Kanshi Ram’s political vision for Bahujans can still unseat India’s ruling class

10 April, 2022

In 1966, the iconic Bahujan politician Kanshi Ram felt disillusioned with the leadership of the oppressed castes, particularly the leaders of the Republican Party of India. He had the feeling that BR Ambedkar’s former colleagues such as Dadasaheb Gaikwad, Dadasaheb Rupwate and Ramchandra Bhandare were no longer as committed to the struggle for equality. Rather, the leaders appeared keen on joining or allying with the largest party then, the Indian National Congress, for their personal growth.

Kanshi Ram’s sentiments towards his leaders might resonate with Ambedkarites today, given the crushing loss faced by the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. When he had founded the BSP in 1984, it was the culmination of a political vision that had been years in the making. Kanshi Ram’s political ideas and the various platforms he developed were based on Ambedkar’s injunction to “educate, agitate and organise.” In 1978, he had set up BAMCEF—the All India Backward and Minorities Communities’ Employees Federation—an organisation of government employees from the oppressed castes. The foundation was to forge unity among 6000 oppressed castes at the bottom of the Brahmanical social hierarchy, across religions.

These castes constituted almost 85 percent of the country’s population; Kanshi Ram collectively named them Bahujans—the majority. If 50 percent of Bahujans were able to forge alliances among themselves, Kanshi Ram said, it would be possible to have a government constituted by oppressed castes at the centre. He believed that true equality would not come unless the oppressed became the ruling caste. In other words, for him, political success was a precondition for change in the social and economic status of oppressed castes. He called political power a “gurukilli,”—a master key—that could open up all locks for the oppressed.     

“From conversations [with RPI leaders], I reached the conclusion that they believed the ideologies of our great leaders”—Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj—“were all good but that it would not help them achieve success in politics,” Kanshi Ram said in a speech at Nagpur to BSP cadre in October 2000. “I would ask them what they meant by success. And they would tell me it was to become legislators of an assembly or the Parliament.”

Kanshi Ram, however, was determined to find answers within Ambedkarism. He read extensively on the history of the struggles led by Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar. Phule and Shahu had the support of their own communities—Mali and Kunbi, both backward classes. But, Kanshi Ram felt these communities could not fully support Ambedkar because his caste was further down in the social hierarchy. The scheduled castes were the main support base of Ambedkar’s political front—the Scheduled Caste Federation. After his death in 1956, the SCF became the RPI. 

“Those who have been lowered in the Brahminical social hierarchy do not support those who are further down in that hierarchy,” Kashi Ram said in his Nagpur speech. He had formulated one of his political theories based on this argument: “Those who do not have strong non-political roots, they cannot succeed in politics either.” He was highlighting the importance of strengthening the social and economic roots of the oppressed castes. For this, he came up with a formula: N (need) multiplied by D (desire) multiplied by S (strength) would equal change.

“Only those who are the most oppressed need change,” Kanshi Ram said. “The desire for change is felt by them first. So, when I make a Bahujan Samaj, I go from down to up in the Brahmanical social order.” According to him, while Ambedkar had tapped into the need and desire for change within his community, building strength was harder. What strength there was, Ambedkar had built single handedly by bargaining for reservations for oppressed castes from the British government. The provision for political reservation for scheduled castes was part of the Government of India Act, 1935.    

In the post-Ambedkar era, Kanshi Ram’s mission then was to organise the “scattered strength” of oppressed communities. He did not want to earn political power for the marginalised by piggybacking on Brahmanical parties such as Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. His mission was to build a political class out of the oppressed castes, which would elevate its own political leaders. BAMCEF was his first formal initiative into building this political class. By the mid 1990s, the organisation had 30 lakh members. The idea was to harness the communities’ “dimag, hunar aur paisa”—mind, skill and money. Kanshi Ram’s original intent was for BAMCEF to help the RPI. Even before BAMCEF’s official launch, Kanshi Ram was working and raising funds for the RPI in Pune. Using the strength of his networks, six RPI corporators were elected in the 1977 Pune municipal corporation election.

Kanshi Ram remained a steadfast pragmatist. Brahmanical parties were often attempting to buy out Bahujan leaders with money. This was another reason Ambedkar’s political movement could not succeed according to him—they did not have financial power. So, he developed a system in which oppressed communities could finance their own political movements. He made the employee’s association pay for salaries and other allowances for Bahujan leaders even if they would lose elections. He would ask his cadre to collect anything between one rupee and Rs 100 directly from the communities.

Nevertheless, RPI leaders kept defecting to other parties. BP Maurya, Ambedkar’s former SCF colleague, joined the Congress in 1971. Kanshi Ram tried to convince Maurya to stay. “I told him that ‘we will pay you a salary of what an MP gets. We will give you every facility,’” he recounted to his cadre in a party meeting in Madhya Pradesh in 1997. Maurya’s response was telling of the initial distrust Bahujan leaders felt with Kanshi Ram’s model. “I admire you but I don’t agree with you. These educated employees won’t bear me for long. I’ve more experience with them than you.” Kanshi Ram eventually lost faith in Maharashtra’s leaders. To put his political ideas to work, he had to leave the RPI.

On Ambedkar’s birthday in 1984, Kanshi Ram launched the BSP as an independent party for the oppressed castes. It was part of his vision that “those who oppose successfully, will be required to propose” a viable alternative. This was a complement to his earlier organisation, the DS-4, an abbreviation of the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangarsh Samiti. DS-4 embodied another political concept championed by Kanshi Ram: “Power will be the product of struggles.” He understood the necessity of organising Bahujan voters and he intended this platform to be a preparation for cultivating future leaders.

With a Bahujan political party in place, he started building a wide constituency. Kanshi Ram forged an alliance between scheduled castes and the most backward classes in Uttar Pradesh. He fielded candidates from the most backward classes in areas that had a majority scheduled castes population and gave seats to those whose caste had never seen any representation in the assembly. Two legislators from the most backward classes from the BSP were elected in 1989, four in 1991 and 11 in 1993. When the BSP formed the government, with Mayawati as chief minister, in 1995, he made all 11 legislators ministers. Interestingly, there were no ministers from his own Chamar caste. “Mayawati was a Chamar herself,” Kanshi Ram said in a speech in 1998. “So I called all my other Chamar legislators and told them… many other parties have had made Chamars ministers before. But, only those who never had an MLA from their communities should become ministers.”

Later, those MLAs organised their own individual conferences among their communities to announce their alliance with the BSP. Within 10 years of the BSP’s formation, Kanshi Ram had got Bahujans their gurukilli, although the government stood only for six months. Mayawati’s term is criticised for her coalition with the BJP.

Within its term, the BSP developed 11,524 villages which had 50 percent population of scheduled castes as “Ambedkar villages,” built four universities and gave seven lakh acre of land to scheduled castes. The BSP broke the alliance when the BJP’s turn to rule came after six months. Kanshi Ram told his cadre that the question of any alliance dilemma is for privileged communities who have been in power before. Those who were never in power should set their own terms.    

In 1997, Kanshi Ram said his mission remained incomplete with only 30 percent Bahujans coming together. Since his death in 2006, most backward classes formed their own parties and have gone over to the BJP and Samajwadi Party. Alongside this, the BSP under Mayawati has had no qualms in seeking alliance with non-Bahujan castes. The current leadership may be failing Kanshi Ram’s ideas but the ideas themselves are the only tried and tested method for the oppressed rising to the top. His mission must be carried out by every educated Ambedkarite who is financially capable. Because in Kanshi Ram’s words, oppressed castes who are not using their education to fulfill Ambedkar’s dream are “mercenaries.”