Celebrating the life and achievements of Behenji Mayawati
Today, in Dalit history we celebrate the charismatic leadership of Behenji Mayawati, one of the very few powerful Indian politicians who has made an impeccable impact in the field of social justice. We celebrate her leadership, determination, and commitment that has provided a life of self-dignity to millions of marginalized across India.
Mayawati, also popularly known as Behenji, was born on 15 January 1956, in New Delhi in a Dalit family. Mayawati was believed to have grown up a quiet, domestically-bound girl, but known to possess resilience and integrity. Mayawati completed her Bachelor of Arts and later obtained her L.L.B from the University of Delhi. At one point in her life, she was completing her Bachelor of Education from Meerut University, working as a teacher, all while studying for the Indian Civil Services exams. It was at this time that, in her college campuses, that she became politically active and began to attend political events. At one such event, a three-day conference organized by Janata Party at Delhi’s Constitution Club in September 1977, held to discuss ways and means of fighting caste prejudice, Mayawati rose to the limelight. Socialist Raj Narain, the Health Minister at the time, was one of the chief speakers. Attempting to garner the support of Dalits, Raj Narrain in his speech referred to the untouchable castes as ‘Harijans’. Mayawati used her opportunity to deliver a speech to call-out his use of the unconstitutional term. Her speech was so powerful that BAMCEF members in the audience carried word about her oratory skills to their leader Saheb Kanshi Ram.
A few days later Kanshi Ram visited Mayawati at her house and convinced her to give up her civil service aspirations and to invest in a political career instead. After a lot of thought, Mayawati decided to actively engage in politics. This was the defining moment that changed Mayawati — in terms of her identity and also career. In those early years, Mayawati was often seen riding a bicycle across villages all over Uttar Pradesh.
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, it was becoming clear that a growing caste-oppressed people’s assertion was being born. The Mandal Commission, set up to report on the status of “socially and educationally backward classes”, after extensive research, made recommendations. Key in this report was the finding that OBCs (“Other Backward Classes”) identified on the basis of caste, economic, and social indicators, comprised an incredible 52% of India’s population. Based on their economic and social stature, the Commission recommended reservations (Affirmative Action) be provided amounting to 27% of jobs under the Central government and public sector undertakings, thus making the total number of reservations for SC, ST and OBC to 49%.
This announcement caused absolute havoc in the nation. Rioting and clashes broke out everywhere.
However, well in advance of the Mandal agitations, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati had already continuously campaigned for the implementation of the Mandal Commission report submitted in 1980. With the agitations taking place, the realisation of an as yet untapped potential of oppressed-caste unity in the social and political realms dawned upon them. Soon, Kanshi Ram founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on April 14, 1984. In 1984, Kanshi Ram included Mayawati as a key member of his BSP team. This was another life-changing event for Mayawati.
The party initially made a quiet entry and the first three times, they ran, Mayawati was defeated. She saw her first victory soon enough though in 1989 when she was elected as the representative for Bijnor, UP.
In just six years from then, she had risen to become the Chief Minister of the state of UP, the largest, most populous, most electorally potent state in the country. It is important to take a pause at this point and consider this achievement. A Dalit woman Chief Minister, coming from one of the most caste atrocity-ridden, most patriarchal, areas in the country, leading a whole state — of not just Dalits or OBCs but — everyone!
It remains to this day, one of the most commendable achievements in our history. Her unprecedented meritorious rise in Indian politics has been hailed as a victory for the marginalized and the downtrodden. As of today, she has been elected Chief Minister four times — 1995, 1997, 2002 and 2007. A four-time Chief Minister, Mayawati, rose into an unstoppable politician.
While in power as a Chief Minister, Mayawati has made exceptional policies and legislation that redefined the political system in India. Under her leadership, various progressive legislations were effectively implemented mostly related to land, education, employment for Bahujans. This was the first time in UP state governance that social justice saw a significant place in policy implementation. Her straight forward way of administering the state transformed the state bureaucracy to a large extent.
