(This story was first published on 2016 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti. You can read our other stories on Dr BR Ambedkar here.)
Melavalavu in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, was declared a reserved panchayat for Dalits in the October 1996 local election. Dominant and upper castes did not take to this lightly and the elections could not be held. There was a second attempt to hold elections, but violence and booth capturing foiled it. Elections were eventually held on 30 December 1996. Upper castes boycotted it. Dalit candidates got elected to the president and vice-president posts, among others. Yet they weren’t allowed to enter the panchayat office by the dominant castes. On 30 June 1997, the president and vice-president, along with three others, were murdered in broad daylight.
In a landmark judgement dated February 2001, the Allahabad High Court ruled: “The caste system in India, based on the feudal occupational division of labour in the past, is today totally outmoded and is a great hindrance to the nation’s progress...” This was in response to a case filed after a Dalit woman sarpanch lodged a police complaint after being harassed by the defeated upper caste candidates.
On 24 September, the Poona Pact was signed, ending all possibilities of there being separate electorate for Dalits. Gandhiji was on a fast unto death in Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail from 20 September 1932.
The Question of Separate Electorates in India
Three Roundtable Conferences were held between 1930 and 1932 by the British Government to discuss constitutional reforms in India, with the ever growing demands of self-rule. Dr Ambedkar had proposed the idea for a separate electorate for Dalits and untouchables in the first conference, which the Congress boycotted. After the Gandhi-Irwin pact, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was appointed the only representative of the Congress at the second conference. He vehemently opposed the idea of a separate electorate.
In a letter to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in September 1932, Gandhi wrote:
In the establishment of separate electorates at all for the ‘depressed classes’, I sense the injection of poison that is calculated to destroy Hinduism.
In what has come to be known as the Lucknow Pact, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League decided to persuade the British government to draw a more liberal policy for India, especially one that safeguarded the rights of Muslims. The decision was taken at the joint session of both the parties, held in Lucknow in 1916. One of the proposals adopted demanded that there should be separate electorates for all communities until they ask for joint electorate.
It is important at this point to make the distinction between separate electorate and reserved constituency clear.
Separate Electorate : The community to which the electorate belongs would choose their own leaders via an election in which the candidates of only their community would be allowed to contest and only their community members would vote. This would mean that the elections for choosing the leaders of that particular community would be held separately and would not come under general elections.
Reservation of Seats : The candidates in the election can belong only to a particular community for which it is reserved. However, every eligible voter in the constituency would vote and the leader chosen would represent them all.
A Coercive Fast and the Poona Pact
In 1932, the British announced the formation of separate electorates for the ‘Depressed Classes’ in the Communal Award. Gandhi was in for a toss. He decided to fast unto death to overturn the decision. On the eve of his now ‘historic’ fast unto death at Yervada Central Jail in Pune, Gandhi wrote to Sir Samuel Hoare, the then Secretary of State for India.
For me religion is one in essence, but it has many branches and if I, the Hindu branch, fail in my duty to the parent trunk, I am an unworthy follower of that one indivisible, visible religion…. My nationalism and my religion are not exclusive, but inclusive and they must be so consistently with the welfare of life.
Pressure began mounting on Ambedkar because of this almost ornery fast. The Mahatma’s life depended on what Dr Ambedkar chose. The maverick Dalit leader finally conceded to his demands. Years later, Dr Ambedkar would write in What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables:
There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The Fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards [which had been awarded to them].
There cannot be much debate on how as a electoral democracy, India is definitely not the most successful or just nation-state. In a country rife with caste violence, electoral processes have often been punctuated by upper caste dominance. Would things have been better, or at least different, if Dalits were awarded separate electorates? Well, Mr Gandhi made sure that the question would never be answered.