Bahujan Rajyadhikara Yatra ignites idea of the poor becoming rulers: BSP’s Praveen Kumar

08 February, 2023

RS Praveen Kumar is the president of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Telangana unit. An alumnus of Harvard University, Kumar served in the Indian Police Service. He quit the IPS, to join the BSP in August 2021. Kumar also served as secretary at the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, which runs government-funded educational institutions. During his tenure as secretary, he started a movement called SWAERO—SW stands for social welfare and aero for the sky. The movement aims to be a social-assertion revolution for the Dalit community and started by appending SWAERO as a suffix to people’s names. As of today, there are around ten lakh SWAEROs across southern India. 
On 6 March 2022, away from the media glare, Kumar flagged off the Bahujan Rajyadhikara Yatra from Khilaspur, a village in Telangana’s Jangaon district. The march, led by Kumar and a dozen supporters, planned to cover five thousand villages in the state over a period of three hundred days. In a conversation with Sagar, a staff writer at The Caravan, on 13 January, Kumar said that the yatra was an outreach to the entire Bahujan community in the state, to acquaint them with what it means to be Bahujan and the importance of being a unified political entity. This approach was first implemented by the Bahujan icon Kanshi Ram, in Uttar Pradesh during the early 1980s. Within a decade, Kanshi Ram was able to stitch together the most marginalised castes into a political force and form a government. Kumar said that, over the years of his administrative service, he observed that all political parties were led and run by dominant castes and benefited only the ruling classes. Kumar shared his vision for Bahujans in Telangana, what a Bahujan state would constitute, the challenges in uniting Bahujan communities and the relevance of Bahujan ideology as a national alternative, among other issues of relevance to India’s oppressed castes. 

Sagar: What is the Bahujan Yatra? When did you start it and what was the idea behind it and its objectives? 
RS Praveen Kumar: It’s not just Bahujan Yatra, it is Bahujan Rajyadhikara Yatra. Bahujan includes Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, religious minorities and the poor among upper castes. Bahujan Rajyadhikara Yatra ignites the idea of the poor becoming the rulers—the deprived and the most neglected, the marginalised and the oppressed. This is what Manyavar Shri Kanshi Ram worked on. And I'm trying to follow in his footsteps under the leadership of Behenji Kumari Mayawati. So Rajya is raj, the ruling, Adhikara is authority. It’s to educate and take the ideology of the BSP to the masses. 

Kanshi Ramji, after he started his movement in Uttar Pradesh, he focussed more on Madhya Pradesh and, in the south, he came to Andhra Pradesh. He spent a lot of time in Andhra Pradesh. But, somehow, he was not successful for various historic reasons. Bahujan, as an ideology, remained only in the minds of urban middle class and activists. I was left with another six-and-a-half years of active police service. I quit my job and, without another thought, I joined BSP on 8 August 2021, in Nalgonda. I visited most of the districts and found the party ideology hasn’t really gone to people. That’s why I started this yatra.  

In Telangana, we have a lot of Bahujan icons. But their history was never known to people of their communities. We discovered that there was a Bahujan ruler 352 years ago. His name was Sardar Sarvai Papanna. He fought the Mughal emperors and established his small kingdom in Telangana. He was assassinated, punished by the Mughal rulers. His body was hung from the main entrance of Golconda Fort to teach a lesson to marginalised communities.

On 6 March 2022, we started the Bahujan Rajyadhikara Yatra. Our format is slightly different. Generally, all the yatras, including Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, select a route and go on padayatra [march on foot], then local cadres mobilise common people, in buses. I can’t afford that much expense. Instead of bringing people to yatra, we should go to people. This is cost-effective and convenient to both. 

We are moving in a caravan of about six to twelve people. From village A to village B, we go in vehicles. In the village, we do padayatra in all lanes, by-lanes and main roads. We address people, then we go to another village in vehicles. We eat whatever people offer. We take shelter in the places people show us. We don’t carry tents with us—it’s expensive paraphernalia we can’t afford. So far, I have covered about twelve hundred and fifty villages and travelled twenty-one thousand kilometres in Telangana. This is my hundred and sixty-fifth day of the yatra. I thought in three hundred days I’ll be able to cover five thousand villages. But it’s not possible, so I will have to extend my yatra.   

Sagar: One of the objectives, as I understood, is to spread Kanshi Ram’s ideology of forging alliances among oppressed castes. But, in terms of its political output, do you think the yatra can translate into votes for the BSP in the South? 
Kumar: Yes, why not? We are getting stronger. This is the first ever effort made by the BSP. I wouldn’t say it’s going to create a dramatic result overnight but, definitely, people are listening to us, they are encouraging us, they are taking us to their homes and they are paying donations also—hundred rupees or two hundred rupees, something. Pensioners are giving one-fourth of their pensions to us. To what extent we will be able to convert this affection into votes will be seen in the 2023 [Telangana assembly elections] and 2024 general elections.  

