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Travels through the Hindi belt: Ex-corporator in Kanpur cultivates following by helping the unemployed take on the system

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  


It is hard to not think of Marlon Brando’s Godfather while watching Dhani Ram at work. All of five feet two inches, he sits at his office, and quietly listens to the grievances of people who have come to meet him. One by one, they walk in, explain what they have been going through, and leave after his reassurance. Two of his associates stand beside him. “Every day between 8-10 in the morning and 5-9 in the evening, Panther sahib meets people,” Advocate Vijay Sagar, his close aide, says. “He listens to their problems, and does what he can to solve them. He has been at it for nearly 30 years.”

Of course, all the similarities with The Godfather end here, for Dhani Ram does not make an offer the people cannot refuse. A resident of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, he has been a corporator for five years between 1989-94. But he is better known as the president of the Bharatiya Dalit Panther. “The people who come to meet me are poor and backward, and do not have any agency,” Dhani Ram says. “The complaints particularly revolve around discrimination, land disputes, and job crisis.”

 Travels through the Hindi belt: Ex-corporator in Kanpur cultivates following by helping the unemployed take on the system

Dhani Ram, former corporator and president of the Bharatiya Dalit Panther. Parth MN

Over the past decade or 15 years, Dhani Ram says, workers’ complaints have been on the rise. “Kanpur used to be a hub of the textile industry,” he says. “It was called the Manchester of the east. Slowly and steadily, the mills decayed and today, none of them are properly functional. It has driven thousands of workers out of work, who are now doing menial jobs. When you have a huge workforce looking to be employed at any cost, the employers end up exploiting them because they know they are not short of options. And then the workers come to me.”

Suresh Kumar worked as a gardener at a company in Kanpur Dehat. One fine day, he says, the company suddenly sacked him and seven other workers. “They even denied our bonus, insurance and provident fund,” he says. “Panther sahib helped us file the case in labour court.”

Dhani Ram says he is not an authority, and he cannot guarantee justice. But he can ensure the people in “authorised positions listen to those who need to be heard”.

He is currently out on bail. A lower court in 2014 had imprisoned him in a murder case. In 2004, a Muslim young man had been allegedly murdered in Kanpur, and those accused in the murder were said to be protected by Dhani Ram. Vijay Sagar says the death was natural, and the matter was politicised. “It is a fabricated case, and on the verge of being closed,” he says.

In spite of it, Dhani Ram has cultivated his following through two things: He has been carrying out funerals of unclaimed dead bodies, and he organises a mass wedding event every year on Buddha Purnima, where he helps dozens of young women, especially Dalits, find a groom.

People in Kanpur say the event, conducted on a VIP lawn on the night of Buddha Purnima, is attended by the who’s who of the city. Prabhakar Srivastav, a journalist based in Kanpur, says that tax inspectors, police officers, bureaucrats, politicians, mafias and so on attend the event. “They are on a first-name basis with Dhani Ram, and they fund him as well, which is why he can walk into an office with a complaint,” he says. However, Dhani Ram says he gets his money from the “well wishers of the community”.

He is officially a member of the Congress party, but he says it is only a formality as he is not involved with any operations of the party. He contested the Assembly elections of 2007 from a constituency in Kanpur dehat after Sriprakash Jaiswal approached him. Jaiswal, currently the Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Kanpur, was the Mayor of the city when Dhani Ram was the corporator. He lost the elections in 2007, and has not been in active politics since. “I have always been more inclined towards social work than politics,” he says. “I have more time to spend with my people, and solve their problems. The crisis of jobs, especially, is soaring.”

Kanpur also had a busy network of tanneries that came to a standstill after the Uttar Pradesh government’s crackdown on cow slaughter. Dhani Ram says the tanneries were shut ostensibly because they pollute the Ganga. “It is ridiculous, because several other things also pollute the river,” he says. “It (shutting down of the tanneries) is targeted at the Dalits and Muslims because they primarily worked at the tanneries. They are now unemployed, and looking for odd jobs in the district.”

The car Dhani Ram he uses for the funerals of unclaimed dead bodies. Parth MN

The car Dhani Ram he uses for the funerals of unclaimed dead bodies. Parth MN

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Uttar Pradesh’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent as against the national average of 6.7 percent. The labour participation rate in Uttar Pradesh is 39 percent, as against the national average of 42.81 percent.

The numbers reflect starkly in Kanpur, which, today, is a pale shadow of its vibrant past. Only two out of the nine textile mills remain in a semi-functional state. Lal Imli is one of them, but its 500-plus workers have not received their salary for the past 21 months.

Vijay Sagar says the workers have been getting salaries intermittently for over a decade. “Panther sahib has led protests and agitations and we would ensure the workers got their salaries after 5 months or 7 months at least,” he says. “The corrupt management has sold the mill’s prime land at a throwaway prices to builders, but they are not looking out for the mill workers.”

A couple of years back, Dhani Ram and the other labour leaders had a fallout, so he does not interfere with the mill workers’ problems. But the workers say he has helped them with their kids’ tuition fees and books when they approached him. “We have not received our salary, so it is hard to look after the family,” says one worker. “Panther sahib has also ensured medical treatment of some of the mill workers' family members.”

Every day, during the “visit hours”, Dhani Ram sees at least 20 people. It is not difficult to locate his office. McRobertganj, Settlement colony, Vijay Sagar tells me over the phone. But the network is bad, and I cannot pickup the landmark. “Just ask for Dhani Ram Panther,” he says. “He is the landmark.”

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 15:35:27 IST