Dalit leader Kanshiram, who died on 9 October 2006, was the force behind the Bahujan Samaj Party, an important powerbroker on the Indian political scene.
New Delhi: “Jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari (The greater a community’s numbers, the greater its political representation)”. This simple yet sharp observation from one of Kanshiram’s slogans highlights the pragmatic politician he was.
But more than that, Kanshiram was a social crusader for whom political power was just a means to emancipate Dalits from the injustices of the caste system. Fondly called “manyavar”, Kanshiram, who died this day 12 years ago, managed to provide the Dalits of northern India an independent political identity.
A leader from the start
The details of Kanshiram’s early life are not very well-known. However, according to Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits, a biography pieced together by scholar Badri Narayan through interviews with family members and peers, Kanshiram was born on 15 March 1934 in Pirthipur Bunga village near Punjab’s Ropar district.
He belonged to the Chamar caste, which was brought under the fold of Sikhism during the time of the fourth guru, Ramdas. His family was primarily engaged in agriculture, owned some land and a small tannery, and held a mango orchard on lease. They were relatively better off than caste peers in other parts of north India.
Kanshiram received his early education at a government primary school and later shifted to DAV Public School in Ropar. In 1956, he graduated with a B.Sc from the local government college.
In 1957, he cleared the Survey of India examination but decided not to join it. Finally, he joined the Pune-based Explosives Research and Development Laboratory in 1960 as a research assistant.
Even though Kanshiram had seen and faced caste-based discrimination earlier, it was a particular incident at work that made him understand the full extent of the problem.
The laboratory where he worked used to be closed on Ambedkar Jayanti and Buddha Jayanti. However, the administration suddenly decided to remove these holidays in favour of instituting offs on the birth anniversaries of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. When one employee refused to come on Ambedkar Jayanti, he was removed from service.
The incident enraged Kanshiram, who decided to take up the cause of this employee. He arranged money for his court case, mobilised other employees around the issue, and even met then defence minister Yashwantrao Chavan.
An inquiry was ordered, after which the employee was reinstated and the order cancelling Buddha and Ambedkar jayantis as holidays withdrawn.
Kanshiram quit his job in 1964, and told his family in a letter that he was severing all ties with them because he thought any attachment may compromise his dedication towards the Dalit cause. This is why he also decided to never get married.
The awakening of the oppressed
Kanshiram had started working with Republican Party of India (RPI) while he was employed. The association continued for a while after his resignation, but he soon became disillusioned with the RPI’s functioning.
In 1971, he formed the SC/ST/OBC Minorities Communities Employees Association (SMCEA), which was later renamed the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). The aim of this organisation was to bring together educated Dalit, backward and minority employees from all over the country under one non-political umbrella. The slogan of the organisation was “Become educated, become consolidated, and struggle”.
In 1981, Kanshiram founded the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, whose aim was to make Dalits aware about their oppression. Its members started visiting villages on bicycles to mobilise Dalits and spread Kanshiram’s message among them. This organisation provided the platform on which Kanshiram launched the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984.
Within a decade of its formation, the party managed to form a coalition government with the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh in 1993. However, rifts soon emerged and the coalition collapsed in 1995. The BSP then staked claim to form the government with support from the BJP.
Kanshiram fell seriously ill at around this time and asked his protege Mayawati to become chief minister. Even this government collapsed after 136 days and President’s rule was imposed in Uttar Pradesh.
However, Kanshiram remained undeterred. Relying on opportunism as a strategy, he again formed an alliance with the BJP, a party he was ideologically opposed to, in the 1996 and 2002 elections. Mayawati was selected as CM on both occasions. The alliance broke both times and it was only in 2007 that the BSP managed to secure a full majority in the UP assembly elections.
Kanshiram wasn’t there to witness his party complete its first full term in office.
After a stroke in 2003, he slowly receded from public life, passing on the reins of the BSP to Mayawati, who took great care of him during his last days. He passed away on 9 October 2006.
A champion of the Dalit cause
Kanshiram was critical of all national parties, including the communists. He believed the Indian communists over-emphasised class and completely ignored the reality of caste in India.
While a supporter of reservation for Dalits, he believed that it only allowed for representation in bureaucracy and not in politics. The Dalit cause, he believed, would succeed only when the community acquired political power and representation.
Kanshiram planned to convert to Buddhism. In 2002, he announced that he would do so on 14 October 2006, the 50th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. Although he died a few days before the planned conversion, his last rites were performed according to Buddhist rituals.
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