Kanshi Ram: Leader of the Masses (Book Review)

December 3, 2014

by Abhay Kumar

Review: Badri Narayan, Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits, Penguin India, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xxi + 265, Rs, 499.

Not many political leaders of the twentieth century have so much changed the landscape of Indian politics as Kanshi Ram, a true mass leader, did. Born in a Ramdasia Chamar family in a village of Punjab, he struggled through his life with an aim of politically empowering the most deprived sections of society. Among his many achievements, ‘Manyawar’ as he was popularly called, succeeded in “installing” a Dalit woman to become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — politically the most crucial state of the country and citadel of Brahminism. Much of his eventful life has been portrayed in a political biography authored by the noted social historian and cultural anthropologist Badri Narayan.

The biography “Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits”, comprising eight chapters, portrays his childhood, political journey beginning from Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh as well as the political ideas. Moreover, the book also gives a brief account of the criticisms of Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The author, who has spent decades in Uttar Pradesh both as a student and scholar and “closely followed” Kanshi Ram’s “journey”, mentions that all Dalits whom he interacted “acknowledged” Kanshi Ram had inculcated a strong sense of confidence and indemnity and self respect in them. The author, too, expresses his appreciation for Kanshi Ram whom he calls a “democrat to the core”. He, Badri Narayan goes on to say, was a “master strategist”, who brought Dalits, Adivasis, Backwards, and other religious minorities under the social category of ‘Bahujan’, making them “realise the value of their votes”, floating the BSP in1984 that represented freedom and respect and brought about social transformation in society.

The first chapter discusses his childhood. Born on March 15, 1934 in “relatively-well off” family, he had his early education in Government Primary School Milakpur, Punjab. Like most of the Dalit students he also faced discrimination at the hands of teachers. For example, at the school, a different pot for Dalits was kept to drink water. Yet another incident of caste discrimination that had deep impact on his life was when a senior officer mistreated and humiliated his father. Kanshi Ram recalled this incident. ‘Once, when I was a school student, my mother asked me to go and deliver food to my father who was performing a menial job (bagaar kar rahe the) at the Ropar Canal Guest House. I asked her what begaar meant and she replied that it meant serving the high-up officials, which we poor people were supposed to do. I took the food and set off for the guest house. It was intensely hot and when I reached the guest house I saw that my father was drenched in sweat. I could not bear to see his condition so I asked him to rest. But my father said that he could not do this as the senior officer was sleeping inside and he had to constantly tug the rope of the hand-pulled fan to keep him cool. Before electric fans, there used to be hand-pulled fans with long ropes and the rope-puller had to sit outside constantly working them to keep the fan moving. My father was doing that job in return for a small amount of money and explained that if he stopped pulling [the rope], the officer would wake up and punish him. I then told him to keep a small fan in his other hand to cool himself but my father said he would do no such thing.’ (pp. 17-18.)

Overcoming such barriers of caste, he continued to do well in study and kept his interests in sports as well. In 1956 he became a graduate in science from Government College, Ropar.

The second chapter discusses his foray into politics from the RPI (the Republican Party of India), founded by Ambedkar at the last stage of his life, and the BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) to the BSP. The author has divided the political life of Kanshi Ram into four periods. The first phase began from (1958- 1964) when he, having completed his education, found a job in Poona and also got associated with the RPI. Moreover, he worked with the People’s Education Society, established by Ambedkar, with a mission to work for Dalits. The second phase (1964-1978) began when he quit the job in 1964 and joined the RPI which he later criticised for being fractions-ridden and overshadowing its “original objective”. The RPI drew his flak for entering into “opportunistic alliances” with the Congress in Maharashtra. As he became disillusioned with the RPI, he, in 1971, formed the SMCEA (SC/ST/OBC Minorities Communities Employees Association) in Poona, which was later renamed as the BAMCEF. The third Phase (1978-1984) began with the formation of the BAMCEF, which was established as a formal organisation on December 6, 1978. Preceded by the DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) in 1981, the BAMSEF’s called upon its follower to “become educated, become consolidated and struggle”. The fourth phase (1984 onwards) is no doubt the most important phase of his political life during which the BSP emerged, epitomising the political rise of Bahujans.

The third chapter is based on Kanshi Ram’s book “The Chamcha Age: An Era of Stooges” (1982), which he published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Poona Pact 1932 when Gandhi blackmailed Ambedkar to sign a pact that he would give up on separate electorate for the depressed classes awarded by the British Government. In my view, the author fell short of critically engaging with the text, “Chamcha Age”. On many occasions the author inserts long quotations, disturbing the coherence, and flow of the text. It is to be noted that the purpose of Kanshi Ram to pen ‘Chamcha Age’ was to awaken the masses about the “genuine” and “counterfeit” leaders, who, according to him, have been born in the oppressed community but have been serving the interests of the oppressors. Comparing Ambedkar with Kanshi Ram, the author says that Ambedkar, unlike Kanshi Ram, called politics of emancipation of marginalized sections as a “Dalit Movement” (p. 93.) I think this may be seen as an anachronistic reading of Ambedkar as the term Dalit, according to noted anthropologist S. M. Michael (Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values, 2007, p. 16), was first used in 1931 and it “gained currency” with Dalit Panther Movement in the 1970s in Maharashtra.