Sagar: What’s your model to finance the party in the South? Is Kanshi Ram’s model of community financing still followed? 
Kumar: It’s the only way for us. We don’t take money from big corporate houses. As a matter of policy, our founding fathers and Behenji, they never promote this kind of funding. In every meeting, we contribute from our pockets and then we take from people directly. 

Sagar: In my understanding, Kanshi Ram’s basis to forge alliances was to bring together those who have been persecuted by Brahminism. He was very explicit about it. But I see a lot of Hindu symbols—for instance, the tilak on your forehead—in your campaign. Are you using the same basis to bring the oppressed castes together? What are the challenges you see in bringing Bahujan castes together in the South? 
Kumar: There have been a lot of movements in the South, before the entry of Manyavar Shri Kanshi Ram. The South also has the movements of Christian missionaries, caste awakening, caste division, Maoists, Naxalite movement. The cannon fodder for all these movements have been SCs, STs and, to some extent, OBCs. But religion is equally present in the daily lives of people. Culturally, it’s different from northern India.   

The core principle of Mananiya Shri Kanshi Ram, of “Jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari”—in other words, let there be prosperity in proportion with the population—that core principle remains the same. The format is a little different. We go to people, there are Hindus, Muslims and Christians. When they take us to their temple, they apply tilak on our forehead, they do puja, they take a coconut and break it on the flagpole. They break coconuts in front of Mananiya Shri Kanshi Ram and Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Jotiba Phule, icons of social justice. That’s the tradition. They take us to their village-level gods and gods of marginalised communities. They give us agarbatti. We don’t question all those things.  

For an outsider, for an urban middle-class person, it might look superstitious, but that’s their belief. I must respect their faith. I’m not here to spread rationalism. I’m not here to question their religious beliefs. I’m here to empower them in such a way that they become the rulers. When they go to colleges, they get to know to what extent they should believe.  

Rightist forces—for example, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party—overtly or covertly, they make people hate other religions. But the people whom I’ve met, they are Hindus and they don’t hate Muslims and they don’t hate Christians. In some villages, in the colonies of  SCs, there are Christians and Hindus. In the same family, one is a Hindu and another is Christian. The very BJP which has been claiming that it’s the protector of Hindu religion, the same BJP has been exploiting the Backward Classes and SCs who believe in Hinduism. We should tell who really cares for those people. And we have been reasonably successful. That’s one challenge. The second challenge is the hate campaigns unleashed by BJP that BSP is an anti-Hindu party. That kind of hate campaign we have been able to repel.  

The third political challenge is that the parties led by dominant communities have made poor people addicted to freebies. I wouldn’t call it freebies but corruption. They give a thousand rupees to vote, bottles of beer, one sari—and they can increase up to five thousand rupees per voter. And the Election Commission is okay with that. They are mute spectators to the open corruption. The recent Munugode by-election in Telangana has been one of the costliest elections in Indian history. Every family was given forty-five thousand to fifty thousand rupees. So people expect us, but our duty is to tell them the truth and where that money has come from.  

Then fourth is data. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi government has accessed all possible data—pensioners data, beneficiaries of programmes. So, they have the data, they pump money through government schemes.  

The fifth is media. Media doesn’t show us. Media is owned by upper castes, rich landlords and dominant-caste parties. On and off, the so-called mainstream media gives us some token coverage. We don’t have money to have our own media house. We depend largely on social media. We are okay with that.   

Sagar: Kanshi Ram was very explicit about the Bahujan castes that could be stitched together. In Uttar Pradesh, the alliance between the Most Backward Classes and SCs worked for the BSP for many years. Do you also have that kind of calculation in mind? 
Kumar: We are also almost forming the same model here. Our strong base is the SCs, followed by the STs, the MBCs, then the middle Backward Classes. Not that we don’t have people from the rich among the Backward Classes. We work with all the classes. For example, in Telangana, we have nai—that is, hairdressers—then washermen, stonecutters, fishermen, fruit sellers, handloom weavers, toddy tappers, shepherds.

Sagar: Where does Bahujan ideology stand, as a national alternative and as a political ideology, vis à vis the Congress ideology that Rahul Gandhi is offering in his Bharat Jodo Yatra? 
Kumar: If you look at history, right from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, I don’t see any difference between Congress of pre-Independence and current Congress. For example, if we take Andhra Pradesh, they took all the lands belonging to the poor people, started real-estate enterprises, made good money, and none of the projects benefitted marginalised people. There is caste in India. You cannot ignore caste. Rahul Gandhi must be very specific which castes he is trying to jodo [bring together], whose interest Bharat Jodo Yatra is going to serve. If it’s only for upper caste Brahmins, Reddys, Kammas, Velmas of Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, or Thakurs and Baniyas, then your Bharat is different from my Bharat. 

