Two outstanding leaders of the Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, may have fought for the same things but could not have been more different.
One was trained in Columbia University while the other was born in a tiny village of Punjab and trained in Pune Dalit Politics. As a successful propagator of Ambedkar’s ideology, Kanshi Ram turned a stoical critic of the Maharashtrian Dalit movement. As a student of the Western knowledge tradition, Ambedkar derived most of his ideological ingredients by looking at Dalits in the context of history while Kanshi Ram explored his political arguments in favour of Dalits using the interesting mixture of both historical and mythical context.
So are Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram comparable? Maybe yes. And maybe no.
Here I am not comparing Ambedkar with Kanshi Ram but trying to analyse two experiments, which are sometimes linked, overlapping and interactive.
Movements and mobilizations for Dalit emancipation: Ambedkar initiated the Dalit movements in western India and Kanshi Ram led the Bahujan movement in north and central India.
The Bahujan movement, as reflected in the formation of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its remarkable success in previous elections in Uttar Pradesh, is most of the time understood as merely an extension of Ambedkar’s ideas and politics. We usually do not pay attention to the underlying variations and difference of perceptions, visions and strategies in the ideas and political actions of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. During the 1980s, when Kanshi Ram was sowing the seeds of BSP politics in Uttar Pradesh, he too associated himself with Ambedkar’s articulation. Both were of the view that political power is the master key through which one can open all the doors of progress and recognition, and to achieve this, it was very important for the Dalits to unite.
In his speeches, Kanshi Ram always asserted that the sapling of Dalit politics originated in Maharashtra but it grew and was nurtured in the soil of Uttar Pradesh. Ambedkar called the politics of emancipation of marginalized groups the “Dalit movement” while Kanshi Ram preferred to term it the “Bahujan movement”. He usually avoided using the word Dalit and said that Dalits have to give up their attitude of crying, begging and demanding. He said they have to become very strong and emancipate themselves from the vicious circle of “Dalitness” so that they could be charitable to others instead of demanding charity.
Ambedkar tried to provide an ethical context to the politics of Dalit liberation; for him morality was more important for the attainment of political goals. However, Kanshi Ram, in his political experiment, did not pay much heed to the means of acquiring a political regime but laid more emphasis on the end—the attainment of political power. For him the end justified the means.
On the pedestal: A May 2007 photo of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati (second from left) standing in front of statues of herself (far left), Ambedkar (centre) and Kanshi Ram in New Delhi. Prakash Singh/AFP
He provided a practical form to Dalit politics in Indian society. But this practical form of Dalit politics is not like those of upper caste dominant parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is associated with the weakening of these dominant forces by the subversive use of the tools of Brahminical and hegemonic politics.
When the BSP was forming a government in alliance with the BJP, someone put forth his view before Kanshi Ram that this was sheer opportunism. Kanshi Ram is said to have quickly replied: “If the Brahmins can become influential by making use of this opportunism then there is nothing wrong if the Dalits use this opportunism to empower themselves.” While Ambedkar based his Dalit politics on ethical and moral values, Kanshi Ram’s way of Dalit politics was practical and pragmatic in approach. He believed in using instruments of dominant groups which had been applied for centuries to oppress the marginalized.
Strategically and politically, there is a great similarity between Ambedkar’s and Kanshi Ram’s thoughts on politics. Both of them thought that the Dalits should organize themselves into such a political power that the influential political groups fail to get absolute majority. In that situation they would come to the Dalits for support.
The major difference in perceptions and visions of both the Dalit ideologues may be observed in their views of caste and emancipatory political actions. Ambedkar wanted the annihilation of caste. However, Bahujan politics, which Kanshi Ram developed in Uttar Pradesh, was different from Ambedkar’s concept and was based on awakening the Dalits towards the restoration of their caste identity and self-esteem. Kanshi Ram said: “In 1962-63, when I got the opportunity to read Ambedkar’s book Annihilation of Caste, then I also felt that it is perhaps possible to eradicate casteism from the society. But later on when I studied the caste system and its behaviour in depth, gradually there was a modification in my thoughts. I have not only gained knowledge about caste from the books but from my personal life too. After understanding its functions in Indian society, I have stopped thinking about the annihilation of caste.”
For the eradication of caste, Kanshi Ram believed in the strategy that the Dalits should use their caste as a tool for their emancipation. He felt that as long as a casteless society was not formed, caste would have to be used to dethrone Brahminism. Kanshi Ram’s idea regarding Ambedkar’s demand for a separate state for Dalits was also different. He wanted the Dalits to attain a respectable and glorious position in mainstream society and that they should not be treated as a separate entity.
Ambedkar associated the emancipation of Dalits with their religious emancipation and because of this he quit the Hindu religion and embraced Buddhism on 14 October 1956. On the contrary, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati said religious emancipation is only possible through political liberation. They were willing to convert to Buddhism only when the Bahujans acquire power in the government. That is why in spite of using the symbols of Buddha in their politics, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati did not convert to Buddhism. One of the important reasons behind this was also that most of the rural Dalits of Uttar Pradesh are associated with medieval sects (Bhaktikaleen) such as the Ravidas Panth, Kabir Panth and Shiv Narayani. The people of these sects believe in creating a space for themselves while residing in the cultural milieu of Hindu society. They won’t be able to associate themselves with Buddhism. Somewhere Mayawati fears that this can spread discontentment among rural Dalits. Perhaps this is the reason why Mayawati says that without establishing Bahujan power in this country, religious conversion will only cause harm to the welfare of the Bahujans. The history of the political actions of Kanshi Ram suggests that he always took insights from marginalized people than from ideas and ideologies. He even learnt the tricks and tactics from the groups with whom he had to fight.
The late founder of the BSP said this best himself.
“Ambedkar learnt from the books but I have learnt from my own life and people. He used to gather books, I tried to gather people.”
Badri Narayan is a writer and columnist based in Allahabad. He is also a faculty member of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
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