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Turning to Ramswaroop Verma, Lohia and Ambedkar to understand Uttar Pradesh’s politics

Soon after independence in 1947, the Congress of Gandhi-Nehru combine inherited from the British the right to rule over India. They had been in power barely for two to three years when the Congress confronted a groundswell of bitter opposition as the anti-Congress forces began to unite. Realization soon set in among the people that the Congress had simply replaced the British as rulers and for the common man, precious little had changed. Those who, in collusion with the British, were sucking the blood of the poor, the farmers and the workers, had turned Congressmen overnight. Independence, it seemed, had only replaced the British with the Indian British. As exploitation continued, the disenchantment with the government began surfacing in various parts of the country.

B.R. Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia

In the 1950s, many politicians thus changed tact with a view to bring about a comprehensive change in Indian politics. They began working towards building an alternative to the Congress. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in the deep south, B.R. Ambedkar in the west and Ram Manohar Lohia in the north were working on this agenda in their own ways. Periyar had begun the process by bringing Dravidian culture – as distinct from Sanatan culture – centre stage. Lohia wanted the Backwards, the minorities, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) to support his party and challenge Nehru’s Congress.

Though there were ideological differences between Ambedkar and Lohia, many common threads existed. The country’s political climate of the time was conducive enough to bring the two leaders together. Ambedkar and Lohia decided to explore the possibilities of forging a common front. Lohia wrote to Ambedkar, urging him to take over the leadership of the deprived sections of the country. Before coming face-to-face, the two decided to prepare the ground for an alliance through preliminary talks between their associates. Dr Bhagwan Das from Delhi and Dr Chhedilal Sathi, a lawyer from Lucknow, who were very close to Ambedkar, carried out the initial talks with the closest aide of Lohia, Ramswaroop Verma, who in turn had a long meeting with Ambedkar in the year 1954.

I came to know in the 1990s that Verma had played the role of an intermediary between Lohia and Ambedkar but by then he was no longer active in politics and was in poor health. I was invited to a programme organized by the Kurmi Kshatriya Sabha of Lucknow, where a participant gave me some writings of Verma. Soon after, I decided to meet Verma and seek details of his conversation with Ambedkar, armed only with a rudimentary understanding of Verma’s ideological stand.

But there was a problem. Verma was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which had distorted his gait as well as his ability to speak and it was rather difficult to decipher what he was saying. So, I began looking for someone who was close enough to Verma and had a grasp of his political and social activities. I found such a person in Bhagwan Swaroop Katiyar, information officer in the Uttar Pradesh Directorate of Information and Publicity. Also, he hailed from a village close to Verma’s ancestral house in Kanpur district and had been in touch with the man himself. I told Katiyar about my mission and he agreed to lend me his support.

The entire conversation was to be taped. Katiyar was to arrange for a voice recorder and be present at the interviews, which would be conducted in phases to help understand with clarity what Verma was saying. It was decided that Katiyar would later transcribe the tapes but would leave the analysis of the transcript to me. With these conditions, Katiyar agreed to arrange the meetings. He took up the matter with Verma and finalized a long interview. The interview, which was held in 1996, was spaced out into several sessions. It was held at Verma’s residence at Bandariabagh in Hazratganj, Lucknow, which is situated west of the Information Directorate of the Uttar Pradesh Government.

Ram Manohar Lohia and Ramswaroop Verma

Interview over, now it was time for Katiyar to transcribe the tapes. I knew that the transcription would take two to three months. After about three months, I telephoned Katiyar, only to be told that the recording could not be replayed due to some problem with the tapes. For me, this was a bolt out of the blue – I was shocked beyond words and this was a serious setback to my efforts to dig out an important ideological heritage and make it public. Moreover, it was a great personal loss too, as I was a keen follower of Lohia. I was drawn towards Verma’s ideology since I strongly believed that discovering the commonality between the beliefs of Ambedkar, Lohia and Verma had a significant bearing on the contemporary political scenario of Uttar Pradesh.

