Book Review: Kanshiram: Leader of the Dalits by Badri Narayan

They say when life throws lemons at you, make lemonade. Well I guess that is what I am doing with the partial immobility that has been forced on to me by my operation and the long weekend. So in these four days would finish reading at least 3 books. So am not complaining!

Let me make an admission – I have been a great admirer of Kanshiram, in my eyes he is one of the greatest political leader that this country has produced. How many leaders in this country having no dynasty, financial wherewithal, coming from the lowest strata of society managed to single-handedly create a national political party, created a new political praxis and deepened democracy in this country? Not many. What we rather see now are some dynasts and men born with privilege vying to destroy established political parties! Good for the nation. May they succeed!!

Before the book the author. I have great regard for Shri Badri Narayan as an intellectual especially his understanding of subaltern and Dalit politics and mobilisation in India. As he is wont to do, he writes an excellent book. Some interesting points;

  1. While Kanshiram was politically sensitive and aware, the incident that changed him completely was when an employee of Poona research lab where he was working was dismissed by the upper caste babus on his protesting the change in the dates of local holidays from Ambedkar Jayanti and Buddha Jayanti to Jayanti’s of Gokhale and Tilak. The incident had a deep impact on him and he wrote back to his family about his 8 vows which stated that he now cut all relations with his family as whole Bahujan Samaj was his family, will own no property and devote his whole life to the cause of Bahujan. He remained true to his vow to the end of his life.
  2. While he was deeply influenced by Babasaheb, he also differed with him. He argued that while Ambedkar was an intellectual giant, he was a rustic person with average intellect and his politics was drawn based on ground realities. He said, ‘Ambedkar collected books, I collected people’. While Ambedkar worked towards the annihilation of caste (his most famous work is titled as such), Kanshiram believed that caste is the immutable reality of Indian life. It is a double edged sword and he sought to use it to invert the socio economic pyramid of Indian society by acquiring political power through the mobilisation of the Bahujan (85 per cent of population). This would make the society so far dominated by Manuvaad to an egalitarian one. So his call; ‘Jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari’. He also differed with Babasaheb on the utility of Reservations. In his eyes reservation only served a limited purpose of acquiring bureaucratic representation, but to make the society egalitarian what was needed was the acquisition of political power, the master key. He also differed from Ambedkar for his politics did not subscribe to the moral content that reading Ambedkar works one so clearly notices. His was an amoral politics whose practice was based on pragmatism and furthering of his goals, that was to acquire political power for the Bahujan. He was opportunistic and he made no bones about it. Once I had seen his interview where (Shekhar Gupta it was if my memory serves me right) asked him if he was leftist or rightist and pat came his reply; an opportunist.
  3. The book explains in some detail his struggle, formation of BAMSEF, DS4 and finally the BSP; its rise and gradual decline under Behn Mayawati. It also explains the contradiction within Bahujan politics, the disillusionment of the other non Jatav Dalits and OBCs from the BSP and the change in focus from Bahujan to Sarvjan in 2007; the social engineering of creating a coalition with the Brahmins leding to the BSP getting an absolute majority in UP assembly for the first time. Reading the newspapers then I still remember thinking that the party had come a long way from ‘Tilak Taraju aur Talwar, inko maaro joote char’ to ‘Brahmin shankh bajayega, haathi badhta jayega’. The disillusionment of the non Jatav Dalits and non Yadav OBCs was effectively exploited by the BJP in the recently concluded UP elections. Interestingly BJP borrowed much of Kanshiram ji’s methodology in drawing them within its fold by appropriating their cultural symbols (within the Hindutva fold) and reinforcing the community pride.

A wonderful read. I hope Behnji too reads it and understand why BSP as a party is facing an existential crisis today. Only complaint is that the book is more about the political journey of Manyawar. It throws little light on the person. But then his life was politics and there was nothing much else. Also apart from one book on Stooges, he virtually left little written documents either.



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