Report by Dryan Kitchener: Monday 9th October
This afternoon, along with thousands of his supporters - on foot, on scooters and in buses – I walked behind a hearse bearing the body of Kanshi Ram to the funeral ghat. The procession wound for miles through the wide tree-lined avenues of New Delhi, past diplomatic residences and embassies. The hearse was an open-topped truck, bedecked with flowers – when I got close there was the beautiful scent of frangipani. Standing beside the body in its open-topped casket was Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s chosen successor, and ex-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, with someone holding a black umbrella to keep the sun off her. Alongside her were two yellow-clad Theravadin monks, politicians – and two lean black-clad security guards with rifles.
The crowd, jostling to get close to his body, was sombre. They walked tightly packed, with periodic raised arms punching the sky, and shouts of ‘as long as the sun and moon remain, your name, Kanshi Ram, will stay’; and ‘the second name of Dr Ambedkar was Kanshi Ram’. I notice there are hardly any women at all in the crowd for all that Mayawati is a woman and presumably an inspiration for female empowerment.
Kanshi Ram was president and inspiration for the Bahujan Samaj Party (for the good of the all). He formed the BSP in 1984 as a breakaway from the RPI, the party set up by Dr Ambedkar that was riven by internal disputes following his death. The BSP gained power three times in the vastly populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, with Mayawati as Chief Minister.
Kanshi Ram’s death may have great significance. The lower-caste political and social movements have been constantly riven by discord, and like Dr Ambedkar in the last century, Kanshi Ram was the one leader who had a following and respect across India and across the multifarious lower castes. He declared in 2003 as Dr Ambedkar had in 1935 that ‘Although I was born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu. He planned, again like Dr Ambedkar, to convert to Buddhism this month, along with many, potentially millions of his followers. However his health, which had been bad for some months, failed him before he could do so. His anointed successor, Mayawati, does not command the same support and there are fears about what will happen to the impetus behind the Buddhist conversions – at a time when state after state are drafting anti-conversion bills.
I fall in with a Punjabi – Harinder – whilst we walk. I’m sporting a camera and he asks me if I’m press – it turns out he’s a reporter on a Punjab newspaper, and also a strong supporter of Kanshi Ram, so he’d come down to Delhi as soon as he’d heard last night of Kanshi Ram’s death. As far as I could work out – given his non-existent English and my fractured Hindi – he is a member of a Punjabi party affiliated to the BSP – the Bahujan Samaj Morcha – BSM. He has great respect for Kanitram, but is quite derogatory about Mayawati. He says that Kanshi Ram was a simple man, who stayed connected with the poor that he cared about, and lived in a very upstanding way - apparently he didn’t have properties gained by ill-gotten means scattered around India as is the wont of the political class here. Mayawati, on the other hand, he says, once in power quickly gained a reputation for corruption.
We reach Nigambodh Ghat, the funeral place, which is swarming with people. They’ve climbed up on the roofs of the buildings there, and even up the trees. I sneak my way through the crowds till I can get a view of the podium. Harinder says ‘there’s Sonia Gandhi going up the podium’ but I can’t make her out. Then the speaker system comes on and someone – I assume one of the monks – is reciting the Buddhist refuges, though I seem to hear Kanshi Ram’s name mixed in with them…are they saying ‘Kanshi Ram saranam gachami’ - I go for refuge to Kanshi Ram’? I can’t be sure. Then there are the precepts in Pali. I notice some of the people around me mouthing along with them. So Buddhism seems to have a place within the BSP, but is it lip-service – mere political Buddhism? Who now will lead, when Kanshi Ram is dead?
This is a contribution from Dryan Kitchener of the Karuna Trust. Thanks very much to Jarrod for this: more contributions are very welcome. Thanks also to those of you who have sent emails about this blog. Because of the pressure on my time and the difficulties of communication here I may not be able to respond for a while, but I’ll try to get back to everyone when I can.
I am now in Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh State, several hundred miles sout of Nagpur, for the large meeting and diksa tomorrow – 14th October. A report will follow shortly …