In the last 70 years India produced three great leaders who made Dalits conscious of their rights in our caste-ridden society: Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Babu Jagjivan Ram and Kanshi Ram. Ambedkar took up cudgels, on behalf of the Mahars of Maharashtra, represented them at the Round Table Conference and was one of the drafters of our Constitution. However, none of this lessened the discrimination practiced by upper castes. In sheer desperation he decided to extricate his community from the Hindus by converting them to another religion. He toyed with the idea of Sikhism but changed his mind and opted for Buddhism. So we have neo-Buddhists, largely Mahars.
Babu Jagjiwan Ram was the principal figure of the renaissance of Dalit consciousness. However, he opted for an easier life, as a government minister. Although he remained a Cabinet minister in the central government, and for some time a deputy prime minister, he did very little to improve the general lot of the Dalits.
Kanshi Ram was from a different mould. He was not an intellectual nor looked for official patronage. He was born into Sikh Dalit family of Ropar (Punjab). His one aim was to make Dalits across the country a united electoral force and acquire political power to better their status. His efforts bore fruit. Mayawati is his protégé. Unfortunately, his health began to fail and he was unable to control Mayawati’s squander-mania. She blew up crores in laying parks with Ambedkar’s statues.
Kanshi Ram was put out of action by a stroke some five years ago. One did not hear much about him besides the squabbles between Mayawati and his Sikh family from Ropar. I have no doubt she provided him with the best medical attention till he died on October 9, 2006. He was 74.
Almost every leader paid Kanshi Ram tributes. Ambedkar remains an icon of the Dalits, Jagjivan Babu a sarkari figurehead, Kanshi Ram is the voice of the Dalits.
I had the privilege of spending three days with Kanshi Ram in Hyderabad some 28 years ago. We were at a seminar organised by the Leslie Sawhney Foundation. Kanshi Ram was evidently out of his depth among intellectuals. He was more comfortable conversing in Punjabi with me. We ate and relaxed together. But I could sense his suppressed anger at the treatment of his fellow suffering Dalits. I shared his anguish. I also sensed he meant more to India than all of us put together.
Behram was one of the most lovable bawajis I have ever met. For some years we worked in the same office in Bombay. He wrote a daily column for the Evening News of the Times of India, titled Round & About under the pseudonym Busybee. Most people bought the paper to read his column; he came to be known as Busybee Contractor.
He was an odd-ball and a loner. I often saw him wondering round crowded streets like a lost soul with a glazed look and a gentle smile on his face. It was rumoured that he ate nothing and lived on gin and fresh sea-breeze. I never saw him drunk. Occasionally he would walk into my office unannounced. His only conversation was a one-word greeting with a question mark “So?” — I did all the talking.
Busybee had a style of writing, uniquely his own: Short sentences, small paragraphs using the simplest vocabulary that any student of a primary school could understand. Nevertheless, he managed to compress news of major national and international importance in his columns often quoting his Boxer pet dog Bolshoi’s opinions. Never a strong word nor an unkind one: the reader was kept smiling while reading it. When Busybee quit and launched a paper of his own, Afternoon Despatch & Courier, Evening News lost its readership and switched to his. Busybee remained an entirely Bombay phenomenon till he married Farzana, an attractive, efficient local lass. She was a writer in her own right, and a competent manager. When Busybee died a few years ago she took over the Afternoon and was able to sustain its circulation by reproducing Busybee’s old articles in serial form. Then she put them together in a book format. The experiment paid off. A few months ago she published Busybee: Best of 1988-89: Days of Gandhigiri (Oriana Books). She got Busybee’s friends, the cartoonist Mario Miranda to illustrate it and Bachi Karkaria to write a short introduction. It makes delightful reading (Gandhigiri refers to Rajiv Gandhi not the Mahatma or Sonia). Thanks to Farzana, Behram Busybee Contractor will live for ever.
“Those were the days when if a European was seen in Delhi, people considered him an extraordinary example of God’s handiwork, and pointed out to each other: “Look, there goes a European!” Others, it was true took a less charitable view. So prevalent was the belief among Delhiwalas that Englishmen were the product of an illicit union between apes and the women of Sri Lanka (or alternatively between ‘apes’ & ‘hogs’) that the city’s leading theologian, Shah Abdul Aziz, had to issue a fatwa expressing his opinion that such a view had no basis in the Koran or the Hadith, and howsoever oddly the firangis might behave, they were none-the-less Christians and thus People of the Book. As long as wine and pork were not served, it was therefore perfectly permissible to mix with them (if one should for any strange reason wish to do so) and even, an occasion to share their food.”
(William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, Penguin-Viking)