A recent conversation on nationalism between Mukul Kesavan and Srinath Raghavan on TheWire.in provides interesting insights on the problem of forming a pan-Indian collective identity. During this conversation, both Raghavan and Kesavan engage with the shortcomings of the Congress and BJP varieties of nationalism.

Kesavan, while sympathetically referring to Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan project, asked Raghavan, Why doesn’t the BSP “succeed in transcending Uttar Pradesh”?

Raghavan responded saying, “…BSP has catchment within certain section of Dalits so BJP goes to non-Chamar Dalits from time to time, limitations are also forced by [population] distribution of Dalits.”

Raghavan’s quick response on the Bahujan Samaj Party seems more like that of a quantitative political scientist breaking up voting patterns. Such analysis runs the risk of turning the Bahujan Samaj Party into an Uttar Pradesh party, more particularly a Chamar party within that state, naturally lacking the moral appeal necessary to form a collective on the national scale. Such fast thinking on the Bahujan Samaj Party and Dalit movements could reduce the grassroots mobilisation of Kanshi Ram across several other states to caste – one caste.

Similarly, American Marxist sociologist, Vivek Chibber has previously called for broad-basing of the Dalit movement, and recommended that it has to see itself as part of a class-wide movement. This almost suggests that Dalit movements are indulging in eyes up and palms down politics – not wanting to see class at all.

In a similar vein, Ram Manohar Lohia thought of BR Ambedkar as a learned man of integrity, courage and independence, but bitter and exclusive. For Lohia, Ambedkar in his radicalism cultivated bitterness and refused to become the leader of “non-Harijans” (Harijans is the term Gandhi used to refer to Dalits).

While intellectuals may be quick to neglect any ethical ramifications of Kanshi Ram’s politics and the Bahujan ideology, the voting support for the party he founded speaks otherwise. In the general elections of 2004, the Bahujan Samaj Party was the fourth-largest party in terms of vote share whereas the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was third. However, in the last two consecutive general elections of 2009 and 2014, the Bahujan Samaj Party has moved on to become the third largest party in terms of vote share. In 2014, despite not winning a single Lok Sabha seat, the party fared better than several regional and Left parties in terms of national vote share.

Does this mean that only Chamars are voting for the Bahujan Samaj Party across India? Surely not.

Are Dalit movements blind to class issues? The Bahujan Samaj Party’s politics has not been limited to symbolic power as Chibber would view. In real terms, the party being in power has also advanced the economic status of Dalits, lower Other Backward Classes and poor Muslims. Sociologist Vivek Kumar provides some figures on land distribution under the Bahujan Samaj Party and terms the land distribution under its rule as silent land reform – reform that involved opposition not only from landed castes but also from the bureaucracy itself. It is worth noting that landlessness amongst Dalits is close to 72% and 69.4% in Kerala and West Bengal respectively, whereas in Uttar Pradesh it is 44%. Does anything lay beyond class in India? Perhaps caste.

BSP: Beyond Uttar Pradesh

While Uttar Pradesh is important to Dalit politics, focusing on the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh alone gives us a limited picture. Maharashtra, for instance, has several dynamic Dalit leaders like Prakash Ambedkar and Ramdas Athavale. However, the Bahujan Samaj Party is the single-largest Dalit party in terms of vote share here too.

Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. (Photo credit: AFP).

One of the particular strengths of Kanshi Ram’s politics was that it circulated Ambedkar and Ambedkarism to Dalits and non-Dalits in several states beyond Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. He particularly managed to mobilise opinion amongst Dalits and other exploited communities on the need for autonomous politics based on Phule-Ambedkarite ideology, with Dalits forming the core.

Kanshi Ram’s book Chamcha Yug (Chamcha Age) lays the logic of dissent against mainstream party politics. Here, he called for Bahujans (literally, “people in the majority”) to avoid voting for chamchas, or stooges, and to vote in favor of autonomy and self-respect – for the Bahujan Samaj Party.

The introduction of the term chamcha in Dalit politics by Kanshi Ram marked the departure of his Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (and later the Bahujan Samaj Party) from other Dalit movements. Kanshi Ram termed all those Dalit (and backward) politicians serving the interests of forward caste political parties as chamchas and their supporters as chamchas of chamchas. He radically reiterated the need for political separation of Dalits from the Congress and other elite parties. The chamchas were seen to have sold out the subaltern community to serve their own purposes and Congress interests.