Under her administration, several schemes and policies were implemented. Bhimrao Ambedkar Rural Integrated Development Programme was started with an aim to provide basic amenities like roads, electricity, and water to villages. Educational grants were given for the children of the Valmiki community, and a rehabilitation programme was announced so that the younger generation could be trained for jobs that would allow them to escape their caste-based occupation. She also implemented the recommendations of the second UP Backward Classes Commission that had suggested in its 1994 report that lower-caste Muslims should benefit from backward caste reservations for posts in the state administration. The number of atrocities against Dalits dropped steeply.
Even more significantly, she tactfully handled the pressure from Hindutva outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), as it was in the case of Mathura, where there occurred nothing less than an attempt to replicate the Ayodhya controversy.
Mayawati’s most important policy legislations were related to the implementation of land reforms. Mayawati made attempts to redistribute land to the landless. The major beneficiaries of these policies were the marginalized communities in the state. First, she made sure that allotted pattas (land ownership chits) deliberately held back from Dalit claimants by previous administrations were actually distributed to them. Close to 158,000 families were given 120,000 acres of land. New pattas, distributing 52,379 acres to 81,500 families, were also allotted. In her attempt to effectively implement land reforms she highlighted the need to have ‘Tehsil Day’ (district admins) system more effective so that common people get a fair opportunity to bring their problems before the district officials.
In addition, several developmental projects like thermal power projects, expressways, and affordable multi-speciality hospitals have been initiated under her administration. In her attempt to mobilise communities irrespective of caste she also issued the Buddhist slogan ‘sarvajan hitay sarvajan sukhay’ (for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many)
To commemorate the legacy and contribution of leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyothiba Phule, Kanshiram several memorials like Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, Manyawar Shri Kanshiram Ji Green Eco Garden, and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal. Agra University was renamed Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University; Kanpur University became Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj University. Several districts were reorganized and named after Ambedkar, Shahuji Maharaj, Mahamaya, the latter after the mother of Buddha. The above ideas redefined the power imbalances, symbolisms, narratives and history of marginalized communities.
As a Dalit woman politician, Mayawati has challenged the longstanding problems of caste and patriarchy. Despite the vulnerability and marginalization that her community is subjected to, she has gracefully handled her political career that has benefited the marginalized communities in innumerable ways. With every new term as a Chief Minister, she evolved into a seasoned politician with efficient governance and exceptional administrative policies. Under her regime, Uttar Pradesh saw a new waves of emergence of Dalit Bahujan communities in the mainstream.
Popularly known as “the iron lady”, Mayawati remains to be one of the most revered politicians in the country. As a woman, as a Dalit woman, as a politician, activist, writer and thinker, she has left a remarkable imprint in the history of Indian politics.
We salute her courage and her remarkable persona that has revolutionized the outlook of politics and social justice in India. We honour her resilience and strength in her fight for equality and social justice. She continues to be an inspiration to us and many others. Jai Bhim!
This post was written for Dalit History Month by Ashwini KP. Ashwini is a researcher and works on issues related to human rights, Dalit women, caste and social exclusion. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bose, Ajoy. Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
- Kanshi Ram’s Legacy Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, №41 (Oct. 14–20, 2006), p. 4304
- Mayawati give land holdings to Dalits //economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/6036671.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
- Mayawati’s Prospects Author(s): C. K. Vishwanath Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, №39 (Sep. 29 — Oct. 5, 2007), p. 3894, 4012
- Māyā and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh Author(s): ANAND TELTUMBDE Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, №16 (APRIL 21, 2012), pp. 10–11
- Mayawati’s Revolution Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, №20 (May 19–25, 2007), pp. 1795–1796 Published by Economic and Political Weekly
- Why Did Mayawati Lose? Author(s): A K VERMA Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, №18 (MAY 5, 2012), pp. 17–19
- Mayawati’s Mega Service to the Nation Author(s): ANAND TELTUMBDE Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, №15 (APRIL 10–16, 2010), pp. 12–14
- Review: Crouching Tiger, Rising Elephant Reviewed Work(s): Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati by Ajoy Bose Review by Gillian Wright Source: India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 35, №1 (SUMMER 2008), pp. 150–153