With Digital Dalit asserting herself politically, Kanshiram finds an audience

A new feature film on the life of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshiram was recently released on several YouTube channels simultaneously. In less than 48 hours, the movie has been watched by more than 2 lakh viewers. Shambhu Kumar Singh, editor of National Dastak, one of the channels where the movie was released, hopes that the number of viewers on his channel will cross the 1 million-mark (or 10 lakh) in two weeks.

The producer and director of the film, The Great Leader Kanshiram, is Arjun Singh, a 25-year-old college dropout. He borrowed money from friends and relatives to fund the project, one of whom filed a case against him after his cheque bounced. Made with a small budget of Rs 45 lakh, almost all the actors in the movie are first-timers and some are active in local theatre. There was no money to promote the movie, and as the sole distributor Arjun Singh managed to release the movie on just 20 screens. The film flopped miserably. So, he released the movie on YouTube to at least generate revenue and repay the loan.

The Digital Dalit

The response has surprised everyone. So who is watching The Great Leader Kanshiram on YouTube?

There could be two explanations for this.

First reason could be that there is a vibrant and expansive Dalit-Bahujan public sphere in India where the movie resonates. This ‘underclass’ of Indian society is starved for content based on their icons and will not let issues like quality of filmmaking and craft of storytelling stand in the way. 

The second explanation for the surprising online success of The Great Leader Kanshiram could be that there is a digital audience that is curious about the person who founded Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The Digital Dalit is an empowered being today – s/he is a product of decades of education, employment and reservation policies of Babasaheb Ambedkar, and also owes much to Kanshiram’s visionary politics of mobilising the government workforce in the 1980s. The Digital Dalit is connected – in terms of technology, politics and mobility of ideas. Contemporary politics is as important as securing Dalit historiography for the Digital Dalit.

There are approximately 450 million internet users in India and the numbers will cross 500 million very soon. The number of subscribers for social media apps like Facebook and WhatsApp has crossed 250 million. We do not have data to exactly identify the sociological background of this population. But it is safe to assume that a large number of internet users in India are SCs, STs and OBCs. Consider the number of subscribers and followers of video channels and social media platforms catering especially to these groups. National Dastak YouTube channel has 2.1 million subscribers. Bahujan TV has 0.6 million, Awaaz India has 0.4 million and Dalit Dastak and Dalit News Network have 0.3 million subscribers each.

The prowess of this Digital Dalit was on display on 2 April 2018, when a Bharat Bandh was called by Dalit organisations against changes in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Like Arab Spring, this movement originated on social media. Another instance was the controversy over Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey holding an anti-Brahminical patriarchy poster. Dalit groups refused to stay silent and organised themselves on social media.

Who is Kanshiram?

There is not much content available on Kanshiram online. At the age of 50, he started the BSP. Without any support from either big corporates or media, the party became a national party in 1996. BSP is the third largest party in India in terms of vote share. In 1995, BSP leader Mayawati became the chief minister of the most populated state, Uttar Pradesh. This is a miraculous achievement for a person who comes from a poor family and the shoemaker community in Punjab, which does not have any social and cultural capital. Daily humiliation and persecution in his early years was a given.

He resigned from his position as a junior officer in the government to enter politics, driven by his conviction in the ideology of equality and fraternity as envisaged by Buddha and B.R. Ambedkar. He was an alchemist in Indian politics and formed new coalitions of castes and communities.

The movie begins with his childhood in Ropar, Punjab and concludes at the transformative point when he forms the BSP. The story moves from Punjab to Pune to Nagpur to Delhi. Kanshiram wrote no autobiography, so all the movie sequences are based on oral history and folklore. The film shows a young school-going Kanshiram cutting his hair and telling his mother – Mujhe kisi bandhan mein nahin rahna hai (I don’t want to be chained). There is a powerful scene where he is shown organising a mass protest against wrongful dismissal of a Dalit employee. In another standout scene, he hears about Mayawati for the first time from a karyakarta who describes her as telling a minister – Agar hum harijan bhagwan ki aulaad hain to kya tum shaitan ki aulaad ho? (If Harijans are children of God, are you all children of the devil?)

This is not a complete biography of Kanshiram. Many important landmarks of his life such as the Lok Sabha elections after 1984 and the formation of the SP-BSP government in Uttar Pradesh have not been covered. This movie is meant to be hagiographic, and there is a class of viewers who are lapping it up. Credit

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