By instinct, I am not someone who banks completely on an electronic equipment. I have always felt that they could let you down anytime and sought a backup. This is even more important when rare material is at stake – something that could be lost forever if the electronic equipment malfunctions. Being a trained sociologist, I was in the habit of jotting down in a diary nuggets of information collected from a research area, whether it was received from a source or gleaned from personal experience. Since the conversations with Verma were held in phases I had noted down a brief description of every session in my diary. And gradually, with time, I forgot about the tapes that had failed me.

The 1990s was a period of upheavals, tragedies and unwelcome developments in my personal and family life. After the marriage of my younger daughter Neeta, I had shifted from my government accommodation at 50, Gulistan Colony, to my own house at Ildiko Colony, Rae Bareli Road. The house was in need for a renovation but as soon as the overhauling was completed, tragedy struck. In early 1998 my wife Neelima was killed when a LPG cylinder exploded in the kitchen. The incident had a catastrophic effect on me. I slipped into deep depression and confined myself to the house in self-imposed isolation. I started viewing life as empty and aimless and would have even committed suicide but for the intervention of my close friend Brigadier Kapil Khare who dropped by all the way from Pune. He had an inkling of what I was going through, spoke with me for hours and managed to pull me back from the brink. Before Khare came calling, in the grip of my depression, I had sold the books of my personal library. I also sold to the junk dealer collections of the issues of the past 20 years of about six select journals, many of which I had got bound, as well as handwritten manuscripts.

It was only when I normalized that the magnitude of the blunder I had committed dawned upon me. Before leaving, Khare had offered me a positive piece of advice. He said, “Verma ji, you have lived a long and multifaceted professional life and you can contribute to the wellbeing of society by drawing on your experience. Write about it and get it published. It will lessen your pain and keep you busy.” I liked Khare’s advice. I bought a computer and began writing. I was the guest editor of a special issue of the journal Eastern Anthropologist, which was centred on the backward classes. Subsequently, I expanded the contents of the issue and shaped them into three books. I kept on accepting one assignment after another and years passed.

From 1998 to 2007, I lived alone in my house at Ildiko Colony. When my health started deteriorating, in 2007, I went to live with my elder daughter Neera and son-in-law Dinesh in Bharat Nagar, Sitapur Road, in Lucknow. In 2012, I shifted to Baramati, Pune, to the residence of my younger daughter Neeta and her husband Makundi. One day in June 2017, as I was rummaging through a heap of documents pertaining with my degrees, certificates, mark-sheets, appointment letters, experience certificates, etc, I came across the handwritten notes detailing my historic conversation with Verma. And what was heartening to note was that Katiyar had got a compilation of Verma’s books and written material on Shoshit Samaj Dal and Arjak Sangh published in two volumes titled Ramswaroop Verma Samagra (Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi).

Key points of my conversation with Ramswaroop Verma

Although my conversation with Verma primarily focused on his talks with Ambedkar, it was not limited to it. We spoke on other related issues, including why Lohia chose him for the talks, what brief Lohia provided, his take on the strong and weak aspects of Ambedkar’s politics and why Lohia insisted on making the socio-cultural movement a part of the political agenda. Conversations also centred on how well the political inheritors of Lohia and Ambedkar had preserved their legacy after the two leaders eventually faded from the political scene and the reasons behind Verma quitting the Socialist Party and creating the Soshit Samaj Dal and Arjak Sangh. My experience as a senior official in the Uttar Pradesh Government, coupled with my overriding interest in public life, helped in giving me a greater insight into how the political inheritors of Lohia and Ambedkar had treated their legacy. Eventually, I also witnessed the fate of this legacy at the hands of the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo and Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Although the thoughts of Dr Ambedkar, Dr Lohia and Verma on annihilation of caste system ran parallel, some analysts say that Dr Lohia and Verma were ideologically poles apart from Ambedkar. Some political scientists like Yogendra Yadav are of the view that Dr Ambedkar and Dr Lohia (along with Ramswaroop Verma) heralded various stages in the struggle for social justice.

Dr Ambedkar and Dr Lohia: Some commonalities

According to Yadav, both Lohia and Ambedkar took a stand distinct from Marxism, considering caste an autonomous and crucial factor responsible for the exploitation, injustice and inequality in Indian society. Both acknowledged the importance of gender and class and believed that ending caste-based inequality should be given top priority. They held caste responsible for many ills plaguing Indian society and believed that the caste system could not be reformed and would have to be destroyed. They were convinced that success in creating economic equality would not be sufficient to end caste-based inequality and strongly felt that there was the need to address cultural and religious issues that would be finally instrumental in ending this deep-rooted imbalance in the society.

Why Ramswaroop Verma was chosen for the task

An important question crops up – why did Lohia choose Verma for holding talks with Ambedkar? During my conversation with him, Verma admitted that there was a difference of opinion between Lohia and Ambedkar on many issues. Based on my interaction with Verma, Dr Chhedilal Sathi and Dr Bhagwan Das, I can say with a degree of certainty that in the 1950s, though Verma continued to be a member of Lohia’s Socialist Party he had emerged as an independent, brilliant thinker. Though he founded a political outfit called Shoshit Samaj Dal and a social reform movement christened Arjak Sangh much later, in the 1970s, his views about social reforms were well known and had a formidable popular base even in the 1950s, especially in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Significantly, he was, by implication, in favour of a separate electorate for the Scheduled Castes (SCs). He had suggested that in two constituencies of each district, only SCs should be voters and candidates and the latter should be chosen by them and not by any political party.

Ramswaroop Verma had thus already carved out a niche for himself in the politics of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and was no longer an appendage to Lohia. In fact, on many issues he differed from Lohia and was closer to Ambedkar. For instance, Lohia was in favour of organizing Ramayana Mela while Verma had personally burnt the Ramayana. The Arjak Sangh, founded by Verma in 1970, was openly committed to annihilating Brahmanism and establishing humanism. Arjak Sangh had even laid down norms for celebrating occasions like birth, marriage and death for the deprived, largely aimed at giving them an identity distinct from the Sanatanis in terms of both beliefs and conduct. Like Dr Ambedkar, Verma believed that for bringing about a systemic change, it was imperative to launch a cultural movement, in addition to a political one. That was probably one reason Lohia picked Verma for holding talks with Ambedkar.

Another question that crops up is why Lohia himself did not hold talks with Ambedkar or use the services of other top leaders of the Socialist Party like Raj Narayan, Janeshwar Mishra or Ramsevak Yadav for the purpose. This was the first question I posed to Verma during my conversations with him. From his answer, it was very obvious that Lohia knew that there were commonalities in the views of Ambedkar and Verma on inequality and untouchability plaguing Indian society and on the ways and means of freeing most Indians from this cycle of exploitation. Had someone else been given the responsibility, the different ideologies of Lohia and Ambedkar would have clashed. It was clear that Lohia was aware of the ideological commitment of Verma.

Lohia’s brief to Verma for talks with Ambedkar

According to Verma, at the time, there was him among the Kurmis and Ramsevak Yadav among the Yadavs in the Socialist party who had both mass support and their own ideologies. That is why Lohia did not give him any specific brief for the talks. Lohia chose Verma as his representative because he was the most educated and ideologically mature among the Socialist Party leaders. Lohia made it clear that the need for a coalition was born of a peculiar set of circumstances. According to Verma, Lohia was aware that more than 90 per cent of the Dalits, minorities and MBCs voted for the Congress. Since Ambedkar was the tallest leader of Dalits in the country, Lohia wanted the Backwards to join hands with him. He proposed the coalition, hoping to jointly field candidates take the fight straight to the Congress. However, Verma had realized that to some extent, this was wishful thinking, as besides the Congress and the proposed Lohia-Ambedkar front, smaller parties too fielded their candidates in elections. The Congress, with its money power, used to prop up these candidates to eat into the vote-bank of strong opposition candidates.

B.R. Ambedkar and Ramswaroop Verma

In short, the alliance was not aimed at making gains but at containing the losses. In any case, Ambedkar did not have any political organization on the ground in north India and Lohia’s Socialist Party was mainly a conglomeration of the Kurmis and the Yadavs and its influence was confined to certain districts of Uttar Pradesh only. Although the alliance would not have fetched immediate gains, it was aimed at securing long-term advantage and was a good beginning.

