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Kanshi gave Dalits a political identity

He will always be known for making BSP a prominent political force in north India, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2006 18:06 IST

The passing away of Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Kanshi Ram, 72, is not expected to make any material difference to national politics in general and Dalit politics in particular.

In fact, it was during his lifetime that Kanshi Ram had declared Mayawati as his political heir. For all practical purposes she has been the face of the BSP, more so after her mentor was confined indoors due to his poor health for the past couple of years.

This fact is also recognised by the BSP cadres who accepted Mayawati as their supreme leader, and other political stalwarts who also claim to have a stake in Dalit politics of north India.

Asked about Kanshi Ram's demise and how it would impact Dalit politics, Union Minister Meira Kumar, daughter of late Jagjiwan Ram chose not to make any elaborate comment. She merely said, "My condolences to his family but he had not really been active for quiet sometime."

The short comment implies that his political legacy had been appropriated by Mayawati and his relevance over the past few years since the time he fell sick had been minimised in terms of practical politics.

Incidentally, Meira Kumar had defeated Mayawati in their first electoral battle in Bijnore way back in December 1985. It was the first time the two women were contesting.

Meira Kumar's efforts were backed by her father Babu Jagjiwan Ram, one of the greatest Dalit leaders, while Mayawati had been put up by Kanshi Ram who wanted to test the political waters for his recently formed BSP, a reincarnation of its earlier Avtaar DS4. Ram Bilas Paswan, also a prominent Dalit leader, was the third candidate in the fray.

Kanshi Ram's rise in politics coincided with the fading away and subsequently the demise of Jagjiwan Ram and he was the first leader outside the Congress fold to actually catch the imagination of Dalits after Babasaheb Ambedkar and top leaders of the Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu.

But Ambedkar was never really a force to reckon with in the north and Kanshi Ram filled that vacuum with his arrival. His dictum was "educate, organise and agitate". Very early in life when he was with the department of defence production and influenced by his close friend DK Kharpade, Kanshi Ram had decided to fight for social justice and against the domination of the upper castes notorious for their suppression of Dalits and Backward Castes.

Though he commenced his activist role with the All India Backward and Minority employees Federation (BAMCEF), he was looking forward to a greater political role.

He then decided to form the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) in 1981 to create a political movement for mobilising Dalits. Since it was unable to meet its objectives fully, he floated the BSP in 1984.

Being from the Raedasi Sikh and hailing from Punjab, Kanshi Ram also got a boost initially from the interest which the Congress showed in his outfit in the early eighties. There appeared to be a tacit political understanding without any public declaration and Kanshi Ram was happy in splitting the anti-Congress votes in Punjab which would have gone to the Akalis while consolidating his own position during the period of militancy.

The BSP supremo, who had to cross swords with others claiming the Dalit constituency contested against VP Singh in a by-election in 1987 to signal his distancing from the Congress and actually made to Parliament finally from Etawah in UP in 1991.

Kanshi Ram was conscious that with Ambedkar's philosophy becoming increasingly acceptable in north India and the Congress losing its traditional vote banks, it was time to step up his political initiative. This paid rich dividends and the high point was when Mayawati, a long-time protege, became the chief minister in UP in 1995.

Kanshi Ram, who aggressively campaigned against the Manuwadis and upper castes, also gave his approval to several controversial slogans which aimed at singling out the top four castes for perpetrating injustice towards the Dalit community.

Subsequently, he and Mayawati realised the importance of carrying other castes with him and lowered their attack on the Manuwadis so much so that after Rajnath Singh was appointed the BJP president, Brahmins and Banias in UP looked at the BSP for providing them leadership.

The Muslims had moved towards the BSP besides Mulayam Singh and in a sense the BSP had succeeded in appropriating what was originally the Congress vote bank in UP.

It must have been a matter of tremendous satisfaction for the BSP founder that his party is on the threshold of returning to power in UP and is a force to reckon with in all northern states except Bihar.

For a person who made a humble beginning, leading his party to occupy a huge chunk of political space in north India was not a small achievement.

Kanshi Ram's legacy will continue as Mayawati put it, "We will uphold the values and issues he stood for."