(This is part three of a four-part 'September' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.)
In hindsight, history would regard it as an incredible display of sagacity by Dr B R Ambedkar. But back then, in the weeks and days leading up to a signature ceremony under a mango tree inside the Yerwada jail in what was then Poona, media and commentators had been lambasting Ambedkar as being petulant.
There were credible death threats issued against him. In the end, Ambedkar was compelled to surrender to the “moral force” of Mahatma Gandhi.
But in his own way, Ambedkar also triumphed as Gandhi agreed to the demand of Ambedkar to have seats in provincial assemblies reserved for the “untouchables” who are categorised as scheduled castes or Dalits in contemporary India.
The authors are talking about the historic Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar which was sealed and signed on September 24, 1932. The primary signatories were Ambedkar on behalf of the “untouchables” and Madan Mohan Malviya on behalf of caste Hindus with Gandhi and others also signing the document.
What did Ambedkar Want and What Did He Get?
The entire episode unfolded like a thriller.
During the meetings organised in 1931 in London to discuss and debate political representation for “native” Indians in elected bodies, Gandhi and Ambedkar vehemently disagreed and clashed frequently. While Gandhi had agreed to the idea of separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, he was dead set against separate electorates for untouchables, which Ambedkar insisted was a political right that could no longer be denied to “depressed classes” who had been opposed for centuries by caste Hindus.
The matter ended in a stalemate. In August 1932, the Imperial British government announced separate electorates for Dalits for a period of 20 years to begin with. Gandhi was in Yerwada jail a the time. He promptly despatched a letter to Ramsey McDonald, the prime minister of Great Britain signalling his implacable opposition to the decision. He demanded the decision be revoked failing which he would go on a fast unto death. He concluded the August 20, 1932 letter by saying:
It may be that my judgment is warped and that I am wholly in error in regarding separate electorates for the depressed classes as harmful to them or Hinduism. If so, I am not likely to be in the right with reference to other parts of my philosophy of life. In that case, my death by fasting will be at once a penance for my error and a lifting of a weight from off those numberless men and women who have a child-like faith in my wisdom. Whereas if my judgment is right, as I have little doubt it is, the contemplated step is but a due fulfillment of the scheme of life which I have tried for more than a quarter of a century apparently not without considerable success.
This was classic Gandhi. Some call such gestures moral courage while some others call it emotional blackmail. The authors don’t have the wisdom or gravitas to comment on that. In any case, the whole of India was in an uproar as the deadline for the fast unto death (20 September 1932) approached. Ambedkar remained defiant and said the time had come for the untouchables to be given their political rights just as other Indians were getting it. The logic was definitely behind the Ambedkar argument that without a separate electorate, caste Hindus would not allow untouchables their share in politics as they would nominate only caste Hindu candidates.
But there was tremendous pressure on Ambedkar, even from untouchable leaders. For instance, M C Rajah of Madras argued that untouchables, who had suffered discrimination for thousands of years, would face even more anger for thousands more years if Gandhi died as he was not in the best of health. Frenzied and frenetic back-door negotiations were conducted, and Ambedkar was finally persuaded to meet Gandhi in jail. After a day or so of acrimony, it appears leaders like C Rajagopalachari and Madan Mohan Malviya brokered a compromise deal that has gone into history books as the Poona Pact. Ambedkar gave up his demand for separate electorates.
In return, the untouchables were given 148 reserved seats in provincial assemblies, far more than the 78 offered by the British under the separate electorate scheme. Post-independence, when Ambedkar led the mammoth exercise to draft the Constitution, it was agreed that both Dalits and Tribals needed reserved seats in state assemblies and Lok Sabha. Out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha currently, 83 are reserved for Dalits or scheduled castes.
Equality for Dalits is a Work in Progress
Ambedkar had bowed down to pressure. However, he was not happy with the decision and effectively blamed Gandhi for blackmailing him in the name of saving Hinduism from disintegrating. He wrote: There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act . . . It was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed under the Prime Minister’s Award and agree to live at the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act. How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?
Many Dalit activists in contemporary times think Ambedkar did have a point. The bitter reality is that Dalits still face discrimination even in the 21st century. There are still occasions (thankfully lower and lower in numbers with passing years) where Dalits are denied entry into temples. There are still caste Hindu parents who don’t allow their children to eat mid-day meals cooked in schools if the cook is a Dalit. Honour killings still happen if a caste Hindu girl marries a Dalit boy. Worse, there are occasions even now when a Dalit groom is beaten up publicly if he “dares” to ride a horse during his Baraat.
There can be no denying that horrific caste discrimination persists in pockets of India. In fact, even senior functionaries of the Hindu revivalist body RSS are now openly saying that reservations for a few more centuries will be required to uplift Dalits who have faced centuries of dehumanising discrimination. But as with almost everything else, there were two ways of looking at the situation of Dalits in contemporary India: the glass is half full or it is half empty.
The authors prefer the glass is half full option. The maternal grandfather of the co-author was a landlord in a village in western Odisha close to the Chattisgarh border. During his childhood visits, he was aware of the completely segregated lives the Dalits were forced to live in their ghettos. They were not allowed access to ponds where children of caste Hindus frolicked. They were not allowed entry inside his grandfather’s house. Cow dung with Ganga Jal would be used to cleanse the house just in case a Dalit entered the threshold by mistake.
This was in the 1970s. Now, the village has a Dalit sarpanch and the segregation has virtually gone, though many caste Hindu families still refuse to co-mingle with Dalits. By no means is this one anecdotal example representative of India as a whole. As emphasised earlier, caste discrimination still persists in pockets of India, including in Tamil Nadu where Dravidian parties have been ruling since 1967 with the avowed motive of ending caste discrimination.
The authors think that equality for Dalits, like gender equality, is a work in progress. And, just as it would be stupid to live in denial about caste discrimination, it would be wrong to say that absolutely no progress has been made when it comes to political, social, and economic rights for Dalits. There are hundreds of thousands of Dalit entrepreneurs who now employ caste Hindus. There is a flourishing Dalit Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Dalit candidates have topped civil services entrance exams. And of course, don’t forget the Dalit leader Mayawati who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, and was also the de facto Third Front prime ministerial candidate in 2009.
Compare this with the situation of blacks in what is proclaimed to be the greatest democracy in the world, the United States of America. For 250 years of its existence, both as a British colony and an independent country, slavery of blacks was perfectly legal. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the American Constitution declared all human beings to be equal. Yet, for almost 100 years after that white Americans continued to own, buy, and sell blacks as slaves. Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in 1863.
Yet, it took another 100 years, repeated lynchings, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement before segregation was “officially” ended. And then it took another 50-plus years for a black Barack Obama to be elected president. Yet, equality for blacks remains a work in progress in the United States. It is still confronted with cases where a black like George Floyd is publicly choked to death by white police officers. One can argue that whites remain unrepentantly racist even today or one can argue that remarkable progress has been made by blacks in their struggle for social, economic, and political rights.
It’s the same with Dalits. About 90 years have passed since the Poona Act was signed. Change is happening, albeit not at a pace that Dalits would like. But it is invisible forces identified a century ago by B. R. Ambedkar that would change India for good, and for better. Ambedkar had identified Capitalism, industrialisation, and urbanisation as unstoppable forces that would do more to end caste discrimination than the efforts of well-meaning caste Hindus or militant Dalit rights activists.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)