The Signifinace of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary

Kanshi Ram (1934-2006): There is more to his legacy than meets the eye

It is not difficult to downplay the role of Kanshi Ram- he inspired little intellectual appeal, he has left no worthwhile writings on the cause that he is linked with and his political legacy consists of a one- woman dominated Bahujan Samaj Party that is as opportunist and as mired in corruption as any other political party.

Unlike Dr. Ambedkar, with whom he stands in poor contrast, he did not convert to Buddhism or give any other broad direction to his followers. Unlike Jotiba Phule he did not argue for social reform or made any case to further it. Unlike Periyar, he did not stand for Rationalism and launch an attack on the religious basis of caste based oppression.

Instead he directed all his energies to launch a monotone assault on political power and create political mobilisation among the Dalits and others under the broader sweep of what he called, after Jotiba Phule, the “Bahujan Samaj”, bothering himself little with more onerous and long term endeavours of social reform.

Yet, Kanshi Ram is significant for a number of reasons and one has to acknowledge the singular, if not stellar role that he played in the Indian political stage in general and Dalit politics in particular.

From a little known outfit called DS4, he created a political party that rose to rule the most populous state of India- Uttar Pradesh, a state that determined the power equations in the Centre- every Indian Prime Minister who has lasted a 5 year term has come from Uttar Pradesh- and has been a Brahmin, one may add (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee).

It would be difficult to ascertain whether Kanshi Ram came in at the right moment when identity based politics was asserting itself, or whether he helped to create that politics.

If it is former, then one has to credit him with having done the ground work and be prepared to seize that opportunity when it arrived. If it is the latter, then he needs to be understood better and not contrased with Dr. Ambedkar or Periyar.

For one, Kanshi Ram created, for the first time in history, a resurgence of the Dalit community in those states where little or no reform movements have taken place.

In the North, the state of Punjab, where incidentally he was born in a Sikh family, had the reform movements in Sikhism as well as the Arya Samaj, besides the Sufi influence. On the Eastern side, Bengal had Brahmo Samaj, in South, in Tamil Nadu, the Self Respect Movement and in Maharashta on the West, the non- Brahmin movement under Jotiba Phule and later Dr Ambedkar.

It is central India, the so- called Hindi heartland or also, more derisively, the BIMARU states that did not undergo a social reform movement within Hinduism. In most of those places social reform movements evolved into radical political movements- Communist in some places but also the Justice Party (and later the Dravida Kahzagam) in Tamil Nadu and the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra.

Kanshi Ram bypassed the social reform thus catapulting political assertion in the Hindi heartland.

Some may aver that this short cut is fraught with danger- it is hoisted on a fragile base and is the reason why the Bahujan Samaj Party has degenerated so quickly.

To do so would be to ignore the mammoth task that lies in the Hindi heartland states. The upper caste population is relatively large, and has never tried to reform itself in a major way. There has been an absence of any efforts to democratise education. Notably Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have historically been politically volatile and provided the fulcrum on which the Indian National Freedom movement hinged and where it became a truly mass movement.

Kanshi Ram merely extended that political mobilisation to the Dalits specially in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

In doing so, did he put the cart before the horse?

There is little reason to think so.

For one, there really was neither a cart nor a horse in the Hindi heartland before the BSP stepped in.

For another, any emancipation movement needs not only the dreamers and theorists but also the organisers and the builders. Marx needed a Lenin to make the world even aware of his writings.

Kanshi Ram was no Lenin. His legacy is flawed in many ways and fraught with dangers, indeed its fragility became evident within his own lifetime.

But it also has ensured that the word Dalit has become part of the vocabulary in some of the most socially regressive areas in the country. It poses one of the few ideological challenges to Hindutva and one of the ways that emancipation of bulk of Indians can be attempted.

Kanshi Ram’s BSP has taken Ambedkar from Maharashtra to all over the country and specially where it is needed more. Nearly every party- from the Congress to the BJP to the communists today carry a picture of Ambedkar in their posters and hoardings.

It has cast the net of possibilities of Dalit resurgence, wider.

It is for that reason alone that it would be an exercise in deception to overlook the importance and significance of being Kanshi Ram.

Related Post: Biography of a Poor Dalit Family

Picture Courtesy:

Update: A comprehensive collection of links on Kanshi Ram ‘saheb’s passing away. Harish Khare’s somewhat tangential take on the debt that we owe to Kanshi Ram (Link via Great Indian Mutiny)

Tags: , , , , ,

Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

22 thoughts on “The Signifinace of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary”

  1. Great post Bhupinder!

    It poses one of the few ideological challenges to Hindutva and one of the ways that emancipation of bulk of Indians can be attempted.

    I think that the movement still remains in the theoretical, ideological realm and there hasn’t been enough changes in the underlying soci-economic conditions, the “base” remains unchanged (I hope i am getting the marxist terminology right! :)).

    And the worse thing is that the whole identity politics has made the social divide worse and prospects of social integration remote. I am myself from cowbelt (from Bihar) and I have see how casteism has become even more prevalent in the public affairs in the last decade under the laloo raj. It has led to more inefficiencies, more corruption, more waste, while the inequalities and injustices remain.

  2. The “cowbelt” is pretty much in a quagmire- the last two decades have seen the raw rage of the subaltern and the picture is not very pretty by any means, and yes, in some ways things have “deteriorated”. What I still see positive is that a dalit conciousness may emerge from this confusion. Since no social reform movement has taken place, one hopes that the political advances made by the BSP will kickstart that.

    Caste conciousness, like any identity based movement has its constraints- anything carried to its logical end becomes absurd.

