[From The New York Times archives]
A brown washcloth in hand to mop his brow under the fiery Indian sun, Kanshi Ram stepped up to the microphones to start a revolution.
Tens of thousands of India’s most disadvantaged people – the poor, the powerless, the untouchables – sat along the capital’s stately Rajpath boulevard to listen to the message that he asked them to carry to millions more ”in all the corners of India.”
Daring to attack half a century of official self-satisfaction that ”the weaker sections” were being looked after by those better born, and rejecting the label ”harijan,” or ”children of God,” that Mohandas K. Gandhi bestowed on the millions of outcastes who remain victims of Hindu prejudice, Mr. Ram, a 56-year-old former Government scientist, said simply:
”For too long we have been knocking at the doors of the system, asking for justice and getting nothing. It is time to break down those doors. No sacrifice will be too great.”
‘The Party of the Majority’
His message was addressed, he said, to what is potentially the most powerful political force the country has ever known, the 650 million of India’s 840 million people who exist outside Hinduism top three caste groupings: Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya. Mr. Ram calls his new political organization the Bahujan Samaj, the Party of the Majority.
Saturday was the beginning of a yearlong commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, India’s first Law Minister and one of the framers of the national Constitution. Mr. Ambedkar was born in untouchability in 1891; his teacher would not handle his books or papers as he sat isolated on a burlap bag at a far corner of the classroom. He died in 1956 still despairing of Hinduism. One of his last acts was to become a Buddhist, along with several hundred thousand followers.
Mr. Ram, saying he is picking up the struggle for social equality where Mr. Ambedkar left off, has given his followers a year – until April 14, 1991, his mentor’s birthday – to travel by bicycle all over India spreading the exhortation ”to develop ourselves” and ”be worthy sons of our father.”
In the next general election, which could occur any time between now and 1994, Mr. Ram, whose followers call him ”the second savior,” says he will field hundreds of candidates, ”the majority of them Ph.D.’s.”
Mr. Ambedkar, helped by the Maharajah of Baroda, who recognized his brilliance, eventually graduated from Columbia University in 1915 and then from the London School of Economics. He also became a barrister at law at Gray’s Inn.
An Opponent of Gandhi
His experiences in the United States, where he developed a belief far ahead of his time in the efficacy of social change through law, caused him to oppose Gandhi, a higher-caste Bania, who thought Hindus could be persuaded to change their ways by example.
Gandhi and his Congress Party prevailed. Only now has India, under a non-Congress Government, honored Mr. Ambedkar posthumously with its highest award, the Bharat Ratna.
Mr. Ram, also born an outcaste but educated as a scientist in India, left his Defense Department job in 1965 after becoming involved in another employee’s discrimination problems.
”His life changed forever after he read Ambedkar’s Caste Annihilation,” an associate, Arun Choudhury, said. ”He wrote to his mother. It was a 24-page letter that said: I am not coming home. I am not going to marry. I am going to give my life to this cause.”
Mr. Ram, who began his campaign by organizing self-help projects among the educated lower castes in government jobs, was a newcomer to Indian politics when his party came from nowhere to capture three seats in the Indian Parliament in November 1989 and to cut substantially into votes cast for many other candidates.
Within five years, he said in an interview, his Bahujan Samaj could take power through the ballot.
Obstacles to Overcome
There are obstacles to overcome. The new party, formed less than a decade ago, is still limited in strength geographically, with most of its support in the populous Hindi-speaking north and New Delhi. Other, often competing, parties draw on the vote of the poor in other parts of India. There are also subcaste antagonisms and personal rivalries to face.
Mr. Ram is in favor of continued affirmative action programs in education and jobs that have given many of the lowest caste and outcaste people better lives. He encourages young people to make the most of these opportunities.
But he is solidly opposed to what are known as ”political reservations” – the setting aside of certain parliamentary or state-level seats for people who fall into categories called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These designations also include members of minority religions, all of whom would be technically outcastes since they are not part of the Hindu universe.
Fundamental Changes Sought
Mr. Ram said the political reservation system had created token seats for ”stooges” of the major parties, all of them controlled by Brahmins or other high-caste people.
The Bahujan Samaj is not ideological. In fact, it has begun to lure young people away from leftist groups because the Communist parties are also dominated by higher castes.
”Our main targets are social transformation and economic emancipation,” he said. ”But basically, our problem is the unique social system of India.”
”Where Brahminism is a success, no other ‘ism’ can succeed,” he said. ”We need fundamental, structural social changes.”
[Courtesy: The New York Times, April 18, 1990. Picture credit: Life magazine]