From 1950 to 1992, it was Congress that ruled this country—minus 1977 to 1979. No reservation for BCs in central government jobs, although they formed fifty-two percent of the nation. The Kaka Kalelkar commission [which submitted its report in 1955] or the Mandal commission [which recommended reservations for Other Backward Classes in 1980] was gathering dust. Kanshi Ram created this “Mandal amal karo varna kursi khali karo” [Implement Mandal or vacate the chair]. He literally arm-twisted VP Singh and said, “I’m going to support Devi Lal if you don’t do this.” Then, VP Singh implemented the Mandal commission. Even after that, these reservations were implemented much later—OBC reservations were implemented in educational institutions in 2006 and 2008. What I'm trying to tell you is that Congress can’t wipe out the injustice that it has done to these communities. For whom is Rahul Gandhi doing Bharat Jodo? Who are the stakeholders in that Bharat? Rahul Gandhi must tell the nation.  

On the other hand, BSP’s vision is a real bringing together of all the deprived castes, the forgotten castes of India. They form the real India. They are the majority in real India. The BSP is bringing that part of India into the limelight and we are fighting for that part of India. But the media, owned by upper castes, doesn't show our yatra to people, because it doesn’t serve their interest, because we are for land distribution, for apportioning the contracts according to population percentage, for increasing reservation, for reservation in the private sector. We are not only talking about equality, but also equity. Our India is Bahujan India. We want to give prosperity to the eighty-five percent of people who have been deprived and are the real drivers of this economy.

Sagar: What exactly is Bahujan Rajya? What will change for Bahujans in it?  
Kumar: We have promised in our Bahujan Rajya, here in Telangana, one acre of land, minimum, to every landless house, irrespective of their caste and creed. Second, all the assigned lands given by the government and podu lands [titled to the Adivasi community], we said that we will give pattas [land deeds] to all those landholders. If the government wants land for any project, they must pay the compensation on market rate like they pay to upper castes, to landlords. Thirdly, we will create 10 lakh jobs in five years. The fourth is all the government contracts will be apportioned according to caste population. Today, all the government contracts are bagged by only ten percent of the population: the upper castes. For example, the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project, which is worth Rs 1.15 lakh crore—none of the SCs, STs, BCs and minorities are there among contractors. Fifth is we want to give the best quality education with international standards to every child.  

We will make English as one of the most important, non-negotiable languages. We are also promising to people that we will make coding as the fourth state language. Similarly, we are promising free healthcare to all the people. We also promised that at least one child from every poor household will study in international universities. We want to abolish liquor kiosks in villages, restrict the access of liquor even if it costs something to the treasury. Our state government is raising about Rs 37,000 crore every year by selling liquor. The hidden aspect is that almost twenty to thirty percent women in rural areas are losing their husbands and sons because of liquor. We will have a rehabilitation scheme [for communities involved in liquor making]. Similarly, we want to Bahujanise the film industry. It’s dominated by a few dominant communities: Kammas, Reddys, Velmas and Brahmins.

Sagar: The BSP is often criticised by both the Congress and the BJP as being the B-team of the other. Recently, Satyapal Malik remarked that the opposition should watch the BSP, because, according to him, the BSP transfers its votes to BJP. 
Kumar:  It’s a conspiracy among upper-caste politicians of different parties to wipe out the vote bank of BSP, creating confusion among Bahujan population. We are here to wipe out Manuvad [ideology based on the Brahminical text Manusmriti]. Congress, in the garb of liberals, is protecting Manuvad. And the BJP are open about who they are, what their value system is and  why they need a new Constitution based on Manusmriti, then Ramcharitmanas, Mahabharata, Gita and all that. It’s only the BSP that’s diametrically opposite to the BJP ideology. Mayawatiji has clearly said, on many occasions, that she can’t have any pact with BJP.

Also, no such accusations are ever made against Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrasekhar Rao. Why only against Mayawati? Because they don’t want Dalits to be in the driver’s seat. They don’t want Bahujan in driver’s seat.  

Sagar: What’s your reading of the BSP’s defeat in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election?  
Kumar: The party is seriously redesigning strategy. You should see the recent appointment of Vishwanath Pal, who belongs to the Extremely Backward Classes. It’s BJP’s smear campaigns, hate campaigns, campaigns of lies that seem to have worked in Uttar Pradesh. The party has understood the game plan of BJP. If you see the Azamgarh elections [a Lok Sabha by-election, in June 2022, in a seat previously held by the Samajwadi Party president, Akhilesh Yadav], the Muslim population suddenly started voting for the BSP. And, if you see western Uttar Pradesh, Imran Masood, the famous leader, has joined the BSP. 

