Gandhi, Ambedkar and the 1932 Poona Pact
The 1931 Poona Pact shaped India’s Dalit political representation, and its implications are felt even in today’s parliamentary elections. At the heart of it lay a fundamental difference in their points of view. While Gandhi saw untouchability as a social issue, Ambedkar understood caste as a political one
It is September 19, 1932, and morning has just dawned on Bombay (now known as Mumbai), but dignitaries are already crowding the front porch of the Indian Merchants Chamber Hall. They have an urgent mission: to save MK Gandhi’s life, and they have less than 24 hours to do so.
For weeks, tensions have been rising between Gandhi, lodged in a prison in Pune on sedition charges, and BR Ambedkar, who would go on to steer India’s Constitution, over the latter’s demand of separate electorates for India’s vast population of “depressed classes” or “untouchables”, who are called scheduled castes (SC) today.
Under the system, only members from these communities would be eligible to vote to elect a representative to legislative assemblies; caste Hindus would not be eligible to vote in these elections — a principle Gandhi was bitterly opposed to.
After protracted negotiations at the second Round Table Conference, the British government had formalised separate electorates on August 15, 1932. Almost immediately, Gandhi publicly opposed separate SC electorates but he didn’t object to similar provisions for Muslims or Sikhs.
“I have to resist your decision with my life,” he wrote to the then British PM, Ramsay Mcdonald, on August 18. “What I am against is their statutory separation even in a limited form, from the Hindu fold…” he reiterated on September 9, but the British refused to renege on their decision.
As leaders gathered that Monday, it quickly became clear that a compromise was out of the question. Ambedkar said he would not “sacrifice a rightful demand” for Gandhi’s sake, especially when no alternative proposal had been tabled. At noon on the following day, Gandhi began his fast unto death.
Immediately, all hell broke loose. Newspapers ran daily bulletins on his health and news of Gandhi’s health dominated public discussion. Congress leaders implored Ambedkar to compromise, though as Raja Sekhar Vundru notes in his book, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System, Gandhi’s emissaries had communicated that he was not only opposed to separate electorates, but also was not fully convinced of reserved seats. “I shall not deter from my pious duty and betray the just and legitimate trust of the people even if I am hanged,” Ambedkar told the Congress, reiterating that his primary problem with joint electorates was that the so-called depressed classes would be robbed of independent leadership in a constituency numerically dominated by caste Hindus.
With time running out, the Hindu leaders proposed a two-tier system: a primary election where only Dalits will vote and a secondary election where everyone will be eligible. On the morning of September 22, Ambedkar travelled to Pune and met Gandhi at noon. “I want political power for my community. That is indispensible for our survival,” he told Gandhi, according to notes by Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary.
But there was one hitch. Ambedkar wanted the primary election system to terminate automatically after a decade, and reserved seats after 15 further years, conditional on a referendum on the issue among the so-called depressed classes. But many Hindu leaders were staunchly opposed to it, Vundru noted, and Gandhi himself wanted the referendum after five years.
Negotiations broke down on September 23. In Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability, Christophe Jaffrelot wrote that the next morning, Devadas Gandhi burst into the negotiations and said, “Father is sinking,” pleading before Ambedkar with tears in his eyes.
The pressure on the Maharashtrian was mounting; he had received several death threats already. “Almost all major newspapers were backing Gandhi and opposing Ambedkar. His blood pressure, whether he had water, were front page news every day,” said scholar and cartoonist, Syamsundar Vunnamati.
Ambedkar finally relented after his friend and Tamil leader, MC Rajah, pointed out that Dalits would battle insurmountable prejudice if they were seen as not having compromised for Gandhi’s life.
The Poona Pact was signed at 5pm on September 24 by 23 people. Madan Mohan Malaviya signed it on behalf of Hindus and Gandhi, and Ambedkar on behalf of depressed classes. Instead of the 80 seats given by the British, the depressed classes got 148 seats. At the end of the talks, Gandhi’s trusted emissary, C Rajagopalachari, exchanged his fountain pen with Ambedkar.
A fundamental clash
The Poona Pact represented a clash of two ideas: of caste and citizenship.
Ambedkar’s reading of caste, according to historian Prabodhan Pol, pivoted on seeing the Dalit question as a political issue, and not only a social one, as Gandhi did. “The Gandhi Ambedkar conflict was over how to understand caste. Ambedkar insisted, for the first time in India’s modern history, that caste was a political question, and couldn’t be addressed by social reforms only,” he said.
In his writing and speeches, Ambedkar insisted that a political democracy was meaningless if the so-called depressed classes were not equal participants in it.
“To him, the idea of citizenship included depressed classes participating in the electoral process with equal voting rights. Most importantly for Ambedkar, the ability of the depressed classes to elect their own representatives was a way to achieve full potential of democracy. For this, voting in an electorate free from the influence of caste Hindus was required, and Gandhi did not understand this,” said Sumeet Mhaskar, an associate professor of political science at OP Jindal Global University.
