Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan movement was cultural, not just political
Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan movement was cultural, not just political
BSPs diminishing political power doesnt mean all is lost for the Bahujan
movement. Kanshi Ram Jayanti is a reminder the anti-caste revolution is
alive among the masses.
Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan movement was also cultural, not just political
BSP’s diminishing political power doesn’t mean all is lost for the
Bahujan movement. Kanshi Ram Jayanti is a reminder the anti-caste
revolution is alive among the masses.
Kanshi Ram releasing cassette of DS4 singer Harnam Singh during a meeting | Photo: Harnam Singh
anshi Ram, a charismatic Bahujan leader, believed that a society in
which the non-political roots are not strong, is bound to fail in its
political aspirations as well. It is easy to write off the Bahujan Samaj
Party because of its recent political misfortunes, but it would be a
grave error to look at Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan revolution as merely
political. The bedrock of all his meetings and mobilisations was a
Kanshi Ram’s Hegelian premise of raising rational consciousness among
Bahujans can well be drawn from his efforts towards debunking Brahminism
and raising anti-caste awareness through everyday practices. So, Kanshi
Ram Jayanti, which falls on 15 March, holds a special place among those
who identify themselves as Bahujan. Its celebration becomes a reminder
of the shared cultural-political history of being part of the Bahujan
movement that began in the 1980s.
This cultural re-imagination was present in BAMCEF (All India
Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), DS4 (Dalit
Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) and BRC (Buddhist Research Center).
The three pillars
BAMCEF, DS4, and BRC can be considered the three cultural pillars
holding up the Bahujan movement. Kanshi Ram, in one of his interviews,
said that while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was aimed towards
political gratification, the other three were the most important
vehicles to achieve it (Collected Interviews of Kanshi Ram).
The manifesto of BAMCEF had specifically called for creating a literary
wing to bring together different thought processes. An engagement with
the Bahujan literary tradition was an attempt to understand the social
history and the experiential reality of the Bahujan community as well.
Similarly, the manifesto also discussed the creation of Jagriti Jatha to
raise anti-caste consciousness among Bahujans.
In BAMCEF meetings, cultural presentation was an integral part and
it included displaying posters, musical performances, and poetry
recitation. One of the earliest BAMCEF meetings in Delhi’s Shahdara on
17 May 1980 was themed as Chalta Firta Ambedkar Mela, which involved an
art gallery displaying the life and philosophy of Dr Ambedkar. Kanshi
Ram’s practice of the carnivalesque weaved together Bahujan masses at
both individual and collective levels. The early BAMCEF participants
still recall the collective memory of participating in different BAMCEF
Harvinder Kaur recalls her association, “My memory with BAMCEF is as old
as when I was 14 years old. I had participated in the third BAMCEF
meeting at Chandigarh and sang a Punjabi song dedicated to the mission.”
Similarly, a Bahujan singer Taranum Baudh recalled singing her first
song on the BAMCEF platform when she was barely three years old.
Residents of Punjab, Harnam Singh Bahelpuri and Poonam Bala, were
closely associated with singing and had also performed during several
BAMCEF meetings convened by Kanshi Ram. Kanshi Ram himself had released
cassettes of many of these singers.
The Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, or DS4, was launched on 6
December 1981. It laid particular emphasis on the struggles of students,
youth, and women. This cultural wing started from Punjab and spread to
several states in north India including Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and
Uttar Pradesh. Kanshi Ram started DS4 with the aim of giving Bahujans a
platform to share their anti-caste consciousness. In one of the
editorials of The Oppressed Indian, 1982, Kanshi Ram said that DS4 is
one of the foremost steps to organise 85 per cent of Bahujan voters and
prepare them for politics so that they can take up leadership roles.
Buddhist Research Centre, or BRC, was also established by Kanshi Ram
and he was ever willing to take up Buddhism. In 2003, Kanshi Ram had
announced that he along with his protege Mayawati would convert to
Buddhism in 2006, the year that marked the golden jubilee of Ambedkar’s
conversion. He had also said that the conversion of people from the
Chamar community In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh alone will create
three crore Buddhists in India (Bahujan Sanghtak, 2003).
Contemporary cultural practices of Bahujan
The Bahujan movement is still fresh in the minds of those who were
associated with Kanshi Ram through BAMCEF, DS4, BRC, or BSP. They recall
even the smallest memories they have of meeting Saheb or his visit to
their houses to share a meal. The charismatic leader is graciously
remembered by them every 15 March.