    And yes, you got your Marxist categories right 🙂

  3. …really a very good and an objective analysis of factor of Kanshiram. Kanshiram and Mayawati are as corrupt and nepotistic as other BJP and Congress leaders. And I feel that these dalit leaders (you can also add obc leaders like lalu etc.) are not more inefficient then their upper caste counterparts. But media always portrays them in a sarcastic manner. When some ‘liberal-minded’ peoples (including ‘Marxists) in India complain about the ills of casteism they usually have in mind the ‘casteism of lower caste’. Because Casteism of upper caste is taken-for-granted, sober and naturalized (!)
    I agree with Bhupi that peoples like Kanshiram should be evaluated with all their weakness and special contexts. The BSP movement may be degenerated… but has brought out a miniscule change in public sphere. Prior to Kanshiram (DS4) phenomena there were no dalit writings in hindi. However these writing were well-established in Maharashtra and southern states. But last 15 years produced many dalit writers. Now literary magazines of Hindi often publish these writers; to name a few Sheoraj Singh Baichain, Mohandas namishrai, Omprakash Valmiki, etc.
    There are contradictions and pitfalls of identity politics, but Marxist discourse has long been ignoring the class-caste intersection in Indian society. There cannot be an ideal or clear-cut solution to these historical knots. If ‘universal’ political perspectives and programmes like liberalism and Marxism would be continually failed to address the caste injustice, then we would perhaps need hundred kanshirams to fill the void.


  4. Ishwar- thanks for extending the topic- which leads logically to…. a guest post from you on the theme of Dalit litertaure in Hindi.

    Anand,Premchand Thanks for your comments.

  5. Finally a post worth reading about Kanshi Ram. Good work.

    On the wider issue of Dalits in the south. The social reform movement have not really touched them nor given them a political voice. Periyars self-respect movement had more to do with the position of brahmins vs other non-brahmin upper castes (naikers, mudaliars, gounders,etc).

    To give you an example: The top Dalit party in TN is DPI led by a person called Tiruma. In a state where 28% of the population is Dalit – he was offered just TWO seats by the ruling DMK in the past assembly elections. Contrast with Mayawati who has 15 members in the Lok Sabha !

    All over the south, it is safe to assume that Dalits do not have an independent political voice. They usually count on larger political parties (usually dominated by various OBCs) to project their issues.

    Dalit political empowerment has not reached the south. Most southern states are eagerly waiting for their version of Kanshi Ram.

  6. I did not mean to indicate that the reform movements in Tamil Nadu- nor indeed in Punjab and Bengal, had any Dalit orientation.

    I concur that the Self Respect movement in Tamil Nadu was a non- Brahmin, backward caste movement.

    In a related post on this subject (on Tamil Dalit Poetry), I have tried to indicate that Periyar’s movement has perhaps retarded a Dalit resurgence.

    This indeed is true for Punjab and Bengal as well- where a “reform from above” has tended to blunt the caste antagonism- it is no accident that though Kanshi Ram was born and grew up in Punjab, his turn to Dalit politics came of age only in Maharashtra- which is perhaps the place with the oldest Dalit conciousness in 20th century.

  7. Kashi Ram’s contribution has been immense. Thousands of statues of Ambedkar across the landscape of UP can be seen.
    In small rural hamlets, Kashi Ram’s movement has given Dalits the sense of pride.
    However, I think Mayawati would not be able to take the party ahead in UP.
    Dalits+Muslims=39% in UP
    Amd at the height of Ayodhya Movement BJP had barely 33% vote. She could have well beaten SP and BJP by early 90s but her poor communication with Muslims and the lack of schemes for them besides closeness with BJP has left Muslims disillusioned with the party. Else it was a sure winning combination, an unbeatable one.

  8. Indscribe:I more or less agree with your observations.

    Ultimately any emancipatory movement has to look beyond the identity issue. The bane of the Left has been that it refused to look into the identity aspect at all. The bane of the Dalit movement would be if it did not look beyond the immediate caste perspective.

    I think the BSP has already fallen into the latter quagmire- it has tried to broadbase itself by extending the umbrella to Brahmins and other upper castes. But this is solely on caste basis- and that too with upper castes who also comprise the majority of the better offs in UP.

    This is bound to dilute both the caste and class aspects of the movement, and alienate the Muslims as you have noted.

  9. Bhupinder paints a very vast and informative canvas of his subject. In fact, there is a lot of substance in it already for a full-scale biography. My congratulations!



    Pro reservationationists ironically favour Muslims who only speak Hindi at home or Nayudus and Reddys who speak only Telugu at home. At the same time they treat Tamil-speaking Brahmins and Chettiars as foreign invaders by excluding them . They also claim to fight for the Tamil cause….by dividing Tamil society!!? PMK, DMK, ADMK etc reject creamy layer, support the cruel 2-tumbler system of Southern Tamil Nadu and now demand extended reservation. PMK leader will go Delhi, Hyderabad and Bombay to promote reservation rather than setting up Tamil learning centers in those places. This shows that Tamil Nadu policitians don’t mind loosing their self respect and prefer to worship their Hindi masters than to work for an integrated Tamil society. Incidently the PMK health minister has made Hindi compulsory for medicine, the the DMK surface transport minister has made Hindi compulsory on national roads even in Tamil Nadu.

  11. manyawar kanshiram was agreat thinker,philosopher,a great politician,a great social scientist+social reformer.He was a great internationalpersonalityat most relevant today for the world .i met him in personally many times ;he had a chrismatic personality’he told me one time if you want to do some for your nation go thoroughout the country and search the basic funda of success

  12. Please do not criticise manyawar kanshiram and ku. mayawati.they have a great role in the modern world to change social phenomenon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: