Thursday, January 19, 2017
Caste forces did everything to defeat me in counsellor's election : Bishan Dass Bains
Upper caste Hindus and Jat Sikhs did every effort to defeat me in my election to Wolverhampton Council : Bishan Dass Bains, former Mayor Wolverhampton
Bishan Dass Bains is the first South Asian Mayor of Wolverhampton in United Kingdom elected at Labour Party ticket in November 1985. A staunch Ambedkarite Bains Saheb migrated to England in 1963 in search of a livelihood as well as to pursue further education. His life journey is that of struggle and determination. As an Ambedkarite he participated in various movement under the Republican Party of Great Britain too in the beginning but slowly he realised that he would serve his people better under the mainstream political parties in UK and Labour came as a natural choice for him as it was the party with socialist principles, supporting migrants as well as people who faced different kinds of discrimination. Bains succeeded in giving a new dynamics to his Mayoral position. He refused to follow the traditional way of the inauguration which was the domain of local church. Instead, he organised a local civil reception. His book ‘Pride vs Prejudice’ reflect the discrimination that he faced on the caste basis and explain in details as how the Jat Sikhs and caste Hindus did their best to defeat him in elections. This important conversation reveals how the caste minds have crossed overseas too and infected everyone there. Bains Saheb is not in active politics but Wolverhampton does not leave him and has been provided with the title ‘Alderman’ which is confirmed by the city council. He is active in strengthening Ambedkarite Buddhist movement in UK and India. Here is Bishan Dass Bains in conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat.
VB: When did you arrive in UK ? What was the reason of your coming here. I mean what were your parents and where were they living in Punjab. Please also tell us about your education? Did you face any kind of discrimination at your home due to your caste ? What were your first impressions about England?
BDB: I was born and brought up in a small remote village Shaffipur, in northern state of Punjab India. The village had no shop, school, no health provisions and no community facility or religious place for people to get to gather. The education was not an important part of their life. Consequently, 99% habitants were backward, illiterate, orthodox and superstitious. The village was epitomized thousands of villages in India where people were and still destined to born in poverty, live in poverty and died in poverty. I was second of my parent’s ten children. After going through a great deal of hardship in my early life, walking five miles to primary and high schools and traveling twenty miles to my college, I completed my graduation in 1963. The caste prejudice was wide open at every level of life as such upper caste Jat Sikhs will not socially mix or dine to gather with SC,OBC and at school some of the teacher will not eat anything touched by children from lower castes. I remember, in 1959 organising two months strike against caste prejudice at school. I was the first person from my village to educate to a degree level and it was a matter of pride for the whole family. They were not very happy about my idea of going abroad but reluctantly agreed to support me. While I was getting ready and making preparation to migrate to UK, my parents organised my marriage with Ram Piari, a girl from a neighbouring village. I came to UK.in 1963 for further education. After arriving here in England I have to make very difficult choice between pursuing my ambition for further education or to earn money to support my family back in India, and I choose the second option.
VB: Your arrival in UK too has an interesting journey. Could you narrate that how did you reach the place you were supposed to stay?
BDB: My journey from home to England was very interesting. It was not easy to leave behind all, the family, friends and relatives, knowing that you are not going to see them for an unspecifiable time. It was for the first time that I travelled that far and by air. The whole journey from home to New Delhi, Mumbai and Heathrow was the most frightening experience of my life. I reached Heathrow airport at about 5 p.m. and after going through all the immigration and custom check-up, I came out of airport building and started looking eagerly for someone I know or had come to receive me. I was very disappointed and frightened to think about where to go now. I started searching my pockets and eventually found an address of a distance relative to whom I had never met. He was living in Wolverhampton, and I had no idea how far this place was? There were a number of unauthorised taxi drivers always plying for innocent new comer people like me. One of them was very quick to pick me up and asked me if I want a taxi, and asked him, how much it will be for Wolverhampton. He replied, don’t worry about the fare and quickly asked me to sit in the taxi. He picked up five and bundled us all six in his car and started driving. God know where he was going to take us to. It was now dark, cold and raining, hardly could I see anything outside. He took us to different towns and cities and dropped one by one at various places. I was the last one to reach at about 9.30 in Wolverhampton. The taxi driver knocked at door of a dimly lit terraced house in Lesley road Wolverhampton. A short chubby woman reluctantly half opened the door and peeped outside in dismay. The taxi driver said, madam you have visitor from India. She was taken aback, looked at a man standing in front of her, and said “what”? “A visitor – your relative from India, he replied. The lady of the house was looking confused and shaky. I opened the door and came out of the car with my shoulder bag hanging on one side. I said Namaste Bhabhi ji, she looked at me still confused and speechless. I took some courage to slide into the house and the taxi driver carried my suitcase inside the house. From the outset it looks nothing less than a force entry into a house of a stranger.
