Kanshi Ram: Fighter for an equal conversation

By Shivam Vij

First published in Tehelka issue dated 21 October 2006

Whether or not Ambedkar’s birthday should be a holiday is a decided issue today; in 1965 it was not. At the Department of Defence Production in Pune, where he worked as a scientific assistant on a reserved seat after completing his B.Sc, Kanshi Ram found himself in the middle of an agitation by Scheduled Caste employees to prevent the abolition of the April 14 holiday. Although born in a community of Punjabi Chamars converted to Sikhism, Kanshi Ram moved in an educated urban ethos where there was little discrimination against dalits. But this incident shook him: he read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste thrice in one night.

Along with his friend DK Khaparde, Kanshi Ram began to think of an organisation that would work for dalit officers but also mobilise them to give back to the community. As the political mobiliser took shape, he lost interest in his government service and abandoned his engagement and decided to dedicate his life to a new Ambedkarite movement of his own making.

In 1971, he finally left his job after the dispute over the appointment of someone he thought was a qualified dalit candidate deserving of the reserved job. The same year was born the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Minorities Employees Welfare Association, “to subject our problems to close scrutiny and find out quick and equitable solutions to the problems of injustice and harassment of our employees in general and the educated employees in particular.” The organisation expanded two years later into the All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation (BAMCEF), which in some ways became for the BSP what the RSS is to the BJP. BAMCEF was also a convenient tool for mobilisation, and remains one, because the Civil Service Conduct rules do not allow government officers to join a political party.

By the mid-1970s Kanshi Ram had established a wide network and began moving out. He would halt across the Hindi heartland on his way up to Delhi and establish contacts, meet people, take new recruits. In 1980 he organised an ‘Ambedkar Mela on Wheels’, taking the story of Ambedkar’s life and his messages in simple, symbolic terms to the dalit masses across 34 destinations in 9 states in a span of three months. No more did Kanshi Ram write complex articles for The Oppressed Indian about Ambedkar’s view of the social system. He became most famous for the simple ways in which he communicated with the masses, simply saying that the social order needed to be reversed, and it could be done if only dalits, obcs and minorities were to realise their collective oppression under Brahminism.

That was the first big point of departure from agitating only within the ambit of reservation beneficiaries. He was by now not able to hide his contempt for the dalit babu in the sarkari office, whom he saw as being timid and selfish. BAMCEF was following Ambedkar’s command to “Educate, Organise and Agitate”, but Kanshi Ram was eager to enter the political sphere as well. In 1981 he formed ds4 — the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, a quasi-political party, and in 1984 the Bahujan Samaj Party. Not all in BAMCEF were happy with this: they owed their loyalties to the Republican Party and, besides, were not ready for direct political involvement because of their government service. They were also increasingly uneasy with Kanshi Ram heading three organisations and being an unchallenged, and thus undemocratic, leader. In 1986, Kanshi Ram declared that he would work only for the BSP.

The BSP adopted as its core ideology a bold opposition to Manuwad, which meant the dominance of one-tenth of society over the rest ninety percent. The slogan used after the formation of ds4 — “Brahmin, Bania, Thakur Chor / Baki Sab Hum ds4” — ceased to sound like an ad jingle in its adaptation for the BSP in the 1993 Assembly elections — “Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar / Maaro Inko Jootay Char”. It is not only the first line but also the second one that is loaded with caste, as being beaten with shoes is demeaning given leather’s relation with ritual impurity. This was the most outward manifestation of the BSP’s links with the Chamars (literally, those who deal in chamra or leather) who are evenly distributed across UP. On the contrary, Jatavs, another Schedule Caste community, has not been wholeheartedly with the BSP.

Muslims and, more importantly, Kurmis, who were attracted to the BSP for their opposition to Yadav dominance in the Samajwadi Party, occupied important positions in the organisation as Kanshi Ram wanted to make numbers work for power. The one-point focus at capturing power replaced all ideas of social change, which Kanshi Ram now said would follow from power rather than the other way round. By the end of his political career he even turned hostile towards reservations, which he saw as a “crutch”. He said that the dalit-Bahujans should unite so that they could instead condescend to the dwija (twice-born) upper-castes and give them representational reservations. The millions who swear by Kanshi Ram’s name and vote for the BSP are still looking forward to it.

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