Kanshi Ram’s political vision for Bahujans can still unseat India’s ruling class

10 April 2022

In 1966, the iconic Bahujan politician Kanshi Ram felt disillusioned with the leadership of the oppressed castes, particularly the leaders of the Republican Party of India. He had the feeling that BR Ambedkar’s former colleagues such as Dadasaheb Gaikwad, Dadasaheb Rupwate and Ramchandra Bhandare were no longer as committed to the struggle for equality. Rather, the leaders appeared keen on joining or allying with the largest party then, the Indian National Congress, for their personal growth.

Kanshi Ram’s sentiments towards his leaders might resonate with Ambedkarites today, given the crushing loss faced by the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. When he had founded the BSP in 1984, it was the culmination of a political vision that had been years in the making. Kanshi Ram’s political ideas and the various platforms he developed were based on Ambedkar’s injunction to “educate, agitate and organise.” In 1978, he had set up BAMCEF—the All India Backward and Minorities Communities’ Employees Federation—an organisation of government employees from the oppressed castes. The foundation was to forge unity among 6000 oppressed castes at the bottom of the Brahmanical social hierarchy, across religions.

These castes constituted almost 85 percent of the country’s population; Kanshi Ram collectively named them Bahujans—the majority. If 50 percent of Bahujans were able to forge alliances among themselves, Kanshi Ram said, it would be possible to have a government constituted by oppressed castes at the centre. He believed that true equality would not come unless the oppressed became the ruling caste. In other words, for him, political success was a precondition for change in the social and economic status of oppressed castes. He called political power a “gurukilli,”—a master key—that could open up all locks for the oppressed.     

“From conversations [with RPI leaders], I reached the conclusion that they believed the ideologies of our great leaders”—Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj—“were all good but that it would not help them achieve success in politics,” Kanshi Ram said in a speech at Nagpur to BSP cadre in October 2000. “I would ask them what they meant by success. And they would tell me it was to become legislators of an assembly or the Parliament.”

Kanshi Ram, however, was determined to find answers within Ambedkarism. He read extensively on the history of the struggles led by Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar. Phule and Shahu had the support of their own communities—Mali and Kunbi, both backward classes. But, Kanshi Ram felt these communities could not fully support Ambedkar because his caste was further down in the social hierarchy. The scheduled castes were the main support base of Ambedkar’s political front—the Scheduled Caste Federation. After his death in 1956, the SCF became the RPI. 

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Kanshi Ram BSP Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati BAMCEF BR Ambedkar Caravan Columns