Kanshiram and the idea of Counter-public Sphere


The counter-public sphere is contrary to power, domination, and hierarchical structure. It has emerged with a task to develop a different mode of public discourse in a complex society. The counter-public sphere appears as a new and different space wherein the representation of the ‘self’ and re-presentation of new ‘world view’ or standpoint to ‘others’ perpetuates with self identity. Fraser states that, “in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” .[1]

To break the stereotypes of dominant public sphere Phule, Ambedkar and others bahujan icons develop the idea of counter-public to expose the truth of hegemonic structure and its legitimation in society. They develop the discourse of caste in the public, Kanshiram asserts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as a chief guest in first International Dalit Conference (10-11 October 1998), ‘​​I will not merely sit quite in anticipation that some day or the other caste will be annihilated automatically; but as long as the “caste” is alive, I will continue to use it in the interest of my society’.[2] He was challenging the morality of caste as intensified by the dominant nationalist and power elites in Indian society to maintain the social order. Kanshiram articulates the caste with his understanding of the field and reading of annihilation of caste. After practical reasoning he developed the voice of the counter-public which was neglected in the public sphere. As a meticulous organizer and politician, Kanshiram learns from the ground the weakness and strengths of the oppressed communities. He was deeply influenced by Ambedkar’s call for political power, which was presented in Madras on 24 September 1944 to the Dalits. Ambedkar Declared: ‘Understand our ultimate goal. Our Ultimate Goal is to become the rulers of this country. Write this goal on the walls of your houses so that you will never forget it. Our struggle is not for the few jobs and concessions but we have a larger goal to achieve. That goal is to become the rulers of the land’.[3]Ambedkar was clear about the change with the parliamentary framework rather than acts of insurgency. Kanshiram applies this approach in the assertion of Dalit communities. He does not involve in any emerging radical Dalit movement at that time. Because Kanshiram does not believe in reactionary politics. He gave the formula to draw a line to short the lengthy line. You should prepare yourself to draw that line and formulate ‘action-reaction- counteraction’. If you don’t have counteraction, people will no longer be part of your movement. Indian society is unaware of the rationale of reservation in the nation-making process. Even some media news channels are illiterate about the reservation and define reservation as a ten years scheme that reviews with the gap of 10 years. Therefore, the debate of reservation is a cognitive blackout in the public sphere. Before Kanshiram, Ambedkar clearly mentions reservation as a representation which is an important unit in the nation-making process. Kanshiram organized the debate of reservation in public like 5 conferences and 500 symposiums with the title of Aarakshan-Hissedari ka Sawaal (Reservation- A Question of representation).


Kanshiram’s classification of the political and social problem of the minority is similar to Arendt’s classification of the political and public realm with a social realm. How does the appearance of space within the public domain be political in nature in the society with the location itself? The dwija castes use that matter (Untouchability) as a private one like Gandhi (Varna System) and a political one on the other side. For the nature of these evils, Ambedkar clearly urged Dalits to concentrate on gaining political power, contended that “Nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove them unless you get political power in your hands.”[4] Same appearance of thought persists in Kanshiram’s views about the political oppression of the dwija castes. In his practical approach Kanshiram developed the ideological assertion in the oppressed community to gain political power. His field analysis was driven as an organic intellectual and leader. With the procedural inquiry of social transformation, he used politics as a culture like Periyar Mela, Ambedkar mela on wheels, to develop consciousness in the community. But with the idea of ‘Pay Back to society’, Kanshiram introduced the sense of responsibility which is very important to develop the counter-public sphere in society. He engages with the small group meetings of government employees and highlights the oppressive social structure and how should counter it with his own capacity. He targets the space where the oppressed community people work and can come together (Railway Department, Postal Department, HMT Pinjore, and BHEL Roorkee etc). With his field experience, he was very clear to develop the counter-public against upper castes’ he oppression and bifurcation of knowledge. It was arguably the same by Phule to expose the truth of Brahmin performing the ritual ceremony, where he said that priest’s position in the context of vacuousness,

Enough now of this false tenderness

He applies himself now to whispering the puranas

In van this life is wasted

The indifference of the twice-born: no proper arrangements are made

See, many have gone thus to ruin

Harassed even at the door of death.[5]

This polemic interrogates the practices in the dominant sphere, where priests propose the life of shudra as wasted. Brahman Priest used his agency to dismantle the life of shudra and due to the expenses of man’s funeral, shudra family mortgaged his field to the brahman. In the end, they claim it as their own property and women work as labourers in a forceful manner, where due to the penury, they have lost their lives. To make them slaves mentally and physically starts from the ritualistic hierarchy and discardness of the private sphere (humiliation, domination on land, fear about life- otherworldliness, and role of faith) in the public. It is contended that the private sphere can not be neglected in relation to the public sphere, where the public is already defined and given shape.[6]Therefore, it is clear that modernity is helpful to expose the truth in democracy, which exists with undemocratic practices. Arendt sees modernity as a reason for the decline of the public sphere. Her definition of ‘public space’ was community based that involves equal acts and speeches. In contrast, Habermas’sconcept of the ‘public sphere’ was more individualized under the conditions of modernity and based on impersonal form of communication, opinion and information[7] (Benhabib, 1997). How was Kanshiram successfully pitching the voice against the hegemonic practices at a significant level in different institutions? Why was the notion of cultural aspects a vital factor for the oppressed section? As Stuart Hall argued that ‘cultural politics and ideological struggle are the necessary conditions for the forms of social and political struggle’. Kanshiram mobilizes the people in the context of ‘politics as a culture’. He raises the issues of representation, independent leadership, cultural assertion, and political upbringing against co-option. He has developed the communitarian action that successfully made sense about counter-public issues like Jan Sansad (People’s Parliament), Symposium, and seminar for representation (Hissedari ka Sawaal)Jagriti Jatthaa, and Cycle March with ‘miracle of two feet on two wheels’ etc. The political journey with the bicycle was a formula like the ‘miracle of two-feet and two wheels’ nickname of the March was used by Kanshiram to consolidate the oppressed communities in the Indian society. He developed the notion of ‘responsibility of the self’ in the society and covered seven states with 3000 km distance in 40 days, and 300 km foot march which starts from 15 March 1983.[8]At different places he had taken the meeting to the creation of the counter- public sphere with an assertive voice.


