[meaning of (1) separate electorate: the community to which the electorate belongs choose their own leaders via an election in which the candidates of only the aforementioned community can contest and only their community members can vote; (2) reservation of seats: the candidates in the election can only belong only to the community for which it is reserved. However, every eligible voter in the constituency can vote.]
For many, September 24 is just another day. But for those who know the history of Ambedkar and his struggle for the emancipation of Dalits, this day is remembered as the day we lost the right to represent ourselves.
During the Second Round Table Conference, held in 1931, the British government announced the ‘communal award’ which retained a separate electorate for Scheduled Castes, Muslims, and Sikhs. This allowed them to choose their own competent candidate and vote for them to get elected to the Constituent Assembly. Basically, this award set aside a certain number of seats for Dalit candidates in Parliament thereby granting them the right to field and vote for their while also being allowed to vote and participate in the general elections. This was something Ambedkar sought and struggled for but it was soon going to come to naught.
It was Ambedkar's view that the problem of the untouchables could be solved through political means if they had their own strong leaders representing their cause in Parliament. Giving Dalits a separate electorate along with a few reserved seats would mean a significant, if not substantial, representation of the untouchables in Parliament. They would be able to raise various issues concerning the social exclusion of Dalits and call for laws demanding better treatment and for pulling them out of their miserable condition. Ambedkar feared that after Independence, the power to rule would go to the upper caste Hindu majority and the untouchable minority would be hapless and left without the little benefits that allowed them to live a life of dignity under the British rule.
The Poona Pact, while removing separate electorates, increased the number of reserved seats, which meant that the political parties could field their own untouchable candidates for the reserved seats. These candidates would act as a stooge for the party and not actually fight for the well-being of Dalits. Babasaheb's fears were not unfounded; he proceeded to lose the Lok Sabha elections in 1952 and the by-elections in 1954. The Congress deliberately fielded other Dalit candidates to split the Dalit vote and kept him from winning.
To my knowledge and as far as I have read, it is rare if not impossible for an ‘intellectual’ Dalit to win a parliamentary seat in the general category. When Kanshi Ram founded the Bahujan Samaj Party, he himself had to face many defeats before he could get elected to the assembly. Till date, there is no real and vocal Dalit voice in Parliament asking tough questions about their rights. Today, despite having a Dalit President, a majority of the community lives in suffering, confirming Ambedkar's fear.
Gandhi, then a contemporary of Ambedkar was vehemently opposed to this award as he argued that it was only a ploy by the British to deepen the communal divide amongst Indians. It is interesting to note that Gandhi was opposed to only the Scheduled Castes being granted separate electorates and not the other minorities. Eventually, he declared a ‘fast unto death’ to protest against the clause of Dalits being given separate electorates. The British declared that they would take it back only if Ambedkar agreed to it. Conceding to Gandhi's demand would mean depriving the oppressed of the one chance that they had earned to represent themselves, on the contrary, for Gandhi it was his own life. Calling it a dilemma would just be undermining what Ambedkar must have felt then, but the outcome was already decided when the political saint started his fast.
Exactly eighty-eight years ago, on this day in 1932, Ambedkar was coerced into signing the debilitating Poona Pact. A few years later, in 1936, while he was recuperating from this blow, he self-published his undelivered speech, ‘Annihilation of Caste’. In it, he talks of the Roman parliamentary system. The members consisted of the Patriarch (the upper class) and the Proletariat. The Proletariat had a separate electorate to ensure representation. But there was a catch — the members chosen by them were taken to the Oracle of Delphi for her approval. Because of the strong affection of the Oracle towards the Patriarchs, she often rejected worthy and daring candidates. Thus, they were forced to elect a person who was easily influenced. As a result, the condition of the proletariat never improved.
Ambedkar, bitterly disappointed by the Congress and Gandhi's treatment of untouchables, would later write in his book — What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables: “there was nothing noble about the fast, it was a foul and filthy act.”
The hazardous repercussions of the pact are faced by Dalits even today. Political parties continue to field Dalit candidates who would serve the interests of their respective parties and not of the community at large. While people continue to debate the need of reservations in education, many forget that reservation in politics without allowing Dalits to field [nominate] their own candidates is akin to giving a slave the freedom to speak while simultaneously pouring acid in his mouth. While the Dalitbahujans continue to be grossly underrepresented in various government institutions, people continue to call caste 'a myth in modern India’ and question the need for positive discrimination while calling its beneficiaries ‘meritless’. This not only discourages the Bahujans who continue to face discrimination in various forms but also makes them question their own self-worth.
Ambedkar’s words in a speech he made in 1956 — months before his demise — during his conversion to Buddhism are applicable here: Why is there illness in man's body or mind? The reasons are, either there is bodily pain, or there is no energy in the mind. If there is no energy in the mind, then there will be no progress! Why is there no energy there? The first reason is this: man is kept down in such a fashion that he does not get an opportunity to come up, or he has no hope of climbing. At that time, can he be ambitious? He is a diseased person. A man who gets the fruit of his own work will be energetic. Otherwise, in school, if the teacher begins to say, "Hey, who is this? Is this a Mahar? And will this wretched Mahar pass with a first class? Why does he want first class? Stay in your fourth class! To get into first class is Brahmins' work!" —in these circumstances, how can that child be ambitious? What will be his progress? The place of creation of energy is the mind. The person whose body and mind are healthy, who is courageous, who feels that he will overcome all circumstances, in that kind of person energy will be created, and that kind of person alone excels. In the Hindu religion, such an extraordinary philosophy is found in the writings that one can't get any sense of possible achievement at all. If a man is left for a thousand years in poor circumstances, discarded, made hopeless, then at the most they will have no more ambition than to fill their stomachs with a minor job. What else can happen? There must be a big clerk to secure the protection of these little clerks.
[Dishant is a 21 year old undergraduate student studying medicine]