Tracing the word Bahujan as a political term

There is a lot of confusion about the word Bahujan. People think it is a recent term, most prominently associated with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Kanshiram, who endeavoured to bring all Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes together as one consolidated group. But this term has a history of at least a century.

The oldest usage of the word that I have so far been able to trace to is the year 1920, when an important leader from Maharashtra, Vitthal Ramji Shinde, found a political organisation called Bahujan Paksh (paksh means party in Marathi). I also came across this term in the introduction to Satyashodhak Dinakarrao Javalkar’s controversial book Deshache Dushman (देशाचे दुष्मन, Enemies of the Nation), published in 1925.

The word Bahujan or the phrase Bahujan Samaj can also be found in a compilation of articles published in 1928 as a tribute to Mahatma Jyotirao Phule on his birth centenary, and a pamphlet published in 1936 to advertise the iconic Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, where Ambedkar had delivered his famous Mukti Kon Pathe (What Path to Salvation) speech. Let me reproduce the passage in question from the pamphlet below (original in Marathi, translation mine).

Since the work ahead of us is enormous and vital, we will need a great deal of monetary support and human resources. Therefore, we request all the Mahar brothers and sisters in Mumbai city and Mumbai province to keep their personal differences aside and participate in the conference wholeheartedly to make it a success.

The contribution amounts given below, have been set such that the Bahujan Samaj will be able to participate in the conference.

Members of welcoming committee ₹5, (b) Associate members ₹3, (c) General associate members ₹2, (d) General members ₹1.

The term Bahujan was commonly used in the anti-caste discourse of post-Phule Satyashodhak, non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra, the centre of which was Pune. Bahujan is a Marathi word. The nature of Indian languages is such that some of the words are common across languages. The word Bahujan is used in Hindi with almost the same literal meaning as Marathi. Bahu can be translated as many, most, or majority. Jan means people or individual(s).

I am not well versed with anti-caste politics of other regions. But whatever evidence I have come across so far, it seems like the origin of the terms Bahujan, Bahujanvad, Bahujan Samaj as political categories/terminologies is anti-caste politics of Maharashtra, especially of the early 20th century. The word Bahujan became popular in electoral politics, and also in other languages (most notably in English and Hindi) with the formation of BSP by Kanshiram in 1984.

Right now I am working on the shorter version of Bahujan Paksh’s manifesto released in 1920 by Vitthal Ramji Shinde, which delimits the boundaries of the Bahujan Samaj. Do wait for my next update if you would like to read it.


Resist Saffronisation of Ambedkar

[The Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, will visit Nagpur on 14th of April. Deeksha Bhoomi is also a part of his visit where he will pay tribute to Dr. B R Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution, on his 126th birth anniversary. This write-up is a compilation of inputs from various sources (blogs) by Tejaswini Tabhane to discuss the aspects of his visit through the eyes of an Ambedkarite.]

Modi paying respects to Dr Ambedkar

This visit has raised several questions which need to be answered by the Prime Minister who calls himself a ‘Bhakt’ (Devout) of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Modi has said the “iconic leader was a ‘vishwa manav’, not just the messiah of Dalits but someone who raised the voice for all the downtrodden and suppressed people (speech delivered at Ambedkar Memorial lecture).”

Now it is obvious to ask Narendra Modi who has written a book dedicated to Golwalkar titled Shree Guruji: Ek Swayamsevak as to how come could he write such words of praise for a communal and anti-Constitution person and appreciate Ambedkar at the same time? Communal and anti-constitution, eh? Yes. MS Golwalkar disparaged democracy (as well as the Constitution) as alien to Hindu ethos and glorified Manu by calling him “the first, greatest and the wisest lawgiver of mankind.” The same Manusmriti that Ambedkar burnt on 25th December, 1927. So our Prime Minister must be an exceptionally intelligent person to be a ‘Bhakta’ of two ideologically almost opposite persons!

I do not want to rest my claim merely on ideology but also on facts and figures. The vibrant Gujarat model which gave Modi a ticket to 7 RCR has a long history of Dalit oppression during his regime as chief minister of the state. The fact is that Gujarat has the dubious distinction of consistently ranking among the top five states in terms of incidence of atrocities on Dalits. In 2013, when Narendra Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ mantra had reached the crescendo in the wake of ensuing general elections and his imminent coronation as the prime ministerial candidate, the number of atrocities per lakh population of the Scheduled Castes (SC) was 29.21, up from 25.23 in the previous years, marking it as the fourth worst state in the country. In 2014 (latest available data), only 3.4% of crimes against SCs in Gujarat ended in convictions, against 28.8% nationally. These facts speak volumes about the hollowness of Mr. Modi’s claims of following Ambedkar’s ideals.

Let’s talk about the ideological parent of Modi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which is suddenly portraying Ambedkar as a ‘Hindu Nationalist!’ Strange that it took less than 70 years for RSS, an organization surviving on the precept of ultra-Hinduism, to recognise Ambedkar as a great son of India who always spoke about ‘annihilation of caste’ and never subscribed to the principles Hindutva.

Ambedkar is anything but a Hindu nationalist. It is indeed an example of classical paradox that an organisation which had severely criticised Ambedkar in various editorial of its mouthpiece Organiser are now laying claims on his legacy. In a democratic country, like any other organisation or individual, the RSS too has the right to change its mind and approach about Ambedkar and project him as its ideological maharishi. But it must have some rationale. Its words and deeds counter each other.

