmin and a cobra together, he should first drive away the Brahmin because the cobra is less venomous. Fifteen years after the BSP's launch, in the early 2000s, Kanshi Ram virtually gave up this aggressive sloganeering and started advancing the idea of Dalit-Brahmin unity.

Ever since Kanshi Ram became critically unwell and immobile two years ago, his protege, former Chief Minister Mayawati, has steadfastly advanced this "new line". This, again, is in keeping with Kanshi Ram's focus on capturing power. The last four elections in Uttar Pradesh have shown that the BSP has 21 per cent of the popular vote as an "ensured share"; so the party needs new alliances to increase its vote share. The overtures to the Brahmin community were made in this context and the strategy, by all indications, is working.

Although the BSP's strategies have paid off handsomely in Uttar Pradesh, they have not worked so well in other States. The party has substantial support bases in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan, but its successes in these States are not comparable to its record in Uttar Pradesh. Kanshi Ram's dream of a strong national presence for his party has not, so far, come true. The BSP continues to be basically a phenomenon confined to Uttar Pradesh. Another striking feature of Kanshi Ram's politics since 1965, when he first embarked on a political course after quitting a clerical job in the Defence Ministry, was his emphasis on a well-knit organisation.

Interestingly, the structure and set-up of all organisations initiated by Kanshi Ram, starting from the DS-4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) to the BSP, were intensely hierarchical. Mayawati and he sat in special, decorated chairs in all party meetings, while the others sat in inferior chairs or even on the floor. Mayawati continues with the same practice in public and party meetings.

By any yardstick, this gesture and the organisational culture that it reflects are not in tune with the egalitarian value system that the BSP seeks to propagate. Critics of the BSP assert that inconsistencies like this as well as the absence of a defined political philosophy and ideology are counter-productive and carry within them the seeds of defeating the very gains that the party has achieved for the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh, socially and politically. While this contention cannot be brushed aside, the fact remains that at present the Dalit communities of Uttar Pradesh enjoy considerable social and economic mobility, essentially on account of the political practice devised and advanced by Kanshi Ram over the past two and a half decades.

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