“Stop talking rubbish about Ambedkar”.
It was late 1994 when Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, received this angry and stern telegram from his party cadre in Hyderabad.
Those were heady days for Kanshi Ram. Just the previous year, he had tested his social-engineering model in the electoral crucible of Uttar Pradesh and changed India’s politics forever. With a whopping 67 seats in the assembly, the third largest party after the BJP and SP, he formed the government in Uttar Pradesh with Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (109 seats) as the senior coalition partner and chief minister. For the first time in the country’s political history, a party of the Dalits was sharing power in a state government.
Kanshi Ram was being spoken about as the tallest Dalit leader after Ambedkar and, understandably, had set his sights on taking BSP national. He wanted to make forays across the Vindhyas, particularly in Southern India. With Andhra Pradesh heading for elections in December that year (1994), he saw an immediately opportunity. The state also seemed to have a ‘ready' cadre of radicalised Ambekarites, people who had severed their ideological mooring with the left wing exteremists (Maoists).
Kanshi Ram was quite thrilled about this political experiment. “Let them (Mulayam) handle Uttar Pradesh. I will concentrate on South India,” he would tell me during the many interaction I had with him on his frequent trips to Lucknow. But that terse telegram from Hyderabad made it clear to Kanshi Ram that he was dealing with a very different strand of Dalits, quite unlike the tame and mellowed down BSP cadre of UP.
What happened was simple. In a moment of hubris after winning the Uttar Pradesh election, Kanshi Ram described himself as the “practical and only mass leader of the scheduled castes” and Ambedkar as “a theoretician confined to being a leader of Mahars”.
This comparison, which left nobody in doubt about who he thought was the bigger leader of the Dalits, evoked apathy in North India but met with severe hostility from Andhra Pradesh. Kanshi Ram was at his wit’s end to explain this ill-timed boast. He sought to explain it away by saying that he did not mean to belittle the stature of Ambedkar and even accused me, for reporting the interview, of carrying out an upper caste conspiracy to undermine his movement.
But that did not wash. What seemed like a big build up to the BSP in the run-up to the election, emboldening Kanshi Ram to field no less than 235 candidates (out of 294 constituencies), died a very quick death. Not only did the BSP not win a single seat, it lost its deposit in all seats but one and more importantly, Kanshi Ram’s dream of raising the BSP flag across the Vindhyas died a very premature death.
This background to Kanshi Ram’s aborted raid on Andhra politics bears a recall in view of the raging controversy over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar of Hyderabad Central University.
Rohit was a member of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) which largely draws its cadres from Dalit students initially enamoured with radical Marxist ideology that advocates violence as a tool to annihilating class enemies and agnosticism. Even Rohith became an Ambedkarite after he was disillusioned with the radical left. (See this article by Jashwanth Jessie, Rohith’s friend.)
This cadre of alienated radical Marxists, carry the ideological and emotional baggage when they join Dalit associations inspired by Ambedkar’s “annihilation of castes” theory. Though Ambedkar never promoted violence as a tool for political objective, the Ambedkarites of Andhra Pradesh are seen as a cleverly camouflaged extension of the ultra-left.
As a result, in the campus politics of Andhra Pradesh, the ASA has always had an antagonistic relationship with the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Congress-sponsored National Students’ Union of India (NSUI). That is why for this group in Hyderabad Central University, Rahul Gandhi’s emotional outpouring for Rohith would be seen as being as hypocritical as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lament for “mother India having lost a son”. The sympathy for Rohith is more an expression of hypocrisy than solidarity with the cause he stood for.
There is hardly any meeting ground between Ambedkarites of Andhra Pradesh and mainstream political parties of all hues. The traditional Marxists are looked with as much disdain by Ambedkarites as the BJP or the Congress. Unlike the Ambedkarites of Hindi heart land or Maharashtra who are amenable to mainstream political ideologies, the Ambedkarites of Andhra Pradesh are known for standing their ground even though they have still not evolved as a coherent political group like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
There is no doubt that Rohith’s suicide has engendered a powerful symbolism which can only be ignored at a significant political cost. The Sangh Parivar which has been desperately co-opting Dalits to its fold for decades is steadfastly averse to any radicalisation of Dalit politics not in consonance with its Hindu unity. They (the Sangh Parivar) would be strongly opposed to the politics that Rohith propounded but would love to co-opt the symbolism here represents after his death. Since he emerged as a representative of a numerically powerful under-privileged class, aspiring to rise on his own against all odds, his untimely death creates a fascinating story for political leaders to empathise with. The narrative around Rohith’s suicide is glamorous and full of symbolism, something that the routine deaths of other Dalits, say sewage cleaners getting asphyxiated in gutters all over India, do not arouse.
It is unlikely that Rohith’s suicide will bring about a radical change in the approach of the mainstream political parties towards Ambedkarites of Andhra Pradesh. So long as they hold onto their own beliefs ideologically similar to the ultra-left, they will face resistance not only from the BJP or the Congress but also from the regional parties and traditional left. But the scope for their gradual assimilation through alliances is an electoral attraction that is at the centre of driving political parties crazy in trying to out-do each other to revel in Rohith’s symobolism.
It’s all very well to make Hyderabad Central University a political picnic spot, but it is unlikely that the Ambedkarites of Andhra, who so firmly shut out Kanshi Ram for one boastful indescretion, are going to be swayed with the lavish attention they are getting from all quarters. Kanshi Ram’s unfinished agenda of 1994, it seems, will yet remain so.