Kanshi Ram criticised the Poona Pact signed in 1932 between Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. Ambedkar signed the pact after Gandhi went on an indefinite hunger strike. According to the pact, Dalit representatives would not be elected by a separate Dalit electorate, which was Ambedkar’s initial demand, but by all castes. Kanshi Ram organised Poona Pact dhikkar rallies (Down with Poona pact). He also published Chamcha Age in 1982 to mark 50 years of the Poona Pact. The historic Ambedkar-Gandhi clash was reconstructed to explain the sociopolitical exclusion of the oppressed and the new era of chamchas. While historical struggles since Buddha, Kabir, Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar were important, the Poona Pact marked the downfall of the Dalit and other exploited classes, according to Kanshi Ram.

(Photo credit: Punit Paranjpe/ AFP).

For Kanshi Ram, the Poona Pact affected the possibilities of self-representation by exploited groups in India’s democracy. Therefore, they needed to organise to regain political power. This powerful criticism of factors external to the Dalit movement (Mahatma Gandhi/Congress) and internal to the movement (chamchas) attracted new members to the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, and later to the Bahujan Samaj Party. In Maharashtra, for instance, the cycle rallies of Kanshi Ram attracted castes across Dalit, lower Other Backward Classes and Muslim communities. Kanshi Ram took the problem of Manu, the author of the Manusmriti, to several states and castes beyond Dalits. In a sense, he nationalised the problem of Manu.

In Maharashtra

In Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra, the Bahujan Samaj Party goes through high and lows in electoral performance based on its performance in Uttar Pradesh, but it is consistently at third place. This is due to a committed cadre that ensures committed votes – not only to win elections but for the movement of achieving Phule-Ambedkarite ideology.

My book, Civility against Caste, describes and engages with the mobilisation that Bahujan Samaj Party cadres in Marathwada carry out to reach out to marginal groups, and the challenges they face. It is due to the emphasis on ideology by committed cadres that the party continues to have a national appeal. The cadre is not limited to Dalits. In Marathwada some Other Backward Classes members of the Bahujan Samaj Party emphasised Phule-Ambedkarite ideology in the party and stayed in the party much longer than several Dalits.

Bhobade, over the age of 70, from the Mali caste, has been with the Bahujan Samaj Party since 1991. Bhobade moved from communist leanings to the party and emphasised that it was as important for members of the Other Backward Classes to convert to Buddhism as it was to gain political power.

(Photo credit: Mayawati).

On the other hand, the parties that emerged from Lohiaite ethics in North India became regional and family centered. They lacked voluntary (missionary) spirit, which Kanshi Ram had invoked in the Bahujan Samaj Party. Over time, Lohiaite parties, particularly the Samajwadi Party, vernacularised democracy and consolidated a goonda political style, which depends on force, in Uttar Pradesh, suggested the anthropologist Lucia Michelutti.

As opposed to the muscular Kshatriyaisation of Yadavs by the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the mobilisation of poorer Yadavs in Bihar under Lalu Yadav varied. The Bihar Yadavs did not emulate upper-caste values suggests anthropologist Jeffery Witsoe. Instead, they revelled in their newfound status of empowered subalterns. For Witsoe, Lalu Yadav’s revolution, however, is incomplete due to the exclusion of untouchable castes like Musahars. It is the persistent exclusions of untouchables and the layered nature of caste hierarchy that Kanshi Ram sought to reverse by placing Dalits and Phule-Ambekdarism the core of his Bahujan project.

Kanshi Ram’s twin strategy of emphasising political power for Bahujans while keeping Dalits at the centre of the Bahujan collective sought to radically alter both the idea of political (government) and social (society). That an autonomous party of lower castes could organise marginalised groups and gain political power was unimaginable before the Bahujan Samaj Party. On the other hand, Kanshi Ram also emphasised the universals in the ethics of Ambedkar. He made Ambedkarism work both in political and social form. The title of Badri Narayan’s book on Kanshi Ram, Kanshi Ram: The Dalit Leader, is in various ways a misnomer. Like Gandhi was a not bania leader of what he deemed to be “Harijans”, Kanshi Ram was more than just the leader of Dalits, he was a Dalit, or Buddhist, leader of Bahujans.

