Book review: Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits

By Chandra Sen for
Author: By Badri Narayan
Publisher: Penguin, Delhi
Price: Rs 374 at

‘The caste has come into politics’, ‘the standard of Indian politics has declined’. ‘We don’t want unemployed husband’. These have been some of the theoretical and political slogans during the ‘Mandal Commission’ in India. It was the era when the politics of Nehruwian-socialism was challenged vis-à-vis the rising independent voice of Dalit-Bahujan politics.

Support TwoCircles

The emergence of Dalit-Bahujan politics and its leadership has not only changed the grammar of Indian politics but also engendered new leadership and political formations across north India. The ideas of Manyawar Kanshiram got realized into the formation of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a political outfit which gave birth to new and alternative discourses in the Indian polity. The dream of Babasaheb Ambedkar to have an independent political party had been translated into reality. Thus the book, under review, ‘Kanshiram: Leader of The Dalits’, by Badri Narayan is one of the first works of its sort to describe the life and politics of Kanshiram in English.

kanshiram book image.jpg

The author of the book has never met Kanshiram but he tries to gather round the information from his relatives and families. He also relies on the secondary data for the accomplishment of this project. Author has tried to cover the life and politics of the above leader in eight parts, starting from his early life to the limits of Kanshiram’s politics. He called Kanshiram a Dalit leader despite the fact that the leader himself never liked the term ‘Dalit’ in his entire life. According to Kanshiram, as the biographer himself writes, Ambedkar called the politics of emancipation of marginalized groups ‘Dalit movement’ while Kanshiram preferred to term it the ‘Bahujan movement’ avoiding the use of the word dalit’.
The first generation assertive leaders of Dalits have been advantaged by the British army. This was the case of Ambedkar, Acchutanand and Babu Jagjivan Ram. Kanshiram’s family members also had the same life.

The journey of Kanshiram, from a Ramdasia family in Punjab to Poona, as a research assistant in Explosive Research and Development Laboratory in 1958 does not stop here. Rather it was the land of Ambedkar where he started his political expedition. Author himself writes that, ‘later, when he was working in Poona, Kanshiram saw and understood the plight of Dalits in India, which awakened in him the recognition of his own Dalit identity’. (18). From then he started travelling the entire country with bicycle to comprehend and mobilize the subjugated people of this country. He not only passed from Kanyakumari to Kashmir but also paved his visit to the North-Eastern places like Manipur to know the demography of Indian state.

The Indian history is full of the leaders who are known to have showered the love for Dalits in India. It would be interesting to see the sacrifices of conventional political parties and their leaders in comparison to the sacrifice of Kanshiram.

The second most fascinating and provoking facet of this book is the divergence between Ambedkar and Kanshiram’s Politics and philosophy. Kanshiram was the true follower of his predecessor but he devised his own stratagem and philosophy on the basis of his own pan Indian experience. He thoroughly read Ambedkar but in his political formulations he made the political statement of Ambedkar, ‘political power’ as the ‘master key,’ his most important schema. To accomplish this agenda, he formed numerous political and cultural organizations like BAMCEF and DS4 which proved to be the bone of the Kanshiram’s politics. These voyages eventually ended into the development of BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) in 1984.

In his schema of seeking power, Kanshiram was against annihilation of caste. As the author has written, ‘Kanshiram and Mayawati transformed the slogan ‘abolish caste system’ into ‘promote caste system’ (88) to mobilize Dalits for the restoration of their caste identity and self esteem’. Ethics and morality, conversion to Buddhism, separate electorate and reservation were the few areas where Kanshiram was not only against Ambedkar but also very innovative in defining the Dalits and their identity. He wanted to change the psyche of Dalits from very humble/support seeking Dalits to a very assertive and helping to others. ‘Kanshiram’s idea was to transform society into a samata mulak (egalitarian) society, with each caste seen as equal and having its own caste identity, and this was the philosophical underpinning of BSP’ (91). In short, the vertical pyramid structure of caste system should be drawn in horizontal line. So he came up with concept of politicizing the caste consciousness of marginalized communities.

Kanshiram did not only offer the fearless critique to mainstream political formulations but he also not spare the Dalits’ leadership. He lamented in his only and famous book ‘The Chamcha age: An Era of Stooges’. The biographer has made his third chapter on the above name of Kanshiram’s book where he quotes him, ‘According to Kanshiram, these were the Chamchas (stooges, agents or tools) created by mainstream political parties to oppose and compete with the genuine champions of the dalit cause. All dalit leaders including old-timers like Jagjivan Ram and Kanshiram’s contemporary, Ram Vilas Paswan, were encompassed within this definition of chamcha’ (64). If we see today’s politics, we find that how true it was.

The politics of Kanshiram was not merely of mobilization and criticism of Manuvaadi parties and its stooges but he also devised many strategies to dig out the heroes and heroine of Dalits and subaltern classes. He constructed his cultural politics where he included all the Dalits in his fold. The oral tradition of dalit–Bahujan has produced tremendous but contrast account of Brahminical narratives or so called Meta narratives. The rise of Uda Devi (Cori-sub-caste in UP), Jhalkari Bai (a Pasi sub-caste), Lakhan Pasi, Bijali Pasi, etc. were used as political resources to instill the confidence among wretched populace. Along with these he also ‘instructed to collect information from the various castes about their caste history, caste heroes, and their sect (panthi) gurus like Sant Ravi Das, Sant Kabir, and Swami Narayan’ (121). It is interesting to see that how those castes which were once the untouchable, unspeakable and un-seeable, have now become the tools to capture the state power. It reminds me of Mao-Tse Tung of China wherein he used his vast population as a positive tool to mobilize against the imperialist power to make a poor China into a hunger-free China.

The last sections of the book focus on the caliber of Kanshiram to capture the state power. He used to call himself an opportunist. He was contrary to Ambedkar who focuses on means while for Kanshiram it was the end which was most important for emancipation of Dalits. He chose Mayawati as his successor and made her Chief Minister at the age of thirty seven. The decision to choose her successor was well announced by him in Lucknow rally on 25 August 2003. To fulfill his agenda Kanshiram made government with BJP three times. To answer his critiques, the biographer has put Kanshiram’s argument in the following way. He writes that ‘during that period the BSP had further strengthen its political agenda and increased its vote percentage from 10 to 20 per cent while the BJP only maintained its earlier vote percentage’…..‘to the charge of his being opportunistic, he replied that he did not believe in the status quo but in continuously change his position’. (179). It is also interesting to see the support of BJP to Kanshiram as the most shocking episode but can we find such headline when the V.P. Singh-led minority Janta Dal government was supported by both the Left as well as the BJP?

The illness and death of Kanshiram was another controversial history in his life. He was well taken care by Mayawati in her house. The family of Kanshiram went to court against his house arrest. The court and Kanshiram both gave their agreement in the favor of Mayawati.

Kanshiram has been very controversial throughout his life. The type of politics he did was other thing but his relationship to his family and his party worker was another thing. He left his family in 1960s and declared that the Bahujan of this country would be his family. He never wanted any post and never married for the cause of the people of this country. The same path was also taken by another Punjabi young man, Sardar Bhagat Singh. The commitment and sacrifices of both finds resonance in many ways. It is well known fact that late.Prof. Tulsi Ram used to call him the Lenin of Dalits. The coming generation will do justice to him and it will come some day that more writings would come to find different shades of him. This book is just a beginning.

Chandra Sen is currently pursuing P.hD in School of international Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be contacted at [email protected]