Seventy-five years ago this week, the poet Rabindranath Tagore travelled across India to visit a friend in prison. This was Mahatma Gandhi who, on September 20, 1932, had begun a fast-unto-death in protest against the decision by the colonial government to award separate electorates to the Depressed Classes (as the Dalits were then known).
Already, Muslim representatives to the provincial assemblies were chosen by Muslims alone; now, the British proposed to grant the same concession to the Untouchables as well.
Some commentators saw Gandhi’s opposition to separate electorates as principled. From his early years in South Africa, Gandhi had held untouchability to be a sin against humanity, and against Hinduism. When launching the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, he had insisted that the abolition of untouchability was a precondition for the attainment of swaraj. Those who so grossly oppressed a section of their own society, he said, had no business claiming that they should themselves be ‘liberated’ from foreign rule.
Other Indians were less inclined to give Gandhi the benefit of the doubt. His prime aim, they argued, was to keep Untouchables within the Hindu fold, for which he was willing to grant them some privileges, but not really rights. These critics pointed to his hesitancy in encouraging inter-dining and inter-marriage among different castes.
In 1932, the leading Indian critic of Gandhi’s views was the great lawyer-economist B.R. Ambedkar. Himself born into an Untouchable caste, Ambedkar was convinced that to look to upper-caste reformers for succour was to court disaster. The Depressed Classes had to fend for themselves; however, if they found themselves in need of a patron, they could more easily trust the British Raj than Gandhi’s Congress party. At least the former were not bound by caste prejudice.
In September-October 1932, Gandhi and Ambedkar were both in London, attending the Second Round Table Conference. Here, Ambedkar argued that it was imperative that “the Depressed Classes are going to be recognised as a community entitled to political recognition in the future constitution of India”. In the new legislatures, which were to be based on election rather than nomination, the Depressed Classes should be allotted seats in proportion to their share in the population. As with the Muslims, said Ambedkar, these representatives must be chosen by the Depressed Classes alone.
Ambedkar’s arguments were contested by Gandhi in the Round Table Conference, as well as in other speeches he made in the United Kingdom. Addressing the Indian Students’ Majlis in London in the first week of November 1931, Gandhi insisted that “separate electorates to the ‘Untouchables’ will ensure them bondage in perpetuity. The Musalmans will never cease to be Musalmans by having separate electorates. Do you want the ‘Untouchables’ to remain untouchables for ever? Well, the separate electorates will perpetuate the stigma... Look at the history of Europe. Have you got separate electorates for the working class or women? With adult franchise, you give the ‘Untouchables’ complete security. Even the orthodox Hindus would have to approach them for votes”.The Conference ended, inconclusively. Meanwhile, back in India, the hardliner Lord Willingdon had been appointed the new Viceroy. On Willingdon’s orders, Gandhi was arrested upon his return, and sent off to Poona’s Yeravada Jail.
On August 17, 1932, the Indian papers announced that the British government had endorsed separate electorates for Untouchables. From his prison cell, Gandhi announced that he would go on a fast against the decision. He thereby hoped not only to stop separate electorates, but also to awaken Hindus to their own ill-treatment of Untouchables. As he put it in a statement to the press, “The problem before responsible Hindus is to consider whether in the event of social, civic or political persecution of the ‘depressed’ classes, they are prepared to face satyagraha in the shape of perpetual fast, not of one reformer like me, but [of] an increasing army of reformers… who will count their lives of no cost to achieve the liberation of these classes and thereby rid Hinduism of an age-long superstition.”
This statement was issued on September 16; four days later, Gandhi commenced his fast. Just before he had his last meal, he received a message of support from Rabindranath Tagore. The poet felt “certain that the supreme appeal of such self-offering to the conscience of our countrymen will not be in vain. Our sorrowing hearts will follow your sublime penance with reverence and love”.
Tagore was speaking here for many of his countrymen, but not all. Ambedkar, for instance, did not follow Gandhi’s fast with ‘reverence and love’ but, rather, with dismay and disenchantment. He felt coerced by Gandhi’s actions, a feeling that intensified when friends and critics alike urged him to drop his demand for separate electorates and thus save the Mahatma’s life. The threat was real; as the historian B.R. Nanda reports, a board of doctors who examined Gandhi said that they were “definitively of the opinion that his condition portended entry into the danger zone”.
Relenting, Ambedkar went to Yeravada to meet Gandhi. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, other leaders were working towards a compromise. This asked Ambedkar to drop his demand for separate electorates; in return, the Depressed Classes would get more seats. (One of the mediators was the great spin bowler from a Dalit background, Palwankar Baloo.) After some hard negotiation, the two sides agreed upon the terms of a pact, in which the Depressed Classes would get 148 seats in the provincial legislatures, as against the 71 allotted to them by the British. But they would vote together with caste Hindus.
This ‘Poona Pact’ was approved by Gandhi, and also by the British. Tagore now came to Poona from Bengal to offer his friend a glass of orange juice, and to sing him some verses from Gitanjali. Thus ended what Gandhi’s secretary and biographer Pyarelal called (in a book of that title) ‘The Epic Fast’. Although the fast lasted only a few days, it was truly epic in its consequences. The format it proposed, of an expanded reservation for Depressed Classes within a joint electorate, was later adopted by the Constitution of India, and still forms part of our electoral process today. Without the Poona Pact, for example, the Bahujan Samaj Party would not have come to power in the last elections in Uttar Pradesh.
The Poona Pact was a genuine compromise, an agreement in which neither party got what they initially wanted. The Congress, and Gandhi, wanted universal adult franchise for all Indians, but with no reservation of seats for any particular group. Some Dalit leaders, notably Ambedkar, wanted separate electorates altogether, in which the Depressed Classes would vote apart from caste Hindus.
Ironically, the via media finally arrived at was similar to one proposed by Ambedkar in a submission to the Simon Commission in 1928. There, he had opposed the granting of special privileges to Muslims; as he put it, “the separate or special interests of any minority are better promoted by the system of general electorates and reserved seats than by separate electorates”.
History has vindicated the Ambedkar of 1928, rather than the Ambedkar of 1931-32. Separate electorates would have further stigmatised and ghettoised the Dalits. On the other hand, not to have any reservation at all would merely have consolidated upper-caste dominance. What we finally got, general electorates with reserved seats, has allowed the Dalits to have a profound influence in all constituencies, while ensuring that their own representation in legislatures and in Parliament does not fall below their proportion in the population.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India after Gandhi.