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.