Kanshiram: Harbinger of change in modern Dalit history in India

On the occasion of Dalit history month, we take a look at the firebrand Dalit leader who led the fight for political agency and representation in Northern India

Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan Published Apr 16, 2021 13:18:00 IST
Kanshiram: Harbinger of change in modern Dalit history in India PV Narasimha Rao, Former Prime Minister with Kanshi Ram, Founder of Bahujan Samaj Party ( Congress, Together ) . Source: India Today Archives

It is rare to see Dalit leaders given honorifics such as Manyavar, Saheb and Bahujan Nayak, but Kanshiram was a unique leader of his times, under whose vision the Dalit community could carve out a niche for itself in the national political arena.

In the contemporary political stage in India today, many tend to miss the nuances that Kanshiram brought to the fore, specifically, in bringing together the subaltern communities as a strong political force in his time. He was a rare political entrepreneur, who was much ahead of his times. He founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) by imagining a vote bank comprising all the backward communities, including the other backward classes (OBC), the scheduled castes (SCs), the scheduled tribes (STs) and other minorities, collectively referred to as the ‘bahujan samaj’. He was also responsible for coming up with the idea of ‘Manuvadi’, or the follower of Manu Samhita, as the ‘other’ or the opponent against whom he would battle. Kanshiram’s main aim through the BSP was to bring about social transformation through Dalit empowerment.However, despite contesting against V.P. Singh in Allahabad in 1987 for the first time, it was only in 1991 that he managed to enter the Lok Sabha, when he contested from Ettawah in Uttar Pradesh.

Kanshiram, considered the messiah of Dalits after Ambedkar, was born on 15 March 1934 in a Dalit Chamar family in the Pirthipur Bunga village, Khawaspur, in the Ropar district of Punjab. He grew up with a love for sports, especially kabaddi and wrestling. Kanshiram studied at the government primary school in Malkapur, which was 2 kilometres from his village. Here he experienced the discrimination that Dalit children faced, such as having different pots for drinking water. Kanshiram was then moved to Islamiya School and the DAV Public School, where he completed his education. He graduated in 1956 with a BSc degree from the government college in Ropar. Kanshiram then went to the staff college in Dehradun for higher studies, where he also prepared for the Public Service Commission exams and worked with the Geological Survey of India. In 1957, Kanshiram joined the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (renamed the Explosives Research and Development Laboratory in 1960) in Poona (now Pune) as a research assistant.

kansiram3_041621011118.jpgKanshi Ram, Founder of Bahujan Samaj Party with party workers ( BSP, News Profile ). Photo by BHAWAN SINGH/ India Today Archives


After working there for five years, his life changed course due to one incident. The laboratory used to be closed on Buddha and Ambedkar jayantis. However, his upper-caste colleagues replaced these two days with jayantis for Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The lower-caste staff members were against this move but did not have courage to protest. But with the help of a Class IV employee, Kanshiram took the matter to the then Defence minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, who ordered an inquiry into the matter and the two days were reinstated.

It is at this point in his life that Kanshiram started reading the works of social reformers like Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar, which made him understand upper-caste hegemony more clearly and realize that the country’s administration comprised only 15 per cent of its entire population. He later understood that unless Dalits consolidated themselves into a single community, they would fail at staking a claim to India’s governance and administration.’

He resigned from his job and joined the Republican Party of India and also formed the Minority Communities Employees Association. Soon after, his political career began, with the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (also known as DS-4) and the All-India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF), which had the slogan: ‘Become educated, become consolidated and struggle.' He later went on to form the BSP on 14 April 1984. Kanshiram looked at the BAMCEF and the DS-4 as think tanks for the formation of the BSP.

Kanshiram travelled extensively within the country to talk about the cause he stood for and the sociopolitical mission that he had armed himself with. In one of his interviews, he says he has criss-crossed the country at least twice. He also travelled to Japan, Malaysia and the United-Kingdom to espouse social equity and the emancipation of Dalits.