Behind this façade there lurks the dangerous design to saffronise the most secular and pluralist ideals and concepts. The RSS, and particularly the Modi government, has brought Ambedkar to the centre-stage of national conversation to curb various Dalit movements that echo the message of ending Brahmin hegemony, particularly after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Their aim is to woo Dalit vote bank while holding the strong base of Upper Castes. That’s why the idea is to portray Ambedkar in a wrong saffronised way to suit their interest. The appropriation and deliberate misreading of Ambedkar’s life and vision will delegitimise his egalitarian ideas, demolish and demoralise the struggles to usher in justice and fraternity and lead to the continued enslavement of the marginalised groups. It is therefore important to protect Ambedkar from these saffron thugs.

As the Prime Minister is coming to Deeksha Bhoomi, the place where Ambedkar embraced Buddhism and broke the chains of Hinduism forever, he must also read Ambedkar’s words and I quote him, “Though, I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu.” “I will not believe in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Neither would I worship them.” Does the Prime Minister have the guts to reverberate these words in front of the whole nation?

Believe me these are some questions, the RSS and Prime Minister will find tough to answer.

Lastly to repeat Rohith Vemula, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” They reduced Rohith to a number, they are trying to do the same with Ambedkar. We must resist this appropriation lest we lose the only thing that we have — the precious legacy of Dr. Ambedkar and his thoughts.

Jai Bhim!

(Reproduced with permission from Tejaswini)

An Act of Appropriation?

Book Review: Hatred in the Belly

The book Hatred in the Belly may seem like a personal critique of Arundhati Roy for her introduction (“The Doctor and the Saint”) to B R Ambedkar’s seminal text, Annihilation of Caste. But it isn’t. It is actually a critique of domination of upper castes in Indian scholarship, their caste blindness and their refusal to engage with the issues of representation. By extension this book is a critique of Brahminism itself.

Hatred in the Belly

Navayana, a self-proclaimed anti-caste publishing house run by S Anand, published an annotated edition of Annihilation of Caste in 2015 with much fanfare. Arundhati Roy’s book-length introduction which castigates M K Gandhi for his racist and casteist views was the main attraction. When the excerpts from the introduction were published in the magazines Outlook and Caravan, Roy had expected a backlash from Gandhians and right-wing nationalists. But the criticism came from an unexpected quarter—the Ambedkarites. Most of this criticism was published on the website Round Table India, an independent media outlet analysing society from caste lens, and the social media profiles of anti-caste activists. Hatred in the Belly is a collection of such critical essays, viewpoints, speeches and interviews.

The major theme that runs in the book is that of representation and appropriation. The book takes Navayana to task for not recruiting a Dalit scholar or an Ambedkarite to introduce an important text like Annihilation of Caste. The publishing house instead approached someone like Roy who had no previous engagement with either caste or Ambedkar. Roy’s privileged status as a Savarna Hindu and Syrian Christian, her larger than life persona, her superficial engagement with various movements in India also come under scrutiny in the book. She is accused of appropriating a text which is central to anti-caste struggles all over the country, a text which was translated by anti-caste volunteers in many Indian languages and published and distributed at personal costs. Roy doesn’t take the pains to engage with this illustrious history of Annihilation of Caste‘s journey since its first publication in 1936, nor does she engage with the contents of the book beyond one paragraph. Instead, most of her introduction is an engagement with Gandhi’s writings. Also, her introduction is almost three times longer than the main text!

When the Hindu reformist group Jat Pat Todak Mandal took objection to Ambedkar’s speech and asked him to alter its contents before he could deliver it as presidential address at their event, Ambedkar refused to do so (saying he “would not change a comma”); it resulted in Ambedkar’s invitation being withdrawn. Ambedkar then published the speech as a booklet and distributed it himself. A number of editions of the book are available since then at cheap rates in various Indian languages; the electronic copy of the book is available for free on the website of Columbia University. Against this backdrop, Navayana’s annotated edition seems like a commercial project catering mainly to Savarna and western readership.

Navayana calls itself “India’s first and only publishing house to focus on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective.” But James Michael and Akshay Pathak make an astounding revelation about Navayana.

Out of the list of 61 authors published by Navayana and put up on its website, we could positively identify 37 authors as belonging to privileged communities—this includes 16 Whites and 21 upper castes [of which, 16 were Brahmins] (p 161).

Karthick RM makes it clear why this is deeply problematic.

In contemporary India, take the Indian nationalists, the central committees of the various socialist parties, postcolonialists, liberals, anti-modernists, anti-Eurocentrists, anti-Enlightenmentalists, anti-Colonialists, feminists–which caste defines the ideological paradigms in any of these different political/intellectual groups?

And further asks,

When the Brahmin determines what the philosophy of oppression is, the Brahmin determines what ‘neutral’ liberalism is, and the Brahmin also determines what resistance is, where is the space to counter ideology to emerge (p 188)?

The lack of diversity in Indian scholarship requires an honest introspection. Hatred in the Belly opens the space for a discussion around this issue, and it needs to be taken forward. There is a tendency in Indian academia and media to brush off marginalised voices questioning entrenched privileges as rants, angry outbursts or intellectual bullying. It will be in everybody’s interest if we avoid taking such prejudicial view and resorting to hasty dismissal of criticism. Hatred in the Belly is an important intervention which should be a necessary reading for anyone engaging with issues of social justice from a position of privilege. It will help scholars eschew from indulging in paternalism or, worse, epistemic violence. Navayana’s annotated edition of Annihilation of Caste should serve as a cautionary tale.


Hatred in the belly: Politics behind the appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings by Ambedkar Age Collective, The Shared Mirror, 2015, ₹200.