Steven R. Weisman
[From The New York Times archives]
Anyone who finishes third in a local election in India can usually start thinking about retirement. But the recent third-place showing in a parliamentary race by Kanshi Ram, a fiery champion of the rights of untouchables and other low castes, was strong enough to shake India’s political establishment and force the country’s leadership to pay attention to his demands.
”Let the upper castes look on us as a creeping poison,” Mr. Ram said the other day, savoring his capture of nearly 20 percent of the votes. ”We have initiated a new process in a big way. We will not stop until we unite the victims of the system and overthrow the spirit of inequality in our country.”
Graying and heavyset, the 54-year-old Mr. Ram does not look like a rabble-rouser. But depending on one’s point of view, he is today either a new hero of the downtrodden or what a leading magazine called ”nothing but a fascist casteist.”
During the campaign, he was quoted as declaring: ”We ask this Government and the ruling castes to decide whether they will give us our rights by ballot or by bullet. If they insist on bullets, we are also prepared for that.”
A Tool of the Conquerors
Caste identity has existed for thousands of years in the subcontinent, reinforced by foreign invaders who used the system to oppress those they conquered. Its persistence is testimony to the pull of tradition and the Hindu concept of acceptance as the means to achieve a better status in a future life.
Many experts agree that Indian political stability has also been helped because lower castes and the minority groups, including Moslems, have generally voted for the Congress Party, which has ruled the country for most of the time since independence in 1947.
The Congress Party brought benefits for the lowest castes, including a quota system guaranteeing them a fixed number of jobs and places in higher education. Mohandas K. Gandhi, the independence leader and apostle of nonviolence, also popularized the use of the term harijans, or children of god, for untouchables, Mr. Ram rejects the term as insulting.
Despite some advances, caste discrimination remains pervasive in India, even though it is illegal. Perhaps a quarter of India’s nearly 800 million people are in the lowest castes, most living in the worst conditions of poverty.
Victory for a Gandhi Critic
The parliamentary race in the northern Indian district of Allahabad on June 16 was won by Vishwanath Pratap Singh, a former Cabinet member who waged a campaign based on charges of corruption in the Government. His triumph with 56 percent of the votes in India’s populous Hindi-speaking heartland, the longtime constituency of the Congress Party, made it likely that he will lead the challenge against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the next general election.
The Congress Party came in second, with only slightly more votes than Mr. Ram. Party leaders are now extremely worried that if he duplicates or builds on his support, Mr. Gandhi could lose the election due by the end of next year.
The nature of Mr. Singh’s victory makes the future all the more unpredictable. Mr. Singh, the scion of a princely family whose nickname is The Rajah, unexpectedly made great headway among the lower castes and Moslems.
Politicians say the results mean that Mr. Singh and Mr. Gandhi will be competing hard for the same votes. Many expect that eventually Mr. Ram will make a deal with one or the other in return for some kind of favors, much the way some low caste leaders did in the 1970’s amid charges of ”sellout.”
Mr. Ram denied that he had any such intention, terming the Prime Minister and his main foe ”a snake and a serpent” with no difference between them. ”We will be the mongoose, winning against both,” he added, asserting that the lower castes constitute an 85 percent majority in India ready to seize power.
That percentage is widely considered a gross exaggeration. In any case, it papers over the fact that many nominally lower castes are actually castes of small landowners who have made economic gains and look down on the lowest of the low.
Mr. Ram asserts that his organization – the Bahujan Samaj, or Party of the Majority – has drawn its more than 300,000 workers from all varieties of lower castes. But politicians agree that rivalry among lower castes makes his organizing job especially difficult.
Like past leaders of untouchables and other low castes, Mr. Ram deplores the ancient aspect of Hinduism that has enshrined acceptance of caste identity as a kind of religious duty. He said he personally prefers Buddhism to the brahminism prevalent today, a term coined from the Hindu priestly caste.
From a Family of Sikhs
Mr. Ram is himself well educated and learned English in college. He grew up in a low-caste but somewhat well-to-do family of Sikhs and he renounced the Sikh practices of wearing a turban or growing his hair when he was in college.
Nominally, Sikhism calls for an end to caste, but caste identity is so strong that it persists among many Sikhs, as it does among many Moslems and Christians. In the 1950’s, Mr. Ram’s family caste was listed as a low caste by the Government, entitling it to benefits.
The action led to discrimination while he was in the army, according to Mr. Ram, and he decided to dedicate himself to the cause, later renouncing the idea of marriage, personal property and family obligations. ”Through my actions, behavior and personal style, I must induce austerity,” he said. As for ideology, Mr. Ram is less clear, other than to say that the lower castes are entitled to more jobs, education, property and other benefits.
”I have seen capitalism accomplish good things in certain countries,” Mr. Ram said. ”Communism, socialism, liberalism, all of them have accomplished good things in other countries. But all these four ‘isms’ have failed in India. As long as there is brahminism, nothing else can succeed.”
[Courtesy: The New York Times, June 27, 1988]