VB: What influenced you to be part of Baba Saheb's ideology? Was it from student times or at the later stage of your career? It would be good if you share in details. You mentioned that you were part of the Republican Party in UK. You had several protest against discrimination against Dalits. Could you please explain it to us was when did you become member and what were the kind of activities that you took during this phase
BDB: I was always active with student union. During early sixties, there was a very limited Asian media in England. There was one Indian grocery shop used to sell “Blitz” weekly and a friend of mine was having “Bheem Patrika” by post from India. I was passionately keen in reading both the papers. The All India Republican Party launched an agitation in 1964, against atrocities against down trodden masses of India and presented a charter of demands for the uplift of their living status. During the agitation more than 250000 people nationwide were arrested to jails and thirteen people became martyrs due to police brutality.
This agitation in India was a turning point in my life. I talk to some friends, organised meetings, made some collection and sent some financial support to the Republic Party Punjab branch. Then following on from there we decided to form a Republic Group of Great Britain and increased our membership all over England. I acted as convenor, secretary and chair for the group for several years. In those days, there were no computers, IT, telephone lines and type writers. I used to send dozens hand written notices for the meeting and used to get leaflets cyclostyled at the Labour Part offices. The main purpose of the Group was to provide some financial and moral support to the Republican Party and people working for Baba Sahib’s mission in India. The Group done a great of ground work during sixties, organised meetings in different towns and cities, recruit membership, organise public meetings, and protest marches in London against inequality and caste prejudice in India.
VB: What were your reasons of leaving the Republican or India centric groups or parties? Were there ideological differences or you something else?
BDB: The civil war in All India Republic Party during second part of sixties had dire consequences weakening the roots of Baba Sahib’s mission. The party badly disintegrated and the leadership abandoned the sinking ship. Consequently, the infighting in RPI badly polluted the supporting organisations like Republican Group of GB, later the activities of the group gradually weakened and had to be abandoned.
VB: Interesting to learn that you joined politics later and that too labor party. Was there anything specific in your joining labor? When was it?
BDB: Within a short period of coming to UK.I became active with Ravidass Dharmak Sabha, Anti Nazi League and Community Relations Council and of course Republican Group of Great Britain. I come cross many people including local leaders of the Labour party, who encouraged me to join the party. Historically the Labour Party is the bi-product of the trade union moment started after the second war and secondly it was the Labour Party government who granted independence to India. There were not a great deal of ideological differences between the socialist policies of the Labour party and the mission of Baba Sahib based upon equality, liberty and social justice. The leaders of the local Labour Party persuaded me to join the party in 1968 and eventually asked me to contest local elections in 1973. In 1975, the party selected me to contest a bi-election from a so call safe Labour seat which I won with a comfortable majority.
VB: What kind of discrimination that you found in Britain in terms of RACIAL & CASTE DISCRIMINATION.
BDB: The British society was torn apart between black and whites as the racial prejudice and colour bar had reached its peak during the years of sixties and seventies. There were many pubs and clubs which had discretions to exclude black customers and it was not unusual to see a notice on their windows saying, ‘’Blacks and Asians are not allowed”. I came across this kind of situation in early days. Not only that, the new-comers were destined to live in squalors in run down inner city areas. They were made to work on dirty, dusty and hot jobs nobody wants to do. I was no exception to these prevailing conditions and was subjected to racial prejudice at work.
VB: How did the labor decide to nominate you for the Mayor of Wolverhampton? Who were the other contenders? Did you face any racial prejudices?
BDB: The 1979 election was the most memorable episode in the history of my political career in England. The Indian Workers Association, mainly lead and dominated by Punjabi Jat Sikhs, was a very strong national organisation during the period of sixties and seventies. They found it extremely difficult to digest and compromise with the facts that a person from a lower caste can be an elected member of the council. Subsequently, the dirty Indian politics of caste prejudice and religious hatred reared its head to undermine my position as an elected member of the council. They left no stone unturned to get me deselected by the Labour Party and replaced me with one from their own caste. After their failed attempts, they fielded a most reputable person the president of the Indian Workers Association, against me. During the election they started a smear campaign to tarnish my name and discredit my public reputation. They had army of workers roaming streets of my constituency all day, harassing and intimidating residents, printing and distributing literature. It was one of the most difficult elections as campaign as I have to overcome a multiple of discrimination and prejudice. In addition to Indian caste & religious prejudice, there was a British National Party (far right wing organisation) and other two parties slightly less racial. In the end with solid support from the Pakistani community, some indigenous and others, I managed to won the seat with an increased majority.
