Mayawati: Astute politician and an Ambedkarite, feminist icon

(Illustration: Aashika Shivangi Singh)

In September 1977, a three-day conference was organised by the Janata Party at the Constitution Club of India in Delhi with the aim of ending casteism, in which many Dalit organisations and senior leaders had taken part. Raj Narayan, health minister in the then Janata Party government and a veteran leader, was also present, and he repeatedly used the word Harijan for Dalits in his speech. When a 21-year-old woman, who later became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, four times, rose up to speak, she said,

“These socialist leaders consider themselves self-sufficient. But they do not even know that using the word Harijan for Dalits is also a kind of insult. Even our emancipator Babasaheb used the word Scheduled Castes for us, not Harijan. Then how dare Raj Narayan use this word for us?”

This young woman was none other than Ms Mayawati — mass politician, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo.

Story of a 21-year-old rebellious girl

Mayawati’s full name is Kumari Mayawati Prabhu Das, and is known among the masses as Behenji and Iron Lady. She was born on 15 January 1956 in a Dalit family at Mrs Sucheta Kriplani Hospital in Delhi. Her mother’s name is Ramrati. Her father, Prabhu Das, was a post office employee. 

Behenji completed her BA degree from Kalindi College, University of Delhi in 1975 and studied Law from the same university’s Faculty of Law in 1983 and from VMLG College, Ghaziabad she obtained a BEd.

Mayawati wanted to work for the betterment of society, so apart from teaching children in JJ Colony, she was also preparing for the civil service exam to become an IAS officer. When she gave her speech at the conference organised by the Janata Party, the members of BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) were also present. Through them, Manyavar Kanshiram came to know about Mayawati, and later contacted her at her house. He asked her, “What do you want to become?” She replied that she wants to contribute to the society by becoming an IAS officer. In response, Manyavar said, “What will you do by becoming an IAS? I can make you such a leader behind whom there will be a line of not one, but tens of collectors.” 

Mayawati enters politics full-time

Manyavar wanted her to enter politics and her father wanted her to become an officer or leave home. Finally Mayawati left the house with the money she had saved from teaching, took her clothes with her and never looked back. She started living in the BAMCEF office as she could not rent a room because of her financial condition.

Now, let us briefly look at the sociopolitical conditions of the 1970s, a time when casteism was at its peak and only a few women of the middle/upper class, upper caste were in electoral politics. In such a situation, being a woman from a poor, Dalit community, she leaves her home and finds shelter in an organisation where there were mostly men. Think how many taunts she would have heard, how many allegations would have been levelled against her.

She used to cycle with Kanshiram and other companions and hold public meetings, sit with women, cook and eat during the public meetings; she used to talk to people and make them aware about the mission. It gives me goosebumps to think that a woman is going around on a bicycle with men and holding public meetings in that era. Today, when women are adopting symbolic representations like short haircuts to challenge the patriarchy, they need to remember Mayawati because in the 1970s, when no one could think like this, she cut her hair short. She argued that when she used to braid, she had to comb her hair again and again during seven-eight meetings a day. Even a politician like Mulayam Singh Yadav had called her a “parakati” (ugly sort of) while making derogatory remarks about her for cutting her hair short. She has fought patriarchy along with casteism.

Behenji became chief minister even after losing three consecutive elections

On 14 April 1984, Manyavar Kanshiram laid the foundation of Bahujan Samaj Party after forming organisations like BAMCEF and Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti. The aim of the party was to bring the Bahujans, that is, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and Religious Minorities into the mainstream; not to make them exploiters, but to make them rulers and to spread Ambedkar’s ideology among the masses.

The party launched its first election campaign in 1984. The BSP fielded Mayawati for the Lok Sabha seat of Kairana in Muzaffarnagar district in 1984, Bijnor in 1985 and Haridwar in 1987.  But she had to face defeat all three times. She was finally elected as an MP for Bijnor in 1989 general elections with 1,83,189 votes. The party won three seats in the 1989 elections and two in 1991. Mayawati was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 1994. 

In 1995, she became the youngest Dalit woman chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at the age of 39. After that she held the position of chief minister in 1997, 2002 and 2007. It is said that no one can predict Mayawati’s political moves, not even her closest aides. In 1999, after ruling for 13 months, on April 17, 1999 Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence by just one vote — that one vote was from Mayawati’s BSP when Arif Mohammad Khan pressed the red button in the Parliament. On 18 September 2003, Kanshi Ram made her the national president of BSP. Before that, on 15 December 2001, during a rally in Lucknow, Honourable Kanshi Ram declared her as his successor.