Gandhi’s reading of caste fundamentally differed from Ambedkar, explained Suparna Gooptu, director of the Gandhian Studies Centre, Kolkata. While Ambedkar preferred a rights-based approach, Gandhi’s approach was through faith and spirituality. “Unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi felt that any exploitative relationship could be rectified only when the exploiter had a change of heart. So he worked with upper castes to change their mindset,” she added.
This theory is borne out by Gandhi’s conversation with Ambedkar on the penultimate day of negotiation, as reproduced by the former’s associate, Pyarelal, in The Epic Fast. Gandhi pleads with Ambedkar to reduce the duration of the referendum from 10 to five years, saying a longer period would rob him of the opportunity of convincing Hindus to give up caste, and sow feelings of animosity among them.
“I entreat you therefore, not to deprive Hinduism of a last chance to make a voluntary expiation for its sinful past. Give me the chance of working among the Caste Hindus,” he tells Ambedkar.
Nishikant Kolge, a scholar at Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, argued that Gandhi showed “remarkable irreverence” towards untouchability at a young age, and frequently ate with people from other castes. In his ashrams, the settlers came from all castes and religions and there was no strict division of labour. “Though every inmate had to observe the vow of celibacy, many intercaste marriages were organised in the ashrams,” Kolge writes.
It is unclear why Gandhi took such a strong position against separate electorates, but a conversation between him and Vallabhbhai Patel, recorded by Mahadev Desai and quoted by Eleanor Zelliot in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and The Untouchable Movement, offers a clue.
Patel was puzzled why Gandhi was going on a fast, and the latter replied that separate electorates would leave Gandhi with no way to deal with “untouchables”. “They do not realise that the separate electorate will create division among Hindus so much that it will lead to bloodshed,” he told Patel, as quoted in Zelliot’s and Vundru’s books.
The impact, today
For India’s 300 million scheduled caste people, the legacy of the Poona Pact lives to this day, and many Ambedkarite scholars have argued, fundamentally distorted the form of representation of Dalits.
India today reserves seats in Parliament and assemblies for SCs in proportion to their population. For example, in the Lok Sabha, 84 of the 543 seats are reserved for members of SC communities.
But Dalits are not concentrated in any specific area, so in a majority of these seats, they form a minority of the electorate. An HT analysis of numbers provided by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data showed that out of the 84, Dalits make up a third of the electorate in only 13. In just one constituency — Jalpaiguri in West Bengal — does this figure cross 50%. This means that while the MP is from a scheduled caste, the majority of the electorate is not and their influence is decisive.
“In a caste-ridden society, this means that the Dalit MP has to compromise and keep the upper castes happy, and cannot work genuinely for the marginalised castes. Such a system robs Dalits of genuine leadership and the community suffers because leaders are dependent on their party’s vote bank to get elected; they cannot be independent,” said Bhagyesha Kurane, a law student at Pune University.
Many Dalit politicians are aware of this fetter. D Ravikumar, the MP from Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram and an anti-caste writer, said the current system was not helpful in electing genuine leadership. “We have to make many compromises,” he added. He also pointed out that the current system was very different from the one the Poona Pact envisioned. “It is neither Gandhi’s nor Ambedkar’s plan,” he said.
Ambedkar’s views on political representation of the depressed classes was shaped over three decades, beginning with his submission before the Southborough Committee in 1919, when he was just 28. His belief in universal adult franchise — revolutionary at the time — was rooted in the so-called depressed classes getting cheated of their voting rights by British India’s restrictions of land and wealth ownership on the electorate.
Over the next two decades, he refined the idea of political representation for the “untouchables”, moving from joint to separate electorates, and finally settling on a hybrid measure of primary and secondary elections. His Independent Labour Party was successful in the 1937 elections but in the next round, in 1946, the Scheduled Caste Federation performed poorly, and in independent India’s first election in 1952, Ambedkar lost from his stronghold of Bombay, although historians attributed the poor performance largely to the crushing lack of organisation and resources.
Pol noted that the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship was not always antagonistic and the latter took a dim view only in his 1945 treatise, What Congress and Gandhi have done to Untouchables. “If you devoted yourself entirely to the welfare of the depressed classes, then you would become our hero,” Ambedkar told Gandhi during the negotiations.
But Ambedkar would grow steadily disillusioned with the Congress, and Gandhi, especially on the question of political representation. In 1945, he alleged that Congress nullified the pact by choosing less qualified candidates who couldn’t become cabinet aspirants, and be completely dependent on the party for votes. The bitterness sprang forth in a BBC interview a year before his death, in which Ambedkar called Gandhi’s stand during the Poona Pact negotiations a “huge whim” of a politician. “As a politician, he was never a Mahatma. I refuse to call him Mahatma,” Ambedkar said.