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Mayawati and the Dalit resurgence

Will Mayawati be able to become Prime Minister of India as some are speculating? In India everything is possible. Khushwant Singh examines...
None | By Khushwant Singh
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2008 09:03 PM IST

Of all the stigmas which disfigure the fair face of Mother India, the worst is the caste system which inflicts unspeakable indignities on lower castes designated Harijans, Dalits or Bahujans. It is sinful and more so since we have not been able to wipe out the stigma to this day. However, things have begun to change. Everyone who wishes to know more about the changes taking place should study the career of four people who played major roles in bringing this about: Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. They are clearly etched in Ajoy Bose’s book Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati (Penguin Viking).

Dr Ambedkar was the messiah. Disgusted with the social framework of caste hierarchy, he exhorted his followers to opt for another religion and persuaded his community of Mahars to convert en masse to Buddhism. He never forgave Mahatma Gandhi for not granting them separate electorate but only reservation of seats. He married a Brahmin lady and agreed to throw in his lot with the rulers by helping draft the Constitution of India. His political base remained confined to neo-Buddhists but he remains the most respected icon of the Dalits.

Babu Jagjivan Ram was more interested in promoting his own interests and those of his family rather than serve the Dalit cause. He made matrimonial alliances with families of higher castes, changed parties to promote his prospects and ended up assuring himself (and later, his daughter Meira Kumar) that they would win their way to the Lok Sabha from reserved constituencies.

Kanshi Ram was made in a different mould. He came from a Dalit Sikh family of Ropar and was not even aware of the humiliating discrimination suffered by other Dalits till after he had passed out of college and got into Government service. He studied Dr Ambedkar’s writings, travelled to Maharashtra, met other Dalit leaders and collected data on Dalit communities in other parts of the country. Then, like Gautam Buddha, he renounced all connections with his family and took sanyaas to devote his life to serving Dalits by making them aware of their rights and power potential. He travelled all over the country, meeting Dalits and organising them. He became a household name among the poor and downtrodden — Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. Being a Sikh, he was also hot-blooded and prone to raise his hands to battle with those who disagreed with him.

Kanshi Ram had heard of Mayawati’s confrontation with Raj Narain who had defeated Indira Gandhi in the election following the lifting of the Emergency. One night, unannounced, he turned up at Mayawati’s home. She was preparing for the IAS examination hoping to become the collector of a district. The family was overwhelmed by the honour. He spent over an hour with her family. What he said is recorded by Ajoy Bose: “Your courage, dedication to the Dalit cause and many other sterling qualities have come to my notice. I can make you such a big leader one day that not one collector but a whole row of collectors will line up with their files in front of you waiting for orders. You can then truly serve the constituency and get things done.”

Mayawati, still in her twenties, was bowled over. She decided to throw in her lot with Kanshi Ram. In disgust, her father threw her out of the house. She moved in with Kanshi Ram. Their relationship gave rise to a lot of salacious gossip. They did not give a damn as they held the media in contempt.

Both Kanshi Ram and Mayawati lost a few elections before they won their way into Parliament. Mayawati’s debut in the Lok Sabha was little short of a disaster. All she could do was to rush to the well of the House and hurl invectives at the Treasury benches. Her heavily oiled hair and sweaty body odour gave rise to snide remarks. Kanshi Ram was comparatively more successful. He also cultivated a relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP. It paid dividends, saving Mayawati from a murderous assault by supporters of Mulayam Singh and Kalyan Singh. The BJP helped her become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the first time.

Mayawati has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh four times. The first time she squandered money in erecting statues of Dalit icons, including herself. It was a vulgar form of self-deification. She also changed names of districts and transferred officers. During her third tenure, she acquired real estate worth hundreds of crores in Delhi and elsewhere. She also loaded herself with gold and diamond jewellery. Far from being nauseated by those extravagances, Dalits felt proud that one of them could actually get what was beyond their wildest dreams. She achieved all this after her mentor was incapacitated by illness and senile dementia.

Will Mayawati be able to become Prime Minister of India as some are speculating? In India everything is possible. If men like Deve Gowda could become Prime Minister, so can any lallu panju. Mayawati has a lot more to her than some who have risen to the highest post. She has a larger political base. What she needs is to get her priorities right, and have a national and world vision.

You can read all this in Behenji. It is well-researched, well-worded, objective and absorbing.

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