The maya of Dalit movements?

After Kanshi Ram’s death in 2006, analysts and scholars doubted the ability of his political heir, Mayawati, to take the party forward. Some suggested that the Bahujan Samaj Party had reached a plateau and its decline was inevitable. Similar predictions have already been made about Mayawati for 2017 – that if she loses the Uttar Pradesh election, she will be ruined.

In 2007, Mayawati made history when the Bahujan Samaj Party got a full majority in Uttar Pradesh for the first time. Her government went on to complete its term. What enabled this win was the efforts of the party’s ideologically-committed cadres, who formed bhaichara committees, mobilising various caste groups. Mayawati’s image of an iron lady who could handle the law and order situation in the state better than her political rivals also clicked with voters.

Mobilising support for the Bahujan Samaj Party invariably involves engaging with social relations from below – which in itself is an exercise in democratisation. Unlike the BJP’s Dalit candidate from Iglas constituency in Uttar Pradesh, who carries his own cup and sits on the floor, Dalit cadres of the Bahujan Samaj Party mobilise all – including the privileged – to join the party under the emancipatory rubric of Phule-Ambedkarism.

(Photo credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP).

As anticipated by Kanshi Ram, most people who vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party come from the Bahujans. Party cadres frame those Brahmins and other so-called upper castes who vote for the party, or contest elections on its ticket, as people who understand Phule-Ambedkarism. If the new joiners turned out to be opportunists or one-time cadres, they would term them as seedhee, a ladder, that the Bahujan Samaj Party could use to climb.

But party politics also means compulsions and compromises. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who resort to the occasional “Jai Bhim” out of compulsion, when in power, the Bahujan Samaj Party is forced to moderate its Phule-Ambedkarism.

For instance, in 2010 a complaint was filed against the editors of Ambedkar Today, a new magazine patronised by the Bahujan Samaj Party. Though the magazine was popular among its cadres, the Mayawati government banned it for criticising Hindu rituals as a system of inequality. Similarly, the celebration of Periyar, who is known to be against the Hindu deity, Ram, has been moderated to a considerable level. While Kanshi Ram emphasised caste amongst Muslims and the need for identifying with the Pasmandas, increasingly Ashraf Muslims dominate the list of Bahujan Samaj Party candidates.

Despite these shortcomings Phule-Ambedkarite movements do more than merely engage in caste politics. They seem to create a kind of maya (illusion) in caste society where anti-caste ideas are formed and tested for political and social mobilisation.

From Rohith Vemula’s sacrificial suicide to throwing of cow carcasses in front of government offices in Gujarat, these ideas and experiments do not work all the time, and not many may get influenced, but these experiments are perpetual. Civilising social relations thus is a continual part of democracy – an exercise that can best be carried from below. Ambedkar unraveled this in his talk on, Prospect of Democracy in India. He said:

“Democracy is quite different from a Republic as well as from Parliamentary Government. The roots of democracy lie not in the form of Government, Parliamentary or otherwise [..] The roots of Democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between the people who form a society.”

In the Phule-Ambedkarite politics of maya, there are lessons for both critics and distant-supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party. If this party wins the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, its victory cannot be assigned to pragmatic politics and numerical calculations alone. The progressive possibilities of Phule-Ambedkarite movements will indeed need to be acknowledged. On the other hand, every defeat in the election will push the party back to the basics of Phule-Ambedkarite ideology.

Thus, neither the Bahujan Samaj Party nor its maya may be ruined with a defeat in Uttar Pradesh. Phule-Ambedkarism in social and political forms may continue to thrive till hierarchy and humiliation of the oppressed continues in social and political worlds. Some may realise this late. Irrespective of our intellectual analyses and Bahujan Samaj Party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati seem to have already become the key protagonists of post-Ambedkar subaltern politics and history.

Suryakant Waghmore is author of Civility Against Caste. At present, he is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, and Professor (on lien) of Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.