With the passage of time and with the growing popularity of DS-4 and the BAMCEF, Kanshiram realized that the creation of a political platform was the next step to ensuring political representation of the Dalits and the backward communities. The BSP was launched in 1984, on the birth anniversary of Ambedkar, 14 April. This is when, for the first time since Independence, reservation for the OBCs was being discussed by the Mandal Commission. In 1979, the Morarji Desai-government set up the Mandal Commission to identify backward classes and address caste-based discrimination. The Commission recommended 27 per cent reservation for OBCs for jobs under the central government and public-sector undertakings. Kanshiram seized the opportunity and galvanized the Dalits and the OBCs as a consolidated political force.

The BSP led the pro-Mandal movement. Thousands of party workers, including young men, women and senior citizens, courted arrest in these demonstrations. The All India Revolt against Political Slavery was a movement that was launched in the same year as a platform to unify the OBCs and Dalits to help them realize their political worth as a formidable voting bloc. Needless to say, the BSP had the required momentum and fortunately for the party, the general elections were announced in 1984. Kanshiram’s efforts bore fruit in the electoral performance of a nascent BSP in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP, then barely a year old, contested from nine states and three union territories, and got a formidable 10 lakh votes in the general elections that year, of which more than 6 lakh votes were polled by the party in Uttar Pradesh alone. Kanshiram realized that Uttar Pradesh, when it was undivided, used to send the highest number of MPs to the Lower House and performing well in the state was going to be the perfect example of capturing political power through social engineering.

There are also several reasons behind Kanshiram’s selection of Uttar Pradesh, and not Punjab, as his karmabhoomi (chosen place of work). First, caste-based discrimination was not as pronounced in Punjab as it was in Uttar Pradesh then. On the other hand, Punjab has also had a number of social-reform movements, given the prevalence of Sikhism in the state. As of 2011, Punjab had the highest population of SCs, constituting 29 per cent in the country. There are thirty-seven loosely organized caste groups within the Dalit community in the state, many of which refuse to be clubbed together. Although Kanshiram did try to galvanize a movement in Punjab through the BSP, unfortunately he could not achieve what he had set out to do—galvanize the bahujan samaj as a strong political force. On the other hand, the Dalits in Punjab had improved their economic situation through jobs. It was Uttar Pradesh where identity was strongly based on social origin. The Jatavs were dominant among the SCs, constituting 54.23 per cent of the total SC population.

Kanshiram wrote a book in 1982 called The Chamcha Age: An Era of the Stooges, in which he laid out the philosophical foundation of the BSP. By chamcha he meant the Dalit leaders in mainstream political parties who, in his opinion, were compromising the interests of the community to forward their personal political careers. In a no-holds-barred attack, Kanshiram says:

After the sad demise of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1956, tools, agents and stooges of the high caste Hindus are found in abundance, not only in the political field but also in every field of human activity and relationship. Initially these tools, agents, and stooges were visible only to Mr. Ambedkar and the discerning eyes. Later, they were to be detected by the intelligentsia. But today, these tools, agents, and stooges are so much a common factor of daily life, that they can be easily detected by the common man in public. The common man has his own terminology. In his terminology, a tool, an agent, or a stooge is termed as Chamcha. And in this book, I have decided to use the common man’s terminology. To my mind, it will be fruitful to use common man’s terminology when we fight for his cause.

Apart from developing local committees and aiding organizational strength at the grass-roots level, Kanshiram ensured the cultural re-appropriation of local deities, war heroes, social reformers and soldiers of the Dalit community. Guru Ravidas, Rani Jhalkaribai, Uda Devi and others fit into the narrative of politics that Kanshiram espoused.

Kanshiram’s larger objective was the consolidation of the Dalit vote bank. While he minced no words when he termed some of his own Dalit brethren ‘chamchas’ or stooges in the hands of the upper caste, he did not let his relationship with other Dalit leaders suffer because of this view of his.

The nation lost Kanshiram on 9 October 2006, after a series of complications arising from blood pressure, diabetes and a brain stroke. With his death, a major movement in the history of post-Independence Dalit politics came to an end.


dalit-history-cover_041521082229.jpgMakers of Modern Dalit History published by Penguin Books. Source: Penguin Random House India


Excerpted, with permission, from Makers of Modern Dalit History written by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan, published by Penguin Books

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