The fourth chapter talks about how Kanshi Ram used subaltern culture, history, myths as political resources to build self-respect movement among Dalits and Backwards. For example, the BSP in order to mobilise Bahujans, constructed and popularised the subaltern icons such as Buddha, Kabir, Ravidas, Daria Sahib, Jagjivan Das, Jhalkaribai, Bijli Maharaj, Daldev Maharaj, Baaledeen, Veera Pasi, Mahamaya etc. While the author has done a fairly good job in analysing the cultural politics of Kanshi Ram, he mentions in passing a problematic paragraph about Guru Ravidas whom he interprets as a bulwark against “frantic” Muslims rulers who wanted to convert lower castes to Islam. According to Badri Narayan, ‘In addition, the Mughal rulers were frantically converting the lower castes to Islam through various allurements and temptations in order to expand their numbers and consolidate their position in India. Sant Ravidas, through his preaching, tried to reform Hindu society so that the lower castes were not tempted to convert to Islam and the Varna system was maintained,’(p. 121.) Unlike the myths and propagandas of the Hindu Right that the medieval period saw the forceful conversation of Hindu to Islam, many secular historians have largely agreed that the egalitarian ideology of Islam provided a relief to lower castes, who were suppressed by the Brahminical social order. Further, the author misquotes Kanshi Ram as saying that the number of castes in ST category, according to Mandal Commission Report, is 100 (p. 143.) In fact, it is 1000. Kanshi Ram (Cited in Anuj Kumar, ed., Bahujan Nayak Kanshiram ke Avismarniya Bhashan, 2000, p. 76),  quoting the Mandal Commission Report, stressed the need to unite around 6000 castes, including1500 SC castes, 1000 ST castes and 3743 OBC castes.

     The fifth chapter is about the BSP, its bid for power and the role of Kanshi Ram. The author rightly acknowledges Kanshiram’s ability to “sway and mobilize large crowds”, who realised that in democracy if the oppressed majority are made conscious of their votes the master key or Guru Killi, which Kanshi Ram would often call, can be seized. As he always spoke in people’s language, his concept of democracy is expressed in such a simple, yet profound way. “Lokshahi mein rani aur mehtarani ki keemat ek hi hoti hai”. (In a democracy the worth of a queen and [that] of a maid is the same, p. 165.). Kanshi Ram, departing with the radical armed struggles pursued by a section of communists, he, instead, mobilised the Bahujan through constitutional means and democratic processes.

The sixth, seventh and eighth chapters are a discussion of the criticism and limitation of Kanshi Ram and his party.  For instance, he was alleged of indulging in “opportunism as a strategy”. For example, the BSP, according to his critics, welcomed “defectors” like Arif Mohammad Khan and Akbar Ahmed ‘Dumpy’, while it forged alliances with the BJP which it had opposed. ‘Kanshiram’, according to Badri Narayan, ‘faced the greatest flak in his political career over the BSP coming to power twice in UP with the support of the BJP.’ (p. 181.)

Despite some forces and merits in these criticisms, they tend to overlook the changes which were made by the BSP under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. The critics should not forget the constraint under which the BSP had to mobilise the most deprived sections of society to fight against oppressive social system. Apart from giving voice to voiceless and installing in them respect and confidence, Mayawati rule in UP has also brought about some concrete changes. Noted scholar Christophe Jaffrelot (‘The BSP in Uttar Pradesh: Whose Party is It?’ in S. M. Michael, ed., Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values, 2007, p. 262.) acknowledged this when he said that Ambedkar Village Scheme under her government, gave special funds to socio-economic development of village which has 50 per cent SC population in which all 25, 434 villages were included.


Before I close, let me show my reservation to the title of this book. Badri Narayan has not done justice to call Kanshi Ram a ‘Leader of Dalits”. It is paradoxical that while the author appreciates his contribution through the book for mobilising masses and transforming the society, he, nevertheless, reduces him to the margin and pins a label of Dalit on him. As far I know no biography of Jawaharlal Nehru has been published with a title or subtitle that describes him as a “leader of Brahmins”. May this prejudice against Kanshi Ram be seen as a continuation of the hegemonic discourse in mainstream social sciences that often reduces Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar, Iqbal etc. as those who are expressing the sectional interests while it eulogises leaders like Gandhi and Nehru as those fighting for national interests? Unfortunately, Badri Narayan forgets to take heed to the insight of the radical turn in social sciences that questions the very idea of “core” and “periphery”, “centre” and “region”, “national” and “regional”, “universal” and “sectarian” or “sectional” etc. The radical scholars ably have shown that any category is constructed through the language and power and the talk of universalism, therefore, is often secretly coded in favour of the sectional interests.

Apart from this, the author has not properly spelt the name of Kanshi Ram in both title and the text. Badri Narayan has spelt “Kanshiram” in a single word, while his name should have been spelt as Kanshi Ram. He could have avoided this mistake if he had verified this from Parliament website or the official website of the BSP or “Chamcha Age”, which he has discussed in the book.

[Abhay Kumar (debatingissues@gmail.com) is doing Ph.D at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.]