How BSP’s upper-caste conferences harm Kanshi Ram’s vision

31 August, 2021

In 1981, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, had formed a forum called, “Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti”—a committee for the struggle of Dalit and exploited communities. A slogan of the forum was, “Brahmin, Thakur, Bania chor. Baki sab hain DS4”—Roughly, this meant barring the upper-castes, all other groups are DS4. Three decades later, ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, the BSP is holding “Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthis,” or the Enlightened Class Conferences, to woo three upper-caste communities—Brahmin, Tyagi and Bhumihar. The conferences aim to repeat the party’s successful strategy in the 2007 state elections—to consolidate both Brahmin and Dalit votes. However, the same strategy may not be successful in 2022. Krishna Mohan, a Dalit PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, said that such conferences “could just be a part of politics, but are not right for the Bahujan mission.”

The message that some attendees and the BSP cadre took away from these conferences appeared to be at variance with the values that Kanshi Ram’s BSP espoused. For instance, Amit Rajwan—a member of the Dalit community and a founder of a social organisation, Bhim Commando—defended these conferences and said that a political party needs the votes of “all castes.” Referring to how the influence of Brahmins can electorally benefit BSP, he said, “Brahmins are attending these conferences. Brahmins are the most buddhijivi”—intelligent. “They have had resources for the longest time, which is why they enjoy power.” According to the Round Table India, in a 1987 interview with the Illustrated Weekly of India, Kanshi Ram said that the upper castes can join his party but not be leaders. “Leadership will remain in the hands of the backward community,” he said. “My fear is that these upper caste people will come into our party and block the process of change.”

The 2007 assembly elections were an important milestone for the BSP. It was held about one year after Kanshi Ram’s death. Under the leadership of the BSP’s current supremo, Mayawati, the party came to power with a full majority—206 of the 403 constituencies and 30 percent of the total votes. A February 2017 profile of Mayawati in The Caravan mentioned that she had “won by stitching together a voting bloc of Brahmins and Dalits, using the word sarvajan—the welfare of all—to help popularise the strategy.”

The BSP has justified the 2021 conferences by citing their 2007 election strategy. In a Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthis in Ghaziabad on 10 August 2021, Satish Chandra Mishra, the BSP general secretary who is also from the Brahmin community, spoke about how Brahmins contributed to the 2007 victory. He mentioned that for years BSP raised a slogan, “jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni hissedari”—representation should be provided as per the numerical strength of a community. Mishra mentioned that in 2005, when Brahmins participated on a large scale in a BSP rally, Mayawati appreciated them by changing the slogan to, “jiski jitni tayaari, unki utni bhagedaari”—which roughly meant that those who prepare for electoral victory get proportionate representation.

But Mohan, the PhD scholar, said that it would be wrong to say that only Brahmins should be credited for the 2007 victory. “BSP gave tickets to 86 Brahmins, out of which 40 won. This is not even 50 percent,” he told me. “At that time, there were also great leaders of the backward castes in the BSP. Now they are also absent. Kanshi Ram sahib had also died in 2006—people voted for the BSP as a salute to him too. The whole Bahujan community had contributed to forming the government.”

Several factors in Uttar Pradesh’s political landscape have changed since the 2007 elections. For instance, Mohan noted that three communities from the Other Backward Classes—Kurmi, Kushwaha and Rajbhar—supported BSP in 2007, but not anymore. A July 2021 piece published by The Caravan stated,

“In 2012, despite securing 25 percent of votes, the BSP’s seat share had dropped to 80, while the Samajwadi Party, which won a majority of the Muslim-dominated seats in that election, came to power with 224 seats and 29 percent votes. In 2017, the BJP came to power with a powerful 312 seats, and 39 percent of the votes, reportedly with the support of the upper caste, non-Jatav Dalit and non-Yadav Other Backward Class communities. That year, the BSP’s vote share dropped further to 22 percent and 19 seats. While the Jatav Dalits, who comprise around 54 percent of the state’s Dalit population and nine percent of the total population, have consistently voted for the BSP, Mayawati has not been able to retain the support of the other communities.

It is also pertinent to note that in 2007, the BJP was not a powerful player in the state. This changed over a decade—in 2017, Brahmins played an important role in the party’s victory in the assembly polls.

The Enlightened Class Conferences are a clear effort to win the Brahmin vote back. The first such conference was held on 23 July in Ayodhya, in which Mishra, chanted the Hindutva slogan, Jai Shri Ram” and promised to expedite the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the historic Babri Masjid. “Mishra, the BSP’s senior-most Brahmin leader, criticised Adityanath, a Thakur chief minister, in an effort to exploit an age-old clamour for power between the communities,” The Caravan’s July 2021 piece noted.

While the BSP has also been organising conferences for backward castes, the party appears to be publicising its Enlightened Classes Conferences more. Mayawati has herself tweeted about the conferences and even spoken about them in her press conferences. Mishra and Nakul Dubey, another senior upper-caste party leader, are the main speakers at these conferences. By mid August, these conferences had been held in 30 districts.

I attended the conferences in Ghaziabad and Greater Noida, on 10 August and 14 August, respectively. Both saw between 300 and 400 attendees. The conferences featured poojas and the use of conch shells, and glorified Parashuram, a militant Brahmin in Hindu mythology who is said to have pledged the complete destruction of all Kshatriyas.

Mishra, in the Ghaziabad conference, emphasised Mayawati’s contributions to the Brahmin community and the party’s motto of “sarvajan.” Most attendees I approached at the Ghaziabad conference for an interview refused to talk. The nearly ten attendees who spoke to me that day were all from the Dalit community.

