When Gandhi and Ambedkar came together to settle the Dalit question

The agreement defeated British attempts to divide Indian society by proposing community-based electorates to create fissures in the national movement

Gandhi with people from Harijan community
Gandhi with people from Harijan community

Sujay Biswas

It has now become a fashion among many to denounce Gandhi’s “fast-unto-death” against the Communal Award that granted separate electorates to ‘Dalits’ (then described as the ‘Depressed Classes’) and the Poona Pact of 1932 as the “greatest betrayal” of the ‘Dalits’.

Rather than seeing the talks between Gandhi and Ambedkar leading to the signing of the Pact as a dialogue of negotiation between the two, Ambedkar is seen as having been “blackmailed” by Gandhi’s fast into dropping the idea of separate electorates in exchange for reservation for the ‘Dalits’.

This view essentially overlooks the constant efforts of the British imperialists to divide Indian people into a number of special-interest groups at loggerheads with each other to weaken the national movement.

It is also forgotten that the Poona Pact greatly increased the representation of the ‘Dalits’ in the legislatures. Ambedkar not only highly praised Gandhi but called him “Mahatma”. Ambedkar referred to Gandhi as “Mahatma” for offering “a much better deal for the Dalits in terms of reserved seats than Ambedkar himself had asked or hoped for”.

Moreover, the newspapers of the day also tell a similar story. Headlines hailing the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi quote Ambedkar as saying: “I am grateful to Mahatma: He came to my rescue.”

Bhagwan Das, a close follower of Ambedkar, independently quotes Ambedkar’s speech: “I think in all these negotiations, a large part of the credit must be attributed to Mahatma Gandhi himself. I must confess that I was surprised, immensely surprised, when I met Mahatma, that there was so much in common between him and me.”

What was common was that both were fighters against untouchability. Indeed, Gandhi recommended that Annihilation of Caste must be read by every reformer.

On August 16, 1932, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, announced the Communal Award, which provided for separate communal electorates for the ‘Dalits’, the Muslims, the Europeans, the Sikhs, the Anglo-Indians and the Indian-based Christians. The Communal Award, purportedly providing the basis for a responsible government in India through a communal settlement, was in reality an official settlement that would break up the Indian electorate.

The Award of 1932 was built on the notion of separate electorates that the British government had already put in place through the Morley-Minto Reforms (1909) and the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (1919).

The ‘pernicious concept’ of separate electorates introduced by the British government in India divided the Indian society irreparably at the very initial stages of modern electoral politics. Inherent in it was the two (or more) nation theory.

Separate electorates were the cause of communal disputes during elections and in the legislative councils, as the voters and the candidates being members of a single community, the contestants in the elections did not have to get votes from other communities.

The voters, too, then tended to “think and vote communally” — which unfortunately is again becoming a sad reality of our current political scenario — and had begun to “express their socio-economic grievances in communal terms.”

Gandhi was, therefore, convinced that separate electorates for ‘Dalits’ would further help the British to “divide and rule,” and balkanise India. He had a strong case, as “distinct electorates for the Muslims in India had undoubtedly been divisive, creating as they did a class of politicians whose basis was that of separatist politics.” It was for this reason that he opposed separate electorates for the ‘Dalits’.

Correspondence also ensued between the Viceroy of India, Lord Willingdon, and the Governor of Bombay, Sir Frederick Sykes, highlighting the government’s position

on the issue. Willingdon wrote that the British aim was “of course to detach the people of the province from the Congress movement, to get them interested in reforms and to restore normal conditions as soon as possible.”

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Sykes agreed that the British should come down on the minorities’ side for “there is some hope that the minorities will organise on the British side.” By April 1932, three months before the announcement of the Communal Award, Sykes was telling Willingdon that “it is only by helping people to lose faith in the ultimate supremacy of the Congress that we can hope to encourage other parties to organise themselves in such a way as to form a strong effective opposition in the future.”

