By Hafiz M. Haroon Abbas
Caste is considered the cornerstone of Indian Hindu society. In this, the untouchables are at the lowest level in the structure of hierarchical inequality, which were officially called ‘depressed classes’ until 1935. Gandhiji had rewarded them with the name ‘Harijan’ which was not accepted by most of the untouchables. Now they have chosen for themselves the name ‘Dalit’ which is indicative of their downtrodden status. At present they constitute about one-sixth (16.20%) of the total population of India and one-fifth (20.13%) of the total Hindu population. Untouchables have been deprived of all social, religious, economic and educational rights in Hindu society for centuries and to a large extent are still there.
Dalits have been facing many kinds of deprivations and disabilities. They have a long history of struggle for equal status in Hindu society and politics. When Mr. E.s. Montagu, Secretary of State for India, made this important announcement in Parliament in 1917 that “The ultimate goal of the British Government is to give Dominion States to India, so the Dalits held two meetings in Bombay and presented their demand letter to the Viceroy who had come to India on a visit.” . As a result, the lower castes got an opportunity to present their problems in different provinces to the commission which was traveling before the Indian constitutional reforms of 1919.
Thereafter a long and complicated series of various commissions, conferences and councils followed. After the Montagu-Chelmsford report in 1918, the Maddiman Committee report came in 1924, which talked about the very low representation of the depressed classes in the consuls and measures were suggested to increase it. The Simon Commission (1928) accepted that adequate representation should be given to the depressed classes. From 1930 to 1932, three round table conferences were held in London in which Dalits along with other minorities were recognized for their right to vote in the making of the future constitution of India. It was a historic and decisive event which was attended by stalwarts like, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Rao Bahadur R. Due to the effective representation and vigorous presentation of Dalits by Srinivasan on 17th August, in the ‘Communal Award’ announced by the British Government in 1932, Dalits got the independent political right of a separate electorate. With this award, the Dalits got the right to choose their own representatives through separate elections on the reserved seats and also got the right of two votes to elect the upper castes in the general caste constituencies. Thus the untouchables got the right to political freedom for the first time in the history of India, which could pave the way for their liberation.
On the basis of the recognition of the Dalits as minorities in the Government of India Act, 1919 by the said award, along with other minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo Indians and some others, separate electorates in the form of provincial legislatures and their representatives for the Central Assembly. Got the right to choose themselves and the number of seats was fixed for all of them. In this, 78 seats were reserved for the untouchables as special constituencies.
On the announcement of the said award, Gandhiji announced a fast unto death from 20 September 1932 in Yerwada (Poona) Jail in protest against the right of separate electorate given to the Dalits on 18 August 1932. Gandhiji was of the opinion that by this the untouchables would be separated from the Hindu society, due to which Hindu society and Hindu religion would disintegrate. It is to be known that he did not oppose the same rights given to Muslims, Sikhs and Anglo-Indians. Gandhiji sent a letter to the then British Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald on August 18, 1932 about this apprehension, appealing to abolish the right of separate electorate given to the Dalits, to arrange for joint franchise and to save the Hindu society from disintegration. In response to this, the British Prime Minister wrote in his letter dated 8 September 1932,“Under the plan of the British Government, the Depressed Classes would continue to be a part of the Hindu society and they would vote equally for the Hindu election, but such a system would be in place for the first 20 years and a limited number of special constituencies would be reserved for them while being a part of the Hindu society so that their rights and interests can be protected. In the present situation it has become absolutely necessary to do so. Where there are special constituencies, the Depressed Classes shall not be debarred from voting in the constituencies of ordinary Hindus. In this way, Dalits will have the right to two votes – one for their member of a particular constituency and the other for an ordinary member of Hindu society. We have deliberately given the opposite verdict against what you have called communal election for the untouchables. Depressed class voters will be able to vote for upper caste candidate in general or Hindu constituencies and upper caste Hindu voters will be able to vote Dalit class candidate wise in their constituency. In this way the unity of Hindu society has been preserved. After giving some other arguments, he urged Gandhiji to leave the fast unto death.
But Gandhiji in response, considering the fast unto death as his sacred religion, said that only by giving the right of double voting to the Depressed Classes, they and the Hindu society cannot be stopped from disintegration. He further said, “In my understanding, arranging separate electorates for the Depressed Classes is an injection to destroy Hindu religion. Depressed classes will not benefit from this.” Gandhiji made similar arguments in the second and third Round Table Conferences, in response to which Dr. Ambedkar denied Gandhiji’s claim of being the sole representative of Dalits and his well wishers and asked him not to oppose the political rights of Dalits. He had also said that at present the Dalits are demanding only independent political rights and not to separate homeland from the Hindus. But Gandhiji had the selfishness of protecting the interests of the upper caste Hindus and keeping the untouchables as slaves of the Hindu society. This was the reason that, denying all the facts and arguments, he started a fast unto death on September 20, 1932, against the right of a separate electorate for the untouchables. It was a dire situation. On one side there was a huge powerful Hindu community in favor of Gandhiji, on the other hand was Dr. Ambedkar and the untouchables society. Ultimately, under heavy pressure and fear of possible genocide of untouchables and to save Gandhi’s life, Dr. Ambedkar and his associates had to sacrifice the right of a separate electorate for Dalits and had to sign the so-called Poona Pact on September 24, 1932 with the upper caste Hindus. Thus the untouchables had lost their right to political freedom due to Gandhi’s insistence.