Key points of Ambedkar-Lohia pact

To pose an effective political challenge to the Congress, the minorities, Tribals, OBCs and the Dalits had to be brought together and would be given representation in proportion to their numbers. This coalition would address the problems and grievances of these communities and would use civil disobedience as a political weapon to achieve this end. It would jointly field candidates in the elections. It would choose candidates according to the relative strengths of its units in that constituency. The unit that had a greater organizational strength in a constituency would be allowed to field the candidate of its choice and the other units would lend their support. Every region of the country would ensure that the number of candidates from a community was commensurate with that group’s share in the population. Since the parties did not receive any donations from industrialists, their candidates would collect money from the people to meet their poll-related expenses.

Lohia’s Socialist Party and Ambedkar’s Republican Party mainly deployed local leaders to canvass. It was rare when a state or national-level leader visited a constituency to address public meetings. The candidates of these parties got votes primarily due to their personal acceptability among the people. The Socialist Party had no dearth of leaders who enjoyed immense credibility and respect in their areas. The hold of some of them was so strong that the Congress leaders had to get them physically eliminated in their hope to win the elections, as was in the case of Avadh Sharan Verma “Lallaji” and Hargovind Verma. The Congress had one more trick up its sleeve: it got constituencies, where there was a possibility of the opposition candidate emerging victorious, reserved for SCs.

Implementation of Ambedkar-Lohia pact

There were practical problems facing both the Socialist Party and the Republican Party in implementing the pact between Ambedkar and Lohia. Ambedkar had himself said that he had many complaints against his followers and that they had forgotten the key points of his mission. He was in poor health and it was next to impossible for him to travel to various parts of the country to address public meetings. He did contest a Lok Sabha by-election from Bhandara district in Maharashtra but lost. After his death in December 1956 his Republic Party splintered into many groups. The Scheduled Castes had lost a leader whose life and work was such that voters of other deprived communities too were drawn to him.

One main problem before the alliance was the lack of financial resources, due to which its election campaign had little or no impact. Verma, during his conversation, indicated why the influence of Socialist Party was limited to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and that too, to only a few districts. The party could find very few candidates who were ready to risk their personal financial resources for contesting elections. Those who were moneyed lacked public acceptability. The party itself did not enjoy complete backing of the SCs, the minorities and the MBCs.

Notwithstanding all these handicaps, between 1955 and 1967 the Socialist Party did manage to breach the apparently impregnable fortress of the Congress. By 1967, the Congress was out of power in UP and Bihar, but the alliance lacked the legislative strength to form its own governments in the two states. Moreover, the Congress hatched one conspiracy after another to weaken them. The governors of almost all the states were Congressmen, who, at a nudge from Delhi, were ever ready to unseat non-Congress governments. Verma stated that the death of Lohia in 1967 was a big jolt to the Socialist Party. The Congress poached many of its top leaders and the party went into oblivion. Verma founded the Soshit Samaj Dal to concretize the Ambedkar-Lohia pact but it met with limited success. After Lohia’s death, the Socialist Party splintered and what was left of it became the fiefdom of Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. According to Verma, Mulayam Singh gave a “Saifai Yadav” (Saifai was his native village) definition of socialism and gave rise to a situation that would surely make Lohia turn in his grave.

For Mulayam Singh, naked power serving the interests of his family was the bedrock of politics. Honest, committed and hardworking leaders like Verma had no place in his scheme of things. Verma thus formed the Soshit Samaj Dal, which tried to implement a socio-cultural and political strategy along the lines of the Ambedkar-Lohia pact. This new party became quite active in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar mainly due to the efforts of Jagdev Prasad, the champion of the backward classes. But the Congress continued to play tricks. It poached powerful candidates of the opposition parties and where it could not do so – as in Barabanki district – had the parliamentary and assembly constituencies reserved for SCs.

According to Verma, years later, it was Kanshi Ram who gave a concrete shape to the Ambedkar-Lohia pact from the Dalit perspective. He built a movement that was in consonance with all the major features of the pact. Verma was witness to the rise and fall of the Mulayam-Mayawati coalition government that lasted a year and seven months. He said two factors were responsible for the fall of the government in Uttar Pradesh – one, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati concentrating all power in their hands and second, deliberately ignoring the net cast by the BJP. The fall of the government also drove a wedge between the Dalits and the OBCs, tearing the two communities apart for good.

 

Copy-edited by Rajiv Theodore


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