The sickness of caste has plagued Indian society since the Vedic ages and continues to remain a source of unparalleled inhumane treatment of individuals based on their involuntary membership of a particular social group. Within the Indian context, caste has often been understood as a Dalit issue that is not inclusive of conversations about other oppressed minorities. The Bahujan movement attempts to change that narrative and fight for equality and justice for vulnerable groups in a caste-bound society. The movement that was led by a strong political front (Bahujan Samaj Party), also had a significant cultural impact that continues to celebrate the Bahujan identity and its resistance even to this day.
History bears witness to the social and institutionalised discrimination meted out to minority groups in India, most notably the Dalit community that has been viewed as inferior, impure and untouchable going as far back as the Hindu religious scriptures. The community has been continually denied equal opportunity and treatment for centuries, creating chasms of social inclusivity and representation. The plight of the Dalits in India is trifold – economic, social and political – which leaves them vulnerable to poverty, ill-health and humiliation and also restricts their social mobility. Post-independence, there was an echoing sentiment amongst the Dalit community that they were being denied a life of equality and dignity. This sentiment laid the foundation of the Dalit movement that sought to counter the upper-caste hegemony in India and demand existence of dignity and equal opportunity.
The Dalit Movement
The Dalit movement in India results from centuries of brewing unrest amongst India’s largest minority that has been disenfranchised and ostracised at every step of their struggle to create a dignified life for themselves. The holy Hindu scriptures have condemned the Dalit community to an existence of service to the upper castes. Traditionally, Dalits are employed in sewage cleaning, manual scavenging, garbage collection and other such sanitation work, thereby being accorded the title of untouchable. Dalits have also been denied equal access to resources, both material and intellectual, that have instead been monopolised by the upper castes in India. Thus, started the Dalit movement as a form of protest against the caste hierarchies prevalent in Indian society. While the community’s struggle with oppression and exploitation began centuries ago, the agitation gained considerable momentum post-independence. The Dalit movement in independent India was fuelled by the introduction of the English language that exposed Dalits to new ideas about justice and equality. Educated Dalits took the liberty to educate illiterate members of their community about such ideas and also went on to engage in discourses around caste as journalists and writers actively. The Dalit Literary Movement that also flourished simultaneously saw the publication of Dalit literature, poetry, music, etc., that had Dalit consciousness at its core and disseminated knowledge about social persecution.
Read More: Dalit and Backward Classes Movement
Meaning of “Bahujan”
While the Dalit community in India is perhaps one of the most marginalised, several communities within the subcontinent live under the fear of oppression and are subject to exploitation at the hands of the upper-caste, this includes the scheduled tribes (Adivasis) and scheduled castes and also other lower castes (Shudhras), regardless of their religion, ethnicity or geography. Members of all of these subjugated communities together are referred to as Bahujan (majority). Such terminology reinstates that the issue of caste in India is not merely a Dalit problem.
Kanshi Ram and the History of the Bahujan Samaj Party
Kanshi Ram Ji, popularly referred to as Bahujan Nayak, was perhaps the most prominent leader of the Dalit movement in India after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was he who used the Pali word Bahujan, meaning “the majority”, to unite and mobilise Indian minorities under a single banner. He is said to have been greatly influenced by Ambedkar and his writings, which inspired him to work towards mobilising the Dalits. A member of the Dalit community from a village in Punjab, Ram too fell victim to caste-based discrimination during his time in college in Maharashtra. He subsequently began actively reading the works of Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar, who is therefore accredited with being the driving force behind the Bahujan Movement. The social and political reformer inspired the Dalit Buddhist Movement in 1956. It saw nearly half a million Dalits convert to Buddhism as a protest against Hinduism and the discriminatory social segregation propagated by it.
Kanshi Ram, who was fondly called Saheb, founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984 and engaged politically in order to mobilise and fight for equal treatment of the Dalits and other minorities. Ram maintained that the party’s efforts will not only be directed towards the Dalit struggle but will also be inclusive of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other religious and social minorities. Prior to launching the BSP, Kashi Ram worked with the Republican Party of India (RPI), which was founded by Dr Ambedkar. However, he parted ways with the party due to ideological differences and instead travelled across India to truly understand the Dalits’ plight. He was also highly critical of Dalit leaders who worked for the Congress and referred to them as “chamchas” or “stooges”. During this time, he realised that reforms were impossible without a political foothold and therefore decided to establish the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The Bahujan Movement of the 1980s was directed towards raising consciousness among Bahujans and also debunking Brahmanism and rejecting casteism. While the BSP worked towards political gratification, Kanshi Ram also highlighted the role of BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), DS4 (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) and BRC (Buddhist Research Center) as cultural bodies that sustained and fuelled the Bahujan movement. The BAMCEF organised cultural meetings that witnessed recitations and performances that depicted the social history of the Bahujan. It also called for the establishment of a literary wing that would discuss the experiential realities of the community. DS4 gave women, youth and students a platform to share their anti-caste sentiments and was responsible for raising their political consciousness by preparing them for leadership roles and organising a vote bank. The BRC advocated religious conversion to Buddhism as a way of protesting the Hindu caste hierarchy.
Through these institutions, Kanshi Ram successfully assimilated several minority groups in India under a single banner for a specific cause. Moreover, his efforts raised awareness among Bahujan and non-Bahujan individuals about subaltern perspectives and Bahujan icons such as Dr Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitri Bai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, etc. The celebration of such heroes also brings to the forefront conversations about their struggles and contributions, a shared collective history and a cultural re-imagination of music and writing. Through this labour, the Bahujan movement succeeded in making its mark in the social, cultural and political spheres.
Kanshi Ram holds a special place in the hearts of the Bahujan because of his remarkable ability to inspire people to invest in what began as a political movement emotionally. The cultural facets that define the movement play a significant role in how the Bahujan functions today. Despite political setbacks and times of fragility, the sentiment continues to burn strong because of the sustained socio-cultural consciousness that was birthed through the Bahujan movement. The continued zeal that stems from a strong sense of collective memories of oppression can potentially reignite the waning fire of political representation and involvement.
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