Although according to the Poona Pact, the number of seats reserved for the Dalits in the ‘Communal Award’ was increased from 78 to 151 but due to joint elections, they were stripped of their right to choose their own representatives, the consequences of which Dalit society is suffering till date. After the inclusion of the provisions of the Poona Pact in the Government of India Act, 1935, the first election was held in 1937, in which the Congress won 78 seats out of 151 despite Gandhi’s assurances to the Dalit representatives that Congress will not interfere. Because in the joint electoral system, the Dalits had again become dependent on the upper caste votes. Disappointed by this deceit of Gandhiji and Congress, Dr. Ambedkar had said, “There has been a great betrayal to Dalits in the Poona Pact.”
Through the Communal Award, the independent political existence of the Dalits could be protected by the dependence of the untouchables on the Dalits with the right to elect their own representatives in the form of separate electorate and the right of double vote, but the compulsion to do the Poona Pact made the Dalits once again the slave of Hindus. Under this system, the MPs or MLAs who are elected on the reserved seats are not actually elected by the Dalits, but by the various political parties and the upper castes, and Dalits have to remain as slaves / bonded to them. All political parties keep a tight control on such representatives with slave mentality and do not allow any Dalit issue to be raised or spoken on the outside of the party line. This is the reason why the status of Dalit representatives in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies is similar to that of Bhishma Pitamah of Mahabharata, who was asked, “Why didn’t you speak when Draupadi was being dismembered in the court of Kauravas?” To this his reply was, “I have eaten the salt of the Kauravas.”
In fact, the Communal Award would have given independent political rights to the Dalits, which enabled them to choose their own representatives and be their voices. Along with this, due to the right of double vote, even the upper caste Hindus in the general constituency could have depended on them and could not dared have to annoy the Dalits. This could have created a new equation in Hindu society which would have paved the way for Dalit emancipation. But Gandhiji violated the political freedom of the Dalits by giving a false cry of the disintegration of Hindu society and Hindu religion and by adopting the immoral method of fasting unto death, due to which the Dalits again became political slaves of the upper castes. In fact, Gandhi’s move was largely political as well, which is evident from what he later said to Sardar Patel on one occasion:
“I am horrified at the consequences of a separate franchise for the untouchables. In spite of separate electorate rights for other classes, I will have scope to deal with them but I will have no means to deal with the untouchables. They do not know that separate electorates will divide Hindus so much that it will result in bloodshed. Untouchable goons will join hands with Muslim goons and kill Hindus. Does the British government have no idea about this? I don’t think so.” (Mahadev Desai, Diary, p. 301, Volume I).
From this true statement of Gandhiji, you can get an idea of the real purpose of Gandhiji to force the untouchables to do the Poona Pact.
Due to the dependence of the Dalits on the upper caste Hindus due to the joint franchise system, no political party of the Dalits is flourishing, even if it is the Republican Party founded by Dr. Ambedkar. For this reason, Dr. Ambedkar also had to face defeat in the election twice because the upper caste vote was the deciding factor in the reserved seats. That is why the upper caste parties win most of the reserved seats. Due to these ill-effects of the Poona Pact, Dr. Ambedkar had said in the Constitution to continue the political reservation for only 10 years. But various political parties have been extending it not in the interest of Dalits but for their own selfishness till now continuously for 10-10 years because it gives them the facility to choose their favorite and slave Dalit MPs and MLAs.
The upper caste Hindu political parties buy Dalit leaders and the Dalit parties break up after becoming weak. This is the reason why even the so called Bahujan Samaj Party of so called Dalits in North India is going after Brahmins and Banias and is compelled to accept slogans like “Hathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai”. Now their transformation has taken place from Bahujan to Sarvajan. Due to these circumstances, the Dalits have suffered a lot, they have remained politically as slaves of the upper castes. Therefore, in this context it would be expedient to review the justification of the Poona Pact. Shouldn’t the Dalits think of raising the demand for separate electorates again?
Although in the terms of the Poona Pact, there was talk of ending untouchability, giving reservation in government services and making budget provision for the education of Dalits, but even after 74 years of independence, the condition of their implementation is pathetic. Dr. Ambedkar expressed his thoughts in a big meeting of the upper caste Hindus in Bombay on September 25, 1932, convened for the approval of the Poona Pact, and said, “We have only one concern. Will future generations of Hindus follow this agreement? On this all the upper caste Hindus said in one voice, “Yes, we will.” Dr. Ambedkar had also said, “We see that unfortunately the Hindu sect is not an organized group but a federation of different sects. I hope and believe that on your part you will consider this inscription sacred and act in a respectful spirit.”Shouldn’t the Savarna Hindus today do a little retrospection about honestly implementing this agreement made by their ancestors with the Dalits? Should they not return the political right of a separate electorate to the Dalits. Do they see their loss in the honest implementation of this agreement?