VB: We heard that during the election campaign the upper caste Hindus and Sikhs campaigned against you. Is it true? Did you true to reach them? Why did they oppose any Indian for such a prestigious position?
BDB: The local Labour Party had an established custom and practice for the past many years to elect a Mayoral candidate for the ensuing year. At a special meeting two names were proposed and secret voting taken, according to custom and practice the winner of the contest become the candidate for the following year, and the runner up is usually had the nomination and elected the following year.
I like to mention here that I was the only non-white out of sixty elected members of the council for many years, and the rest of fifty nine were all indigenous whites. In the beginning I was not interested at all to become the Mayor of the city. But there were some left wing councillors who wanted me to bid for my right. My name was dully proposed and seconded continuously for two constructive years and I lost the contest for both times. It means the established custom and practices which were being followed up over the past many years were violated for no reason other than underlying racial prejudice. Not only that, it was contrary to the policy of equality of opportunity of the national Labour Party. This situation left me with no option but to seriously consider my position in both terms as an elected member of the council and as a member of the party. I decided not to walk away quietly but to fight back and publically expose their behaviour of racial prejudice. I decided to bring the whole truth of underlying racial prejudice in the Labour Party into public domain.
Now it was not a question of getting the nomination for mayoralty but to fight back for equality of opportunity and justice. I decided to issue a press statement, high lighting the underlying racial discrimination within the Labour Party. It was a very controversial, of course a courageous move which attracted a great deal of public support for me and contrarily huge discontentment amongst my fellow Labour councillors. . I was served with a show cause notice and meeting with the high command leadership. I justify my actions at the meeting and it was decided to harmonise mutual relations amongst elected members of the Labour Party.
VB: And you won the historical battle? The first Asian for becoming Mayor of this town? Please narrate the entire event for us. When was it exactly and how did things happen?
BDB: It was for the third time lucky in 1985 I won the contest to become a candidate for Mayoralty for the year 1986/87. After the nomination the first and the foremost thing I did was to declare that I shall not organise a traditional Civic – Sunday and secondly I will not appoint my Christian Chaplin for any prayer at the beginning of every council meeting. This move generated a great deal of controversy. All the opposition parties and leaders of Christian Churches ganged up against me and threatened boycott and no co-operation during my year of mayoralty.
VB: One of the most remarkable things was that you change the entire political discourse here as well as the tradition of going to Church with all fanfare. So you broke the traditional protocol if I may say so when you took oath of Mayor. What was the event and how did you decide not to follow the official protocol. Were there opposition to it?
BDB;I took over the office of Mayor in May 1986, and within few months I manage to harmonise my relations with all the different communities living here in Wolverhampton. I became a focus of attention all over the country as I was the first Indian born Mayor in England. I had many invitations to speak at different functions and on different subjects from all over the country. I attended 2300 functions and meetings in one year and delivered Baba Sahib’s message of EQUALITY LIBERT AND SOCIAL JUSTICE everywhere I go. I and my wife Ram Piari who took over the gracious role of the Mayoress, were well received by people from all denominations except Sikh temples.
VB: Wolverhampton is mini Asia like Birmingham. I call it undivided India. How are your relations with friends from other nationalities like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka ? I mean does national identities ever affected your warmth?
BDB: Now living and working here with the, and for the community, over the past many years, I have very good relations with people from many differing denominations. There many Gurudwaras, Hindu Temples, Churches and other religious places regularly inviting me to their special functions and I enjoy the highest regards from all of them.
VB: What were the main achievements that you attribute to your Mayoral period?
BDB: There are a number of memorable achievements, of which I am proud to have the credits for as such:-
A…..What can be a most memorable thing for an untouchable person to attain the highest post of number one citizen of the town in a country which virtually ruled the whole world.
B…..Many people consider me and my year of Mayoralty as an inspiration role model for younger generations to encourage them to participate into mainstream organisations.
C…..The most important thing, is to remember was that where ever I go or spoken about, I always carry the message and preaching of equality, liberty, fraternity, and social justice the main pivot of Baba Sahib’s mission.
VB: What are you doing now after your retirement from politics?
BDB: As you are aware that now I have decided to retire from the council but they still need me off and on, and appointed me an honorary Alderman which means I still have some optional civic responsibilities. Now I am heavily engaged in harmonising relations and creating an atmosphere of mutual understandings and unity amongst Ambedkarites living here in UK.