To elaborate that difference with an epitome of oppression, he gave a slogan “Brahmin Baniya Thakur Chod, Baki sab hai DS4” (Except brahmin, vaishya, and Kshatriyas, all are members of the Dalit exploited Society struggle committee).[9] The object was clear to articulate the history of past, and to mobilize oppressed communities against that legitimized past through the Manusmriti. He developed the unknown facts through the known Bahujan icons, practices and principles for the emancipation of the oppressed community. The question about the non-political aspects has depth intervention about the structural location in the society. His language annihilates the process of oppression with the political and social aspects of oppressed communities. Devising a new political grammar of oppressed politics, Kanshiram Sahab operationalized the ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar information of a political alternative that could wrestle for political power despite being disadvantaged in the post-Independent Indian democracy. Knowing well the importance of political power for marginalized masses, Kanshiram Sahab sought to unite the oppressed groups as a challenge to the political hegemony of the Savarna castes. To know about the audiences as a characteristic of a public intellectual inculcated by Kanshiram and shown in his rally and people’s parliament.

bahujan sanghatak

DS4 organized the Peoples parliament (Jan Sansad) on 25 December 1982; it was the first organic act to develop the idea of communitarian action about representation and pause a question about lack of representation of SC/ST and OBCs community in parliament. He was successful in delivering the meaning of representation. To Quote Kanshiram:[10]

85 percent of the oppressed and exploited people that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, nourished for years, has today become tools in the hand of the ruling class, to the extent that they never feel shame when others use them. Whenever rallies are organized by the political parties to show their strength, the poor SC/ST, OBC, and minority people rush there and are paid for it. They are happy to go and strengthen the hands of their oppressors and exploiters. They neither feel shame nor do they think of the harm they are doing to themselves.

The nature of language evolves with criticism of location and its profit for the oppressor. To know the practices of the marginalized section without their lack of knowledge about oppression and exploitation, Kanshiram developed the consciousness about their strength with the story of the past and how the oppressor uses themwith their dominance in the political arena. As a public intellectual, it’s a criterion that focuses on the current situation andentangles with the story of the past. For that, the function of the intellectual takes an important role to dismantle that past.

During his visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1993, a public talk was organised by Bahujan Student Front (BSF) on ‘Atrocity on Dalit and role of the politicians’ as a chief guest, he was determined to convey his political journey and message to the new generation of Bahujan students. In the light of mandal era it was important from his perspective to convey the message of intertwined dimension of students movement and national politics. He countered the mythical history constructed by upper caste.[11]He was in a different attire with white suit and mercedes car in white color. In academia, he has developed the networking on ideological level, in which Prof. Gail Omvedt, Prof. Vivek Kumar, and Prof. M.P. Rana are the names who has worked with Kanshiram. It works as ‘interaction ritual chain’ on the basis of networking of ideas as developed by Randall Collins in his approach of public intellectual.[12]Prof. Gail Omvedt has shared a platform of BAMCEF with Kanshiram and delivered a speech of emancipation of downtrodden peoples. In one of them Prof. Vivek Kumar has also shared platform with Kanshiram, who is working in Bhaujn movements for a long time. He has introduced Kanshiram and his philosophy in popular domain.

With the concluding remarks, Kanshiram develop the idea of counter-public sphere with his training from the field. He was filedworker from the field who has introduced the real sense of democracy. For a public intellectual field is an important unit to propagate the idea of emancipation and exposition of truth against the oppression in democracy. He has made 25 wings in BAMCEF to articulate Phule- Ambedkarite ideology at every sphere in society. Therefore counter public emerge with the sense of location and cognitive blackout from the public sphere.

Narendra Kumar

Doctoral Candidate

Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy

School of Social Sciences

Jawaharlal Nehru University

Email id: [email protected]

[1] Fraser, Nancy, (1997), Justice Interruptus: critical reflections on the “post-socialist” condition, Routledge: New York, p. 82.

[2] Bahujan Sanghatak, New Delhi, Dt. 16 November 1998.

[3] Barbara Crosette, ‘Call to the Downtrodden: Break Down the Door’, The New York Times, 18 April, 1990.

[4]      Ambedkar, quoted in Desai 1948:251

[5] Rosalind O’ Hanlon, p. 60.

[6] Ali, Amir, (2001), Evolution of the Public Sphere,  Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 36, No. 26, Jun. 30 – Jul. 6, pp. 2419-2425.

[7]  Benhabib, S. (1997). The Embattled Public Sphere: Hannah Arendt, Juergen Habermas and Beyond. Theoria: AJournal of Social and Political Theory, 44(90), 1-24.

[8] Sambaiah Gundimeda, Dalit Politics in Contemporary India, New Delhi: Routledge, 2016, p.91.

[9] Quoted in Atey, The Editorials of Kanshiram, Part 1, p. 85.

[10]        Quoted in Barbara R. Joshi, Untouchable! Voice of the Dalit Liberation Movement, New Delhi: Select Book Service, 1986, p. 110.

[11] Interview with Prof. M.P. Rana in School of Internationla studies. He was the one who invited Manyavar Kanshiram in JNU.

[12]Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 19-20.


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