India has a system of caste-based reservations which sets aside a certain number of seats for people belonging to castes that historically experienced social and economic discrimination. Reservations are applicable in a range of settings, such as higher education, government jobs, and even political office. There are a certain number of seats reserved for scheduled castes (SCs) and (STs) in all legislative bodies, including Parliament.
While the issue of reservations is perpetually being debated, most often among upper castes who do not enjoy its ‘benefits’, it is important to note that it was not the only mode of affirmative action to have been suggested. The alternative, advocated by Dr BR Ambedkar, was the mode of separate electorates.
In the early 1930s, the issue of separate electorates for lower castes became a source of major debate. On opposite sides of the debate stood two of India’s tallest leaders: Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi.
On the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14), we look at the issue of separate electorates, Dr Ambedkar’s position, the opposition to it from Gandhi, and how it was eventually rejected in favour of reservations.
Ambedkar’s views on caste
Unlike Gandhi, who advocated for reforming the caste system by abolishing untouchability, Dr Ambedkar held a more radical view which rejected the institution of caste itself. He saw the reformism advocated by contemporary upper caste Hindus as inadequate to undo millenia of discrimination. According to him, any revolt against the caste system would only be possible after the oppressed themselves rejected their condition and oppression as being divinely ordained.
Thus, Ambedkar’s political programme emphasised on lower castes obtaining political power. “Nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove them unless you get political power in your hands,” he wrote. He suggested separate electorates as the form of affirmative action to empower lower castes.
Ambedkar’s arguments for separate electorates
“The depressed classes form a group by themselves which is distinct and separate … and, although they are included among the Hindus, they in no sense form an integral part of that community,” Dr Ambedkar said during the plenary session of the First Round Table Conference in London. “The Depressed Classes feel that they will get no shred of political power unless the political machinery for the new constitution is of a special make,” he continued.
And what was this political machinery he was talking about? Separate electorates with double vote – one for SCs to vote for an SC candidate and the other for SCs to vote for in the general electorate. While he had previously rejected communal electorates (i.e. separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims), his position changed over time, as he realised that while joint electorates might better help integrate lower castes into the Hindu fold, they would do little to challenge their subservient position.
He felt that the system of unqualified joint electorates “enabled the majority to influence the election of the representatives of the dalits community, and thus disabled them for defending the interests of their oppression against the ‘tyranny of the majority’”.
Gandhi’s opposition to separate electorates was ostensibly based on his view that they “do too little” for lower castes. Gandhi argued that rather than being restricted to just this measly share of seats, lower castes should aspire to rule “the kingdom of the whole world”. However, the reality of lower castes’ material and social condition was not likely to put them in a position to rule the world.
This was especially important for two strategic reasons. First, Gandhi rightly understood how the British had exploited internal divisions in Indian society for their own purposes. Separate electorates, according to him, would only help the British ‘divide and rule’.
Second, this was also a time when antagonism between Hindus and Muslims was rising. If separate electorates for lower castes would be announced in addition to those for Muslims, this would significantly reduce the power that caste Hindu leadership enjoyed by breaking the consolidated Hindu fold.
The Yerawada fast and the Poona Pact
Thus, on September 16, 1932, while imprisoned in the Yerawada Jail in Pune, Gandhi began a fast unto death against the British decision to create separate electorates based on caste. “This is a God-given opportunity that has come to me,” Gandhi said from his prison cell, “to offer my life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden”.
This put Ambedkar in a tricky situation. On one hand, he disagreed with Gandhi’s political alternative (i.e. reservations) as he believed that even with reserved seats, upper castes would numerically dominate lower castes, blunting possibilities for more radical social change by determining which lower caste candidate to vote for. On the other, Gandhi was the nation’s most loved political leader, and if something were to happen to him, the fledgling Dalit movement might bear heavy consequences – including the possibility of violence against defenceless Dalits by upper castes.