8888677771 | Why Gandhi opposed caste-based separate electorates

Fasting was one of the most potent weapons in Mahatma Gandhi’s arsenal. He undertook fasts as a form of penance as well as applying pressure to power, harnessing his immense popularity with the masses to make the British acquiesce to his demands.

It was in this week, September 1932, at the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, Gandhi began fasting unto death against the award of separate electorates to harijans. This was an issue Gandhi had been vocal about and which brought him to loggerheads with the tallest leader of lower castes in the country — BR Ambedkar.

The “Gandhi-Ambedkar debate”, as it has since been framed, revolved around either figure’s views on caste and today, Gandhi’s eventual “victory” finds expression in the system of reservations that India has.

We take a look.

Gandhi’s views on caste

In his early days, Gandhi’s views on caste were extremely orthodox: he supported prohibitions on inter-dining and inter-marriage, and held caste to be vital to Hinduism. However, as he became the central figure in India’s national movement, his views evolved, partially due to the nascent Dalit movement.

Gandhi began to preach the gospel of unity and shunned untouchability, referring to untouchables as harijans (children of God). “I do know that it [untouchability] is harmful both to spiritual and national good,” Gandhi wrote in 1936.

However, Gandhi’s criticism of untouchability did not lead to him rejecting the institution of caste itself, which, as Ambedkar put it, would require Gandhi to reject the very basis behind caste — the Hindu religion.

Ambedkar’s views on caste

Ambedkar’s position was far more radical than Gandhi and other upper caste reformers like him. He saw this reformism as inadequate to undo millenia of discrimination. According to him, any revolt against the caste system would only be possible after the oppressed themselves rejected their condition and oppression as being divinely ordained. For Ambedkar, bringing an end to the caste system would only be possible if the divine authority of the shastras (holy scriptures) was rejected first.

Thus, his political programme emphasised on lower castes obtaining political power. “Nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove them unless you get political power in your hands,” he wrote. He suggested separate electorates as the form of affirmative action to empower lower castes.

Ambedkar’s arguments for separate electorates

“The depressed classes form a group by themselves which is distinct and separate … and, although they are included among the Hindus, they in no sense form an integral part of that community,” Ambedkar said during the plenary session of the First Round Table Conference in London. “The Depressed Classes feel that they will get no shred of political power unless the political machinery for the new constitution is of a special make,” he continued.

And what was this political machinery he was talking about? Separate electorates with double vote – one for SCs to vote for an SC candidate and the other for SCs to vote for in the general electorate. While he had previously rejected communal electorates (i.e. separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims), his position changed over time, as he realised that while joint electorates might better help integrate lower castes into the Hindu fold, they would do little to challenge their subservient position.

He felt that the system of unqualified joint electorates “enabled the majority to influence the election of the representatives of the dalits community, and thus disabled them for defending the interests of their oppression against the ‘tyranny of the majority’”.

Gandhi’s opposition

Gandhi’s opposition to separate electorates was ostensibly based on his view that they “do too little” for lower castes. Gandhi argued that rather than being restricted to just this measly share of seats, lower castes should aspire to rule “the kingdom of the whole world”. However, the reality of lower castes’ material and social condition was not likely to put them in a position to rule the world.

Gandhi’s opposition also stemmed from the fear that separate electorates would “destroy Hinduism” by driving a wedge within the community.

This was especially important for two strategic reasons. First, Gandhi rightly understood how the British had exploited internal divisions in Indian society for their own purposes. Separate electorates, according to him, would only help the British ‘divide and rule’.

Second, this was also a time when antagonism between Hindus and Muslims was rising. If separate electorates for lower castes would be announced in addition to those for Muslims, this would significantly reduce the power that caste Hindu leadership enjoyed by breaking the consolidated Hindu fold.

The Yerawada fast and the Poona Pact

Thus, on September 20, 1932, while imprisoned in the Yerawada Jail in Pune, Gandhi began a fast unto death against the British decision to create separate electorates based on caste. “This is a God-given opportunity that has come to me,” Gandhi said from his prison cell, “to offer my life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden”.

This put Ambedkar in a tricky situation. On one hand, he disagreed with Gandhi’s political alternative (i.e. reservations) as he believed that even with reserved seats, upper castes would numerically dominate lower castes, blunting possibilities for more radical social change by determining which lower caste candidate to vote for. On the other, Gandhi was the nation’s most loved political leader, and if something were to happen to him, the fledgling Dalit movement might bear heavy consequences – including the possibility of violence against defenceless Dalits by upper castes.

Thus, with a heavy heart, Ambedkar succumbed to Gandhi’s pressure, inking what would be known as the Poona Pact. The pact secured reservations for lower castes but put the question of separate electorates to bed.

The legacy of the fast

Many have hailed Gandhi’s fast as ensuring that the British did not get to ‘divide and rule’. Poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore said at the time: “it is worth sacrificing precious life for the sake of India’s unity and her integrity.”

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However, this view is not universally shared. For many, the fast was akin to coercion, as Gandhi left Ambedkar no real option but to give in to his demands. As Ambedkar would later ponder: “Why did he not undertake a fast unto death against untouchability?”

Ambedkar was never satisfied with this outcome. He would later write in What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, “The Joint Electorate is from the point of the Hindus to use a familiar phrase a “Rotten Borough” in which the Hindus get the right to nominate an untouchable to set nominally as a representative of the untouchables but really as a tool of the Hindus”.

This is an edited version of an article first published on April 14, 2023.

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