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Ambedkar’s demand for Separate electorate and Reservation in present times

Published: 20th Apr, 2023


On the occasion on Ambedkar Jayanti 2023, the issue of caste and the ideas of political representation for untouchables becomes the key focus.

Ambedkar Jayanti 2023:

  • Ambedkar Jayanti is celebrated in India to commemorate the birth anniversary of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, also known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was an Indian jurist, economist, social reformer and politician and is best known as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution.
  • Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a towering figure in India's struggle for social justice and equality. 

Historical Background:

  • Against the rigid caste structure and raising voice for their rights and representation, B R Ambedkar has made many efforts and he was amongst few people with Gandhi to represent oppressed class issues in political way.
  • The fundamental differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi were highlighted the most during the issue of ‘separate electorates’.
  • In the early 1930s, the issue of separate electorates for lower castes became a source of major debate.
  • So, let us look at the issue of separate electorates which was asked by Dr. Ambedkar and the opposition to it from Gandhi, and how it was eventually ‘rejected in favour of reservations’.

What does separate electorate means?

Separate Electorates are that type of elections in which minorities select their own representatives separately, as opposed to Joint Electorates where people are selected collectively.

Ambedkar’s views on caste:

  • Unlike Gandhi, who advocated for reforming the caste system by abolishing untouchability, Dr Ambedkar held a more radical view which rejected the institution of caste itself.
  • He saw the reformism advocated by contemporary upper caste Hindus as inadequate to undo millennia 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.
  • Thus, Ambedkar’s political programme emphasised on lower castes obtaining political power.
  • He suggested separate electorates as the form of affirmative action to empower lower castes.

Ambedkar’s arguments for separate electorates:

  • He argued during the First round table conference, 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.
  • He also highlighted that 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.

How separate electorate can help depressed classes?

  • According to Ambedkar’s demands, 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.

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 Argument:

  • 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.

Evolution of Reservation:

  • The reservation system that exists today, in its true sense, was introduced in 1933 when British Prime-Minister Ramsay Macdonald presented the ‘Communal Award’.
  • The award made provision for separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and the Dalits.
  • After long negotiations, Gandhi and Ambedkar signed the ‘Poona Pact’, where it was decided that there would be a single Hindu electorate with certain reservations in it.

The Poona Pact:

  • Poona Pact was signed by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi on September 24, 1932, in the Yerwada Central Jail in Pune.
  • The pact is a result of the fusion of two diametrically opposed ideas (Gandhi’s Social Approach and Ambedkar’s Political Approach), with the aim of attaining a shared objective for the upliftment of one of India’s most vulnerable groups of society.
  • Key agreements:
    • As part of a deal he reached with Mahatma Gandhi, Bhimrao Ambedkar agreed to have candidates from the underprivileged class chosen by a joint electorate.
    • In addition, 147 legislative seats—nearly twice as many as the community award—were reserved for the oppressed classes.
    • The Poona Pact also guaranteed that underprivileged groups received fair representation in public services while providing a portion of subsidies for their education to continue their advancement. Higher-class Hindus publicly acknowledged with the Poona Pact that the underprivileged class was the most unfairly treated group in India.
    • Additionally, it was decided that quick, severe action was required to help politically the underprivileged segment of society.
    • The treaty made the entire country ethically answerable for the moral uplift of the lower classes.

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