LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — It was in January 2016, after a 26-year-old Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad hanged himself, that Pawan Rao Ambedkar decided to quit his job at the Sanjay Gandhi Technical Institute in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, two years after he was sent there as an assistant professor of Mathematics by the UP State Commission. Rohith Vemula’s “first and final letter,” revealing his isolation and disillusionment, triggered an outpouring of anger and grief, making him a symbol of resistance against persisting casteism in India.
Over the years, the 39-year-old professor from Raebareli, had become convinced that if he wanted to make things better for Dalits in India, he would have to transition from academia and activism into politics. Vemula’s death in 2016 was the trigger that made him quit what was looking like a comfortable career, and put him on an unknown path.
Six months on, in July 2016, a Dalit family hailing from Ambedkar’s community — the Jatav (chamar) subcaste — were publicly flogged in Una, Gujarat, for skinning a cow carcass, an occupation they have been saddled with for centuries, much like the Valmikis, who have been stuck with manual scavenging.
In a recent conversation, Ambedkar told us, “This is so shameful. Can you believe that humans still have to do this work? It is not good for the country or the future. How is it possible that neither the BSP nor the SP or the BJP, during their time in power, have equipped workers with the machinery they need to do this work, or completely stopped them from doing it and given them alternative employment. This is extremely hurtful. We shall do this.” (BSP – Bahujan Samaj Party, SP – Samajwadi Party, BJP – Bharatiya Janata Party).
By “we,” Ambedkar meant the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), the political party led by the Member of Parliament from Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi, which the Mathematics professor joined as its state General Secretary on 10 September in Sultanpur, six months ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
Fending off chides like he is bound to split the Muslim vote in the poll bound state, and that his party is the BJP’s “B team,” which follow him as he expands his party’s presence across the country, Owaisi remains unapologetic about Muslim identity politics, juxtaposing it against caste identity politics. The AIMIM plans to contest at least 100 of the 403 seats in the UP Legislative Assembly.
Ambedkar says that he plans to contest in the state election.
In 2017, the AIMIM fielded 38 candidates. All of them lost. They managed two lakh votes — less than 0.2 percent of the total votes cast. In the five years that have followed, AIMIM has had a mixed bag of wins and losses, winning seats in state elections in Bihar and Maharashtra, losing in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
UP is home to 200 million people, 19% Muslim, and 20% Dalit. While the BSP and BJP have been in a pitched battle for the Dalit votes, the SP and BSP vie for the Muslim vote, while also taking it for granted. The BJP has successfully weaned away Dalit votes from BSP supremo and UP’s most powerful Dalit leader, Mayawati, over three successive elections since 2014, especially voters who do not belong to her Jatav subcaste. In the cabinet reshuffle in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted a Brahmin, three OBCs, and three Dalits from UP.
While telling us that he was opposed to categorisations such as Jatav and non-Jatavs because they were “imposed,” Ambedkar was of the opinion that Mayawati’s own Jatav community — to which he also belongs — was not happy with her.
Unfazed by AIMIM’s performance in 2017 in UP, Ambedkar said, “Politically, AIMIM has been collecting people suffering from Brahaminical rules in politics and governance — Scheduled Castes, OBCs and Muslims. This is the first step.”
“Muslims and Scheduled Castes are experiencing atrocities and humiliations. The Bahujan movement was meant to empower SC, OBCs, and Muslims. But now you see parties like SP and BSP asking for Brahmin votes. How can one stand this?” he said.
Muslims and Scheduled Castes are experiencing atrocities and humiliations.
On Saturday, Ambedkar tweeted, “Lucknow to Sambhal. Long live AIMIM.”
In his new role, Ambedkar says that he is preparing to become more active not only in public life but on social media, something that he didn’t give much thought to in the past. “I will tweet, but I don’t want to tweet rubbish. I like to think that I understand and respect the power of words,” he said.
On whether he was excited or nervous about starting his political journey, Ambedkar said, “I feel like I was born to do politics. A social movement does not have the strength of political power. Political power is the key through which you can open any door.”
A social movement does not have the strength of political power.
The road to AIMIM
The last time that Ambedkar made news in UP was during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019, when the BJP government clamped down on all demonstrations against the law, and the UP Police personnel beat him and broke a helmet on his head. His name and photograph, along with those of other anti-CAA protesters, was displayed in public hoardings in Lucknow. Two cases were registered against him in connection with the anti-CAA protests.
As a research scholar at Allahabad University, he founded the Bahujan Chatra Sabha, and in September 2004, they staged a five-day hunger strike to protest against the identity cards that required students to fill out their caste. Following the protest, Ambedkar said that it was dropped.