Major works done by Mayawati during her tenure

Mayawati is mainly known for the excellent law and order in Uttar Pradesh. In May 2005, while talking to Shekhar Gupta in Walk the Talk, Behenji said that she used to hold meetings with district magistrates, superintendents of police, and senior superintendents of police of every district and give them written instructions as to what should happen in a month. After a month she would hold review meetings and take action against those who were negligent in their work. This was the reason that there was news of every district and no major riots ever took place during her reign. 

The Booth Committee is also an example of her intellect. She has seen the ground, talked to the people, and that is why she knew that a committee of party workers should be present at the same booth where problems may arise at the time of elections. Expressways, highways, schools, and universities were built during her tenure. Many places were renamed after Bahujan emancipators like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ramabai Ambedkar, Buddha, Shahu Maharaj, Mahatma Jotirao Phule, Mahaprajapati Gotami (mother of Gautam Buddha), etc.

She carried out land reforms in the state, under which, land was distributed among the landless, and Dalits benefited greatly from this. Bhimrao Ambedkar Rural Integrated Development Programme was started to provide basic facilities like electricity, education, and roads to the villages. Educational grants were given for the children of the Valmiki community and a rehabilitation programme was run for the youth to come out of their caste occupation. Memorials dedicated to Babasaheb, Kanshi Ram, Mahatma Phule, Buddha, etc, were built. 

Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden, Noida, Uttar Pradesh

Many people question whether making such places was an excuse to launder money and indulge in corruption. But Ms Mayawati has given Dalits their own place to go on strike and initiate movement by making this place a site where they can go without discrimination and raise their demands in a dignified manner. Ms Mayawati had done what was hardly ever mentioned even in the memorandum of any party: she opened Dr. Shakuntala Mishra National Rehabilitation University in Lucknow in 2008 for higher education of students with physical and mental disability

Casteist, lewd comments made on Behenji

BJP leader Sadhna Singh made a derogatory comment on Ms Mayawati in January 2019 at a rally, saying that “she does not understand whether the BSP leader is a woman or a man.” That is, for people with thoughts like these, it is necessary for a woman to be married, to have long hair, to have a fair complexion, to have a special type of physical appearance, otherwise she does not avoid such indecent language in public. Journalist Ajay Bose writes in the book Behanji: A Political Biography of Mayawati that women leaders used to laugh at Mayawati’s arrival in Parliament with oil in her hair, and also complained that Mayawati sweats a lot, so they should wear strong perfume.

The comments have become ugly each time for Mayawati. In 2009, Congress leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi asked Mayawati, who was then the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, to increase the compensation amount for rape victims. But while making her point, she made following vile remarks: “I say one should throw this money in Maya’s face and tell her ‘if you get raped, I’ll give you one crore’.” A year ago we also came across derogatory comments made on Twitter against Ms Mayawati in the past, in which Varun Grover, Japleen Pasricha, etc, were involved.

How many lewd comments have been made about Behenji’s gender, caste, class, attire, etc? These are no less than a mental trauma, but till date she has not retorted and made lewd comments against these people, but has stood firmly and constitutionally. It is a matter of shame for this country that people who talk about women empowerment hate the existence of Mayawati. They do not see any feminist, empowering woman in her.

Why is Ms Mayawati important in Indian politics?

There may be political disagreements with Ms Mayawati in the current times; her politics can be analysed, criticisms can be made, but her struggle for raising Bahujan consciousness, her public works cannot be ignored. When we are living in a regime where riots are common, Bahujans continue to be crammed in jails, caste violence is at its peak and there are no jobs, the ideology of the common man is even more hateful, insensitive, and violent, it becomes important to have Behenji Mayawati with her dignified presence. As a representative of Dalits, she is still a strong leader.

She does not meet the media much because the media has never been positive about her. Still, whether it is the Hathras case or any other incident, she has come forward for help. She is speaking out loud in the parliament too. Today, the way the so-called mainstream media and academia limit Behenji to a Dalit leader only and refuse to accept her as an Ambedkarite, feminist icon, they must look at the foundation of their views. There is no doubt that she is a litmus test that can bring out the frustrated mind of any progressive person, casteist, hateful, Dalit anti-women thinking. Her most amazing achievement is that today when women of the Bahujan community want to join politics, they say that they want to become ‘”‘Mayawati.’ For upcoming elections of 2024, she has come with a new strategy on ground and has started ‘Gaon Chalo Abhiyan.’ We hope the best for her.

Aashika Shivangi Singh has graduated in Political Science (with Philosophy as minor) from Miranda House, University of Delhi and is currently working as an independent writer while also preparing for civil services.

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