Sykes emphasised in a letter written to Willingdon on June 7, 1932 that for political purposes, the “Untouchables should be considered as a community distinct from the Hindus and their representation should be treated as a subtraction from the Hindu vote.” He also desired, as he wrote to the Viceroy, that there should be no attempt made now to win over the Congress, for “any such attempt will inevitably estrange the Muslims and other minorities.”

The demand for separate electorates for the ‘Dalits’, as enshrined in the Communal Award, was in fact “manufactured” by the Government. E.E. Doyle, the Inspector General of Prisons, reported that Gandhi told him that the ‘Dalits’ “had been given separate electorates, when as a class they did not desire them. A very small minority, the Mahars, under the leadership of Ambedkar demanded separate electorates, but they were not entitled to speak for the Depressed Classes as a whole, who in the United Provinces, Bengal and elsewhere had definitely declared for joint electorates.”

The confidential correspondence among the British officials was reflective of what Gandhi was saying. The correspondence shows that there was no widespread yearning among the ‘Dalits’ for seeking separate electorates through the Communal Award.

In fact, majority of them scarcely knew that an Award had been announced ostensibly for their “emancipation.” The British put on the pretence of “supporting” the ‘Dalits’, while their clearly stated objective was to use them to create yet another fissure among the Indian people in order to thwart the rising tide of the national movement. Separate electorate was a key device to make the ‘Dalits’ assert their separateness, a devise the British had used successfully to divide the Hindus and the Muslims since the late 19th century.

Gandhi was aware of the British Government’s machinations: several years later, in a letter written to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, he was to describe the Communal Award as a “wicked conspiracy against Indian nationalism.”

He added that the Award sought to create “a division amongst Hindus themselves.” Gandhi insisted that the ‘Dalits’ be elected through joint, and if possible, a wider electorate, through universal adult franchise. There were reasons for this belief, as separate electorates would ensure that the “Untouchables remained Untouchables in perpetuity,” while what was needed, Gandhi asserted, was the “root and branch eradication of untouchability.”

Gandhi had challenged the Communal Award, as it divided the Indian people and weakened the national movement, but the British government and Gandhi’s critics translate this as unwillingness to empower the ‘Dalits’.

Further, Gandhi, in reply to some of the critics on this issue, argued: “To say that the harijans will not be able to use their franchise properly and will not be able to understand the interests of the country is to lay the axe at the very root of the principles of democracy. It is like the Imperialists telling us that we are not fit for democracy and will never learn the proper use of the franchise. Mistakes will always be made. We shall progress only through mistakes. But does it mean that we should not have the right to vote? Exercise of the right of voting will in itself be an education for the harijans. Nor would it be proper to say that they would not understand national interests.”

Gandhi had never objected to the representation of the ‘Dalits’ in the legislatures or even to their over-representation. On the contrary, he was anxious to secure their adequate representation. Gandhi even expressed his readiness, under certain conditions, to guarantee by statute, a specified number of seats to be filled by them.

Gandhi had requested the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, to publish his letter addressed to him, indicating his intentions to go on “fast unto death,” arguing that he wanted “public opinion to be affected” against separate electorates.

The government released the correspondence on September 13, 1932, a week before Gandhi was to start his fast. It sent shock waves all over the country. The country was stunned on learning that Gandhi had decided to “fast-unto-death” on the issue of awarding separate electorates to the ‘Dalits’.

The fast immediately pricked ‘caste Hindu’ conscience and, on the initiative of Madan Mohan Malaviya, attempts were made to initiate a dialogue between the representative Hindu leaders, including Tej Bahadur Sapru, Ghanshyam Das Birla and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari among others, on the one hand, and Ambedkar and other ‘Dalit’ leaders on the other.

Meanwhile, the British Government was actively involved in manipulating the ‘Dalit’ leaders. M.C. Rajah wrote in his letter to Gandhi: “Perhaps not all of them know how much pressure was brought to bear upon me by high government authorities including the Viceroy, the Home Member, and the Indian Law Member at the time of the fast to prevent me from advocating and inducing my people to accept joint electorates upon which your heart was set and without which life was not worth living for you.”