In north India, the modern anti-caste struggle goes back to Swami
Achyutananda, B.A. Santram, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, Jagdeo Prasad,
Lalai Singh Yadav, Mangu Ram, and many others. While the intellectual
wave generated by them is worth appreciating, it was Kanshi Ram who
translated the Bahujan idea into popular imagination. Kanshi Ram’s
personality was such that he instantly connected with the masses,
particularly Bahujan women. There were several women who led Kanshi
Ram’s Bahujan struggle, but they are hardly known today. But Kanshi Ram
knew the importance of everyone who was associated with the movement. He
would often visit the homes of cadre members, stay with them and have
long conversations. It won’t be an exaggeration to call him a bottom-up
leader who had a dynamic relationship with the masses. He was a mass
leader in the true sense.
Nirmala Dasua with Kanshiram in 2001, at Guru Ravidas Jayanti, Hoshiarpur | Nirmala Dasua personal archive
Ishwar Kaur Narwal, giving speech. Kanshiram can be seen on the stage too | Ishwar Kaur Narwal personal archives
Besides political milestones, Kanshi Ram had an important role in
reviving the socio-cultural icons in north India. Kanshi Ram Jayanti is
marked by paying reverence to Dalit-Bahujan icons like Jyotiba Phule,
Savitri Bai Phule, Dr Ambedkar, Sahuji Maharaj, Fatima Sheikh, Birsa
Munda, and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy to mention a few. It is done by
circulating their images, wall-art, calendar prints, pamphlets, etc.
The occasion also sees a carnival organised by different groups. It
involves a discussion on Kanshi Ram’s thoughts and struggle, cultural
performances like plays, songs and poetry recitation, circulation of
popular prints and pamphlets, sloganeering, and taking out marches.
This annual carnival is one of the many ways through which the Bahujan
society remains connected today, sharing each other’s thoughts, passing
on their individual experiences of fighting the anti-caste struggle.
This carnival is a new space for the emergence of a counter-culture.
Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque discussed the
importance of cultural spaces like carnivals in the Renaissance. The
Bahujan carnival, like Kanshi Ram Jayanti, is also a new space for
anti-caste imagination, which seeks to assert its claim on dignity and
Kanshi Ram Jayanti’s meaning and its cultural prospects
Kanshi Ram’s Jayanti means an anti-caste worldview for the
Dalit-Bahujan. It is the day of remembrance of Saheb’s struggle to claim
political consciousness and uproot caste practices from the public
Interestingly, the conceptual category like Bahujan has brought together
different caste-based oppressed identities together. The idea of
Bahujan is culturally rooted. This Bahujanhood marks its visibility
through celebrating Bahujan icons, discussing historical gaps and
absences, musical re-imagination, etc.
The music industry has engaged with Kanshi Ram through songs like Kanshi
Ram Saheb Ka Alha sung by Seema Azad. Her song brings out the life
history of Kanshi Ram through the Alha genre of music, which is popular
in regions of Uttar Pradesh. Other songs include The Great Leader Kanshi
Ram by Raju Bharti and Manywar Kanshi Ram Saheb Ki Yaad Mein by Malti
Rao. Publication houses like Samyak Prakashan, which was started by
Shanti Swaroop Baudh, have played an important role in popularising
Kanshi Ram’s ideas. Similarly, there has been an effort by activists
like A.R. Akela to put together Kanshi Ram’s speeches and bring them out
through his home-grown publication Anand Sahitya Sadan in Aligarh.
Each of these cultural facets displayed in events like Kanshi Ram
Jayanti has played a significant role in assembling the collective
memories of Bahujan. The Bahujan movement started by Kanshi Ram was a
well-structured plan that spread into social, cultural, and political
spheres. Even though in recent times, the Bahujan movement has reflected
political fragility, the idea of Bahujan remains alive with fresh life
being breathed into it by members both on the ground and on social
media. It has all the potential to return to the political sphere with
the same zeal and fervour because of the sentimentality involved in the
Bahujan movement, borne out of people’s life-long struggle against
oppression. Kanshi Ram’s vision of engaging with cultural parameters so
that people are emotionally attached to the movement gives him a unique
position as a Bahujan leader in India’s socio-political firmament.
Kalyani is a PhD scholar at the Center for the Study of Social Systems,
Jawaharlal Nehru University. She tweets at @FiercelyBahujan. Views are
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