When we started the Ambedkarite movement in early sixties, there were only few of us but we were well organised and united. Now we have a large number of Ambedkarites and organisations in different towns and cities but they are working in total isolation from each other. The Ambedkarites over the years have achieved great many things but they could have done lot more by working together under a well organised central body.
VB: How do you describe people claiming Baba Saheb’s to work for Baba Saheb’s vision too and glorifying to their traditional identities too.
BDB: My view in regard to maintaining the traditional identities and still claiming to be Ambedkarites. Baba Sahib was fully aware about the back grounds and history of untouchables divided in to thousands of castes and sub castes they had faith and worship their local deities. Baba Sahib’s advocacy for conversion to Buddhism was for two reasons i, e, firstly to get rid of the slavery of Hinduism, secondly to bring unification amongst down trodden masses of India.
Those who stick to their traditional faith and still claim to be the followers of Baba Sahib, in my opinion, their loyalty to the mission is a marriage of convenience and they are no better than fanatic Hindus.
VB: How do we make basic human rights issues as part of Ambedkarite movement? Is it not time to come out of the religious structure and focus on civil and political rights of the people ?
BDB: In western world people less care about religion and devote their energy more for commodities of daily life such as ROTI, CAPRA and MAKAN. A large number of churches have closed and the rest of them are struggling for survival. In the case of India the situation is totally opposite, as more and more religious establishments are mushrooming day by day and they are not short of money. As there are many Muslim countries are indirectly run by fanatic Mullahs similarly India have been and now being run by Shankaracharyas and Hindu priests.
That is why Baba Sahib said that India is a country where politics and religion go side by side supporting each other. He urged down trodden people to grab as much as possible political power to utilize for the benefit of those in need. The Ambedkarites and down trodden people of India must come out of their Hindu enclaves and strengthen their bonds into national unification. They can become a strong national force capable to not only protect their human rights but also the strong contender to rule the country.
VB: The British government is not honoring the commitment made in Parliament when they passed equality law. What is the biggest hurdle in its implementation? Do you think that after BJP's coming to power in India; the Hindu Right wing has got strengthened in UK and is thwarting every effort to implement the law?
BDB: The campaign to include caste discrimination into Human Rights & Equality Act 2010 has been going on over the past several years. But the year of 2015 marked the turning point in this regards when the British government introduce the bill in the parliament. The bill had gone through both houses of the parliament after all odds but the implementation was up held due to pressure from right wing Hindu as well as Sikh organisations in UK. There is a great deal of scepticism that it cannot possibly happen without a very high profile interference and collaboration by the BJP government of India. It is worth mentioning here that out of 1.5m. Indian population in UK, Hindus & Sikhs combined are the second biggest vote bank which play a significance roll to influence the election results. During 2015 UK general elections, a Sikh member of the parliament not only repeatedly voted against the bill but also organised very high profile visits for David Cameron the Tory leader and the prime minister, to Golden Temple in Amritsar & Bala Ji Hindu Temple, London the biggest in UK.
Those opposing the legislation stated that caste system does not exist in UK. But the fear lurks in their mind that the implications will be far beyond the boundaries of UK. The campaign to reintroduce the Bill is still going on and I am sure that in the end the common sense will prevail and the victory will be ours. As I have mentioned in my book Pride VS Prejudice that the bill to introduce changes had gone through the both houses of British parliament but the implementation was upheld due to pressure from both the Hindu and Sikh fanatic organisations. The majority of pro- legislation people think that there is pressure from BJP government in addition to local lobbying in UK.
VB: What should be an ideal Ambedkarite in your opinion? What kind of political thoughts and socio-cultural behavior is expected of an Ambedkarite?
BDB: Dr. Ambedkar was a great patriot and he wanted to see independent India a secular democratic republic state. For him, a transfer of political power in an independent India was not sufficient unless it is supported by economic and social democracy. We are reminded of Baba Sahib’s speech to constitutional assembly on 25th.Nov.1949 that on 26th.Jan.1950 we are going to enter in to a life of contradiction where in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. We must remove this contradiction as earliest as possible.
He was a strong advocate of human rights as such equality, liberty and social justice, which are the fundamental principles of modern civilised society. To achieve all this he lead the down trodden masses of India to come out of enclaves of Hinduism and secondly to take as much as possible control of political power. The Poona Pact and conversion in to Buddhism are two historical examples of his struggle to achieve human dignity and equal rights for all.
VB: You got the title Alderman recently. Could you share with us what is it and why is it given?
BDB: ALDERMAN is an honorary title confirmed by the city council Wolverhampton. The council, under old custom and practice, can appoint a person an Alderman in recognition of his length and quality of public services..