Separate communal electorate was one of the issues of contestation between M.K. Gandhi and Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar. Against the grant of ‘communal award’ for ex-untouchables, or Dalits, on 4 August 1932, Gandhi decided to fast unto death in the Yerwada Central Jail, as a result of which the Poona Pact was signed on 24 September, and the provision of reserved seats for SC/STs in state assemblies and parliament evolved. Ambedkar had, on multiple occasions, vociferously criticised Gandhi for his fast against the separate electorate. He even wrote two seminal manuscripts — ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables’ and ‘Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables’ — which contained his meticulous criticism of Gandhi. Ambedkarite politics still criticises Gandhi for opposing communal/separate electorate.
But Ambedkar’s position on the issue of separate electorate wasn’t always the same. He had severely criticised the provision in a memorandum submitted to the Simon Commission on behalf of the Depressed Classes Institute, Bombay. I analyse Ambedkar’s principal objections to the communal electorate, his earlier scheme of representation and possible causes for the change in his position on the method of representation.
Ambedkar’s arguments against communal electorate
Although Ambedkar had argued for communal representation since his appearance before the Franchise (Southborough) Committee 1918-1919, he had raised serious objections to the communal electorate being the best method to achieve representation. During that time, the Muslim League was the main advocatory of the communal electorate. Ambedkar had scrutinised five main propositions of the Muslim League on which demands for the communal electorate had been echoed, and exposed their inherent limitations.
- The Muslim League argued that the communal electorate had arrested the growth of discontent and ill-feeling among Muslims, but according to Ambedkar, the communal electorate had not only failed in mitigating communal disturbances but also might have helped in aggravating them. “The communal electorate do tend to the intensification of communal feeling and that they do make the leaders of the two communities feel no responsibility towards each other, with the result that instead of leading their people to peace, they are obliged to follow the momentary passions of the crowd.”
- The Muslim League had claimed that Muslims being a separate community had separate interests, which could only be protected through a separate electorate. But according to Ambedkar, all communities have only secular and religious interests — the former is common in all communities whereas the latter creates distinction. “The existence of separate interests of the Mohammedan community is therefore a myth. What exists is not separate interests but special concern in certain matters…the separate or special interests of any minority are better promoted by the system of general electorates and reserved seats than by separate electorates. It will be granted that injury to any interest is, in the main, caused by the existence of irresponsible extremists.”
- Ambedkar argued against the separate electorate on the grounds of its inherent potential of making any community a permanent minority. He supported the system of joint electorates because he thought a minority community might get a larger advantage under joint electorates than it would under the system of separate electorates. “With separate electorates, the minority gets its own quota of representation and no more. The rest of the house owes no allegiance to it and is therefore not influenced by the desire to meet the wishes of the minority. The minority is thus thrown on its own resources and as no system of representation can convert a minority into a majority, it is bound to be overwhelmed. On the other hand, under a system of joint electorates and reserved seats the minority not only gets its quota of representation but something more. For, every member of the majority who has partly succeeded on the strength of the votes of the minority if not a member of the minority, will certainly be a member for the minority”.
- Ambedkar also believed that communal electorate violated the ‘doctrine of consent’. He said that (Muslim) representatives elected from the separate electorate would also be legislating in the affairs of other communities, whom they did not represent because the latter have not voted for them.
- The Muslim League had also argued that since Muslims are less in number in constituencies, there could be a possibility of dilution of their electoral strength by non-Muslims through communal polarisation in the mixed electorate. It was further alleged that such representatives would be weak, and instead of being true representatives of Muslims, they would be a puppet in the hands of non-Muslim communities. Ambedkar refuted this proposition on the ground that there would be multiple candidates within non-Muslim communities, so there would be less possibility of mass action (polarisation) against Muslim candidates. He said the fear of Muslims of any mass action against their candidates by non-Muslim voters was nothing but a hallucination.
Ambedkar’s idea of representation
Appearing before the Simon Commission, Ambedkar had proposed that there should be adult suffrage, which means voting rights should be decided on the basis of age rather than wealth, status and education. He said, (1) If adult suffrage is granted, there shall be territorial representation except in the case of the Muslims, the Depressed Classes, and the Anglo-Indians. (II) If the franchise continues to be restricted, all representation shall be territorial except in the case of the Muslims, the Depressed Classes, the Anglo-Indians, the Marathas and the allied castes and labour. (III) Special representation shall be by general electorates and reserved seats, and of labour by electorate made up of registered trade unions. During the cross-examination by the Simon Commission, he argued that if adult suffrage is granted, then there should be a mixed electorate with reserved seats, and if adult suffrage is not granted, then the Depressed Classes should be given representation like Muslims.
Shift in Ambedkar’s stance
Ambedkar changed his earlier position on the method of representation in the Round Table Conferences (1930-32). Along with Muslims, Sikhs and others, he agreed on the separate communal electorate for ex-untouchables. This change was strategic rather than voluntary, since his idea of universal adult suffrage had been rejected by the representatives of the Muslim League, princely states and others. The British government, too, was reluctant to grant universal adult suffrage to India.
Arvind Kumar (@arvind_kumar__) is a PhD scholar of political science at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway (@royalholloway), University of London, UK. Views are personal.
This article is part of the Dalit History Month 2021 series. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)