The government continued its ‘indirect’ publicity to thwart any attempt towards an agreement between the ‘untouchable’ and Hindu representatives. Anticipating that the agreement may be a possibility, the government even declared that Rajah and Ambedkar were “not the only spokesmen of the Depressed Classes” and the government may require evidence that any arrangement that the Depressed Classes may come to “has the support of their communities as a whole.”

However, at long last, the leaders reached an arrangement called the Poona Pact and the terms were reported to Gandhi. He gave his approval. The text was communicated to the Government of India at once and the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and his ministers now accepted it as an amendment to the Communal Award. On September 26, 1932, after the news of the changes reached Yeravda Jail, Gandhi broke his fast.

By virtue of the Poona Pact, ‘Dalits’ were given 148 seats in the Legislatures as against the 71 which they had received under the government’s Award. The more significant change was in the way the ‘Dalits’ legislators were to be elected. The election was to be in two stages.

In the first round, the ‘Dalits’ in the reserved constituency were to elect a panel of four candidates. In the second round, all voters of the constituency, irrespective of caste, were to elect the person they wanted to be their representative. The agreement followed what Gandhi had maintained all along, namely, that he would give any concession whatsoever to thwart the manoeuvre of the British to divide the Hindu community permanently.

However, the most significant gain was that the Poona Pact was arrived at by and among Indians themselves without any participation of the official British side.

Moreover, in working out a solution to secure an alternate formula, Ambedkar said, “To save Gandhi’s life, I would not be party to any proposals that would be against the interests of my people.”

In fact, Ambedkar saw the Poona Pact as a victory for himself. He wrote, “The fast failed and Gandhi was obliged to sign a Pact – called the Poona Pact – which conceded the political demands of the Dalits.”

Rajmohan Gandhi aptly asks, “if in fact Ambedkar had been ;coerced’ into accepting the Pact in 1932, why in 1949, he had helped incorporate the Pact into the Constitution.”

Not only in 1932 but even in 1945, by which time his differences with Gandhi had reached a peak, Ambedkar refused to disown the terms of the Poona Pact. Even after his 1951 resignation and clash with Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress, Ambedkar did not “try to have the Poona Pact annulled.”

Significantly, the period from 1947 to 1951 saw an unexpected and remarkable rapprochement between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Gandhi, despite Ambedkar’s participation in the Viceroy’s Executive Council during the Quit India Movement (1942-45), brought him into the nationalist fold. Ambedkar was brought onto the process of writing of the Constitution of India, despite having major differences of opinion with Gandhi, and later even included in the first cabinet of independent India, even though Ambedkar’s influence electorally or otherwise did not automatically get that position.

The Scheduled Castes Federation of Ambedkar did not do well in the 1946 elections. It returned no candidate in Bombay and only one each in the Bengal and Central Provinces legislatures. The Congress had won the bulk of the ‘Dalit’ seats in the 1946 elections. It had no reason to invite Ambedkar to join the cabinet. Gandhi was behind the choice of Ambedkar in the 1947 cabinet.

He advised Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel to include Ambedkar in India’s first cabinet. The Times of India of November 27, 1951 quotes Ambedkar saying that it was one of the greatest surprises of his life that he got into the Cabinet.

When, two months after Gandhi’s death, Ambedkar married Sharada Kabir, a Brahmin doctor, Patel wrote to him, “I am sure if Bapu were alive, he would have given you his blessings.” Ambedkar replied, “I agree that Bapu, if he had been alive, would have blessed it.”

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar fought for a common cause: to eradicate caste and untouchability. Despite having differences of opinion and approach, their mutual respect for each other have been overshadowed by their partisan inheritors and current politics. Rather than embracing and appreciating their ability to negotiate despite having differences, there is a standardised positioning of Gandhi and Ambedkar as each other’s enemies.