Ram Vilas Paswan, the man who wanted to be called a Harijan

Ram Vilas Paswan was among the most popular faces when the social churn began in the post-Emergency era in Bihar, but after the Janata Party fiasco, he had to wait for almost a decade to return to limelight.

PTI
Ram Vilas Paswan was first elected an MLA in 1969 from the Samyukta Socialist Party but in 1974, he joined the Lok Dal and was reelected.
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Ram Vilas Paswan, who died on Thursday, was the face of Dalit empowerment in Bihar. He never liked to be called a Dalit (oppressed) and during conversations used the term, Harijan (God’s children) — a word coined by Mahatma Gandhi to bestow honour on millions of Indians driven to a miserable existence by the caste system — though many found it patronising.

Paswan’s call to defy the caste-ridden society came in the 1969. The theme song during his poll rallies was: “Unchi Jati ki Kya Pehchan, Gitpit Bole Kare Na Kaam, Chhoti Jati ki Kya Pehchan, Kaam Kare aur Sahe Apman.” (How does one identify an upper caste? One who is inarticulate and lazy; how does one identify a lower caste? One who toils but is humiliated). He narrated the lines almost till the very end despite becoming one of the few politicians who remained on the right side of power almost throughout since 1996. Paswan was first elected an MLA in 1969 from the Samyukta Socialist Party but in 1974, he joined the Lok Dal and was reelected. Like many other Socialist leaders, he was jailed during Emergency. In 1977, Paswan was elected to the Lok Sabha from Hajipur by a record margin. He polled 89% votes and entered the Guinness Book of World Records.

Paswan was among the most popular face when the social churn began in post-Emergency Bihar, but after the Janata Party fiasco, he had to wait for almost a decade to return to limelight. Much before Dalits were sub-categorised as Mahadalits, he became their undisputed leader in Bihar. In 1983, he formed the Dalit Sena, on the lines of Schedule Caste Federation of BR Ambedkar. In 1989, he won the Hajipur seat on Janata Dal ticket by breaking his own record. VP Singh made him a Union minister and his rise instilled confidence among Dalits.


Mont Blanc pen, Cartier glasses and Rado watch became his signature soon, prompting his critics to brand him a ‘five-star Dalit’. English was the language of the oppressor to him once but over the years, he began enjoying his son Chirag’s fluency in the Queen’s language. But in his pockets of influence in Bihar, his whirling helicopter was enough to make people chant, “Dharti Gunje Aasman, Ram Vilas Paswan.” He became a Union minister eight times and often read the tea leaves right and crossed over alliances to earn the moniker political weather cock.

As the Socialists continued to splinter and regroup, Paswan launched his political outfit the Lok Janshakti Party in the new millennium, with the aim of becoming the Bihar CM. However his party’s influence never grew and he remained a minor player in Bihar. Like many other socialists, he too promoted his family in politics and at one time five of his family members were legislators.

Paswan was alert to the needs of his community. When a Supreme Court verdict ‘diluted’ the SC/ST anti-atrocities Act, he alerted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on its consequence, prompting the PM to issue an ordinance to restore status quo ante. Throughout his life, he demanded that reservation in jobs for weaker sections be placed in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to ensure that it would not be repealed. As a devoted father, he handed over the party reins to son Chirag much before he fell ill. His demise on a day when Chirag accused chief minister Nitish Kumar of humiliating his father may influence the Dalit votes in Bihar but will not be sufficient to fulfil his dream of his son becoming the CM.
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