After completing his thesis on “the geometry of complex manifolds,” Ambedkar graduated with a DPhil in Mathematics from Allahabad University. But given that he wanted to work on issues of social justice, he also decided to get a law degree from Lucknow University.
Losing his mother in 2019 and his father in May 2021 was devastating, Ambedkar said, but their passing also spurred him to think long and hard about building the bahujan samaj that they did not witness in their lifetime.
“My father was an assistant engineer in the Indian Telephone Industry Limited in Raebareli, but it was my mother Raj Kumari who was the real social activist, dedicated to the Bahujan ideology,” he said.
First stop — BSP
In 2016, when he resigned to protest Rohith Vemula’s death, Ambedkar wanted to join the BSP. His family was devoted to Kanshi Ram, who founded the BSP in 1984, and the Bahujan politics that he set in motion. Kanshi Ram was succeeded by Mayawati, a former school teacher, who became the Chief Minister of UP.
But when Ambedkar was trying to find his political foothold, the BSP was losing election after election, the BJP had weaned away Dalit voters, and Mayawati’s credibility as a mass leader was waning. Allegations of personal corruption hastened the downward spiral.
If he had joined the BSP, Ambedkar said that his main purpose would have been “vasooli”, extracting funds in the Assembly constituencies and giving them to the district headquarters. “They were making me a clerk. I was not getting into politics to become a clerk,” he said.
They were making me a clerk. I was not getting into politics to become a clerk.
The last straw, Ambedkar said, was BSP’s big push to get out the Brahmin vote in the 2022 election, with its Brahmin leader Satish Chandra Mishra going to the temple town of Ayodhya and promising to speed up the building of the Ram Temple if they came to power.
It isn’t just the BSP. Even the SP, born out of the socialist tradition, is wooing Brahmins. What is driving them is the perception that Chief Minister Adityanath has been more favourably inclined towards his own Thakur community, ticking off the Brahmins.
The Brahmin sammelans (gatherings) that the BSP had carried out were antithetical to the Bahujan movement, said Ambedkar.
“I call it the old Bahujan Samaj Party and the new Bahujan Samaj Party. The new Bahujan Samaj Party has drastically changed. When Mr. Satish Chandara took over the party, his decisions became more important. Now, the party is totally submerged in the ideology of Rama. Brahmins will rule in the name of the Bahujan Samaj Party for the first time.”
I call it the old Bahujan Samaj Party and the new Bahujan Samaj Party.
Opinion is divided. Vivek Kumar, a professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes that BSP’s Brahmin outreach is not in a vacuum. Kanshi Ram gave tickets to Brahmins, and Mayawati gave 85 tickets to Brahmins in the 2007 Assembly election, which BSP won, making 15 of them ministers.
Rehnamol Raveendran, a postdoctoral fellow at Dr. Ambedkar International Centre, writes that the BSP could be at a new political and ideological crossroad, a shift from opposing masjid-mandir politics to counterfeiting BJP’s Hindutva politics. Senior journalist Sharat Pradhan writes that the BSP will help the BJP by splitting the Brahmin vote to the detriment of the SP. Local observers say the competitive wooing is misplaced because Brahmins have been and will continue to vote for the BJP.
As to why more Dalits have been voting for the BJP, Ambedkar said that there were four castes — Valmiki, Khatik, Dhobi, and Kori — that were “religious” and had been receptive to BJP’s underlying message of voting as a Hindu bloc.
On Mayawati’s role as a leader, Ambedkar said, “Mayawati distorted the mission of late Kanshi Ram by courting the Brahmin community. The Bahujan samaj was crushed by Mayawati. She never raised her voice against Dalit atrocities since the BJP came to power in 2014.”
But even as he criticizes Mayawati’s politics, Ambedkar said, “She is still a pride of the society. All I will say is that she is in a trap. She is in a system controlled by Brahmin, where the rules are made by Brahmins.”
She is in a system controlled by Brahmins, where the rules are made by Brahmins.
Ambedkar says he isn’t bothered by people saying that AIMIM is a proponent of Muslim identity politics, and he rejects the chides about it splitting the Muslim vote, and being the BJP’s B team.
To the first censure, he said that when Kanshi Ram launched the BSP, political opponents had tried pigeonholing it as a “party of chamars,” but that didn’t stop him from growing it into the formidable political force. To the second one he said that the BJP won by a landslide in the Lok Sabha election in 2014 and 2019 when the AIMIM was not even contesting.
To eliminate cutting each other’s vote, Ambedkar asked whether parties like the SP and BSP would consider forming an alliance with the AIMIM.
“It is very simple. SP and the BSP are losing the votes of people that once voted for them. They are the B team. If they want to defeat the BJP, they must regain the trust of the voters, not blame other parties,” he said.