Sagar: Do you think the assimilation of Hindu imagery in the party’s campaign in the 2022 assembly elections diluted BSP’s original ideology?  
Kumar: Politics is different. You need to be in power, you need to take everybody along, and then it depends on the political atmosphere, strategy and tactics. These are permutations and combinations any political party makes, why only Mayawatiji? Second thing is, after coming to power, she never ditched the core vote bank of the BSP. People who blame Mayawatiji for aligning with Brahmins, for that particular year 2007–12, they don’t see the advantage of staying in power and making the state work for everybody. And, like somebody said, politics is an art of possibilities. You can’t restrict yourself to an ideology and stay on margins. I think it’s a masterstroke by Miss Mayawati—aligning with Brahmins and staying in power, and then distributing justice to everybody.

Sagar: In the coming Telangana assembly election and the 2024 general election, will the BSP contest all seats in the state? 
Kumar: Yes. 

Sagar: Will you be the chief-ministerial face of the BSP?
Kumar: That only Behenji will decide.

Sagar: What’s your stand on separate electorates and separate settlements for the SC community? Kanshi Ram discussed two proposals of Dr BR Ambedkar in his book The Chamcha Age, and also tried to find a way achieve separate settlements through his politics. 
Kumar: Separate electorate was a brilliant masterstroke by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar to make the Depressed Classes equal citizens of the country. The opportunity was lost, though. I think it’s still valid. Assimilation [joint electorates] is not working. The constitutional reservation with joint electorates is not working, it created only chamchas [flatterer, an epithet Kanshi Ram used for Dalit leaders who aligned with upper-caste parties]. Show me one SC MLA who has resigned because of one Dalit girl raped. Show me one SC minister who has resigned because one IAS officer or one sub-inspector of SCs was denied promotion.

One of the solutions is, parties like the BSP should be surviving on their own. The great work done by Kanshi Ram is that he went to people and told, “Look, our chamchas are not going to give justice. Let us have our own party.” The party survived, Mayawatiji became chief minister and, with one stroke, she did what all SC, ST, OBC ministers put together couldn’t do in the last fifty years. Separate electorate is still relevant. But how do you work it out? At gram panchayat level, all separate Dalit bastis can be a gram panchayat. Then you become sarpanch and receive funds directly. Not just Dalit bastis, but all marginalised bastis.  

Sagar: Do you think the Bahujan concept is still workable in the North, since most of the Backward Classes, such as the Nishad community, now have their own independent parties?  
Kumar: The upper classes have never allowed these political parties to come close to power, where there is prosperity. Even after seventy-five years of Independence, 79 percent judges of high courts are from upper castes. So separate parties floated by Nishads or others will never be able to get justice, because ruling classes have mastered the art of coercion and co-option. They will be made ministers, but will their community members become billionaires? Will OBCs become professors, judges, get good postings? Certainly not.

But here, we are talking about, “Let’s all be united, then rule the country and share the prosperity.” This is what Kanshi Ramji said. Kanshi Ramji’s first term, when Mayawatiji became chief minister, almost eleven MBCs were made ministers. Will it be possible with BJP? Will it be possible with Congress? 

Sagar: Is there any plan to create a platform like the All India Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF, as they now have their own political party? 
Kumar: There is one registered BAMCEF and then there is the unregistered BAMCEF. Kanshi Ramji never registered the BAMCEF. The BAMCEF movement is still alive, and they are supporting us. It’s the registered BAMCEF, headed by Waman Meshram, that is not supporting us. They have their own political party, Bahujan Mukti Party.  
Sagar: How would you counter new parties, such as the Azad Samaj Party, whose vote base is similar to the BSP’s? 
Kumar: The only strategy is to make the BSP as a dominant political voice for the entire Bahujan Samaj.

Sagar: Who are competitors for Bahujan votes in Telangana? 
Kumar: TRS and BJP, both.

Sagar: Do you think the Bahujan Samaj needs an alternate spiritual path, an alternate religion, such as, maybe, Buddhism? Bahujans, especially among Hindus, often get confused with the BJP’s religious agenda.
Kumar: There is nothing wrong in being Hindu, being Muslim or being Christian, but one should not hate others. You cannot be an exclusivist religion. Religion shouldn’t become a platform for politics of hate. Religion should be purely personal. It can’t unleash hooliganism. Buddhists killed Rohingyas in Burma. That’s not the religion. That’s not what Buddha wanted.

This interview has been edited and condensed.