Both the conferences comprised speakers saying that Brahmins had been wronged by the BJP government. Mishra, in his Ghaziabad speech, gave a few examples of how. He said that the BJP asks Brahmins for votes in the name of religion. He accused the party of taking donations from the community, but not doing the work that the donations were meant for. He referred to how the police killed the Brahmin gangster Vikas Dubey in 2020, claiming that he was trying to escape from police custody. However, Mishra did not demonstrate if and how the community was being systemically persecuted across the state.

Ashok Sharma, who was among the attendees of the Greater Noida conference, told me why the statement that Brahmins were being wronged was true in his case. Sharma said he hails from the Gujjar-dominated Bhatta Parsaul village in Greater Noida. He said the Gujjars harass all other communities. “Even if there are more than ten Brahmin houses in a village, they are never more than 20—several villages in Gautam Buddha Nagar district has such a situation,” Sharma said. “There are more Thakurs and Gujjars here. They trouble us. We have faced more problems under this regime. Something is definitely being neglected by the BJP government with respect to our community.”

Sharma said due to this, he is rethinking which party to vote for in the next election. He mentioned that he had voted for the BSP in 2007, and not after that.

Some supporters of the BSP from Bahujan communities were also defensive of the conferences. They suggested that the conferences would help grab attention as Brahmins are influential in the media and help the party in the 2022 polls. “The Enlightened Caste conferences are getting positive feedback—Behenji has herself said this,” Vijendra Kashyap, the in-charge of BSP’s Saharanpur sector, who has also attended one such conference, said. In BSP’s organisational structure, the state is divided into different sectors. “Yeh prabudh samaj hi desh ki raajneeti badalne ka kaam karta hai.”—This enlightened class can only change the politics of the country. “These communities know what is best for them,” he added.

Another attendee, Rajwan—the founder of a social organisation, Bhim Commando—also defended the BSP. Rajwan said that the conferences were a part of the BSP’s electoral strategy. Rajwan was confident that the Jatav community will vote for the BSP. “The government of 2007 was also formed like this,” he said. According to Rajwan, a political party needs votes of all castes. “I don’t care if any college or university is named after a Brahmin. It should be in the interest of the people.”

Mahesh Ahiwara, a professor from the Dalit community at the Banaras Hindu University who has attended an Enlightened Classes Conference, also made a similar remark. “A common perception is that the Brahmin community is intellectually, politically as well as culturally mature,” he said. “The decisions it takes has an impact on other people as well. In ancient society, they got respect on a social level. A pandit would speak and everyone would listen. The influence of Dalits and backward classes is less.”

But Kanshi Ram’s vision focused on bringing together the Bahujan communities. “We are consolidating people on the basis of their caste so that the caste system can be removed,” he reportedly told Chauthi Duniya, a weekly newspaper from Delhi, in April 1989. “So it is in the benefit of the people who suffered due to casteism that they come together. Here we are criticizing the oppressors less and the oppressed more. We want them to subvert this feeling of inferiority complex linked with their caste due to Brahminism, and convert it into a matter of pride and in this process we are talking about caste. I tell them we will not tolerate oppression but break the audacity of the tormenters.”

Yet, Ahiwara suggested that the BSP raising slogans of Parashuram was also harmless. “When Brahmin conferences are being held, they take care of their feelings, that they have faith in Parashuram,” he said. “And when there are conferences of other communities, slogans about their faith will be raised.” He added, “And on the stage of the party, you will not find this—there is a photo of great Bahujan men on banners everywhere.”

He thought that the conferences may work in BSP’s favour. “People are not able to see this right now, but as the elections get closer, the positive impact of these conferences will be visible,” he said. “This five-year phase of 2017 to 2022 has been anti-Dalit and anti-Brahmin.” He did not substantiate how the last five years were anti-Brahmin. “People feel that they should remain silent for some more time, who knows crime this government will accuse them of doing and jail them. That’s why you won’t find people being vocal as of now, but you will see its impact during polls.”

But not everyone agreed with this. I spoke to Rakesh Pandey, the pandit who convened the pooja at the beginning of the BSP’s Greater Noida conference. Pandey said that a day after the conference he had visited Lohli, a Brahmin-dominated village in Greater Noida, for work. He told me that he mentioned Mishra’s BSP conference to people he was convening a pooja for. “They said whatever happens, ‘we believe in the Hindu religion, then we want Yogi’”— Adityanath. “‘There is no other party of Hindus.’ This is how people think.” Pandey noted that the BJP had not made any special effort to attract Brahmin voters for the upcoming elections yet.

Mohan thought the conferences were a departure from Kanshi Ram’s ideology. Mohan’s MPhil dissertation paper was on the changing nature of the Dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit politics. He pointed out that Kanshi Ram had said “that the section which has been repressed for thousands of years is our Bahujan community. He believed that the upper castes are already powerful. Leaving them, there will be a section of Bahujans who will stand on a system and bring resources to these deprived sections. It will fight for their rights and respect. Now BSP, which is Mayavati’s BSP, has broken the concept of Bahujan and made it sarvajan. By making it sarvajan, it has rejected the vision of Kanshi Ram.” 

“Mayawati has fully veered away from the Bahujan movement,” Mohan said. “BSP has become completely political, not like the Bahujan movement.” He noted that the BSP associates itself with Lord Buddha. “Then the enlightened class is the class which is intelligent, educated—it can be from any community,” Mohan said. “The ‘enlightened’ for the BSP is now Brahmin. Now the whole mission, in which there is parity for all, they have failed it. You are again taking it to a place where only one section is educated, and only that section is honoured, is enlightened. The rest are not.”

Sunil Kashyap is an independent journalist. He was formerly a reporting fellow at The Caravan.