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Our system of elections started in the year 1932, when India went on to create a unique electoral system to elect its representatives. Unlike any of the modern nations, India not only had a social system of treating its own people as untouchables, but ensured representation in legislative bodies for its most oppressed communities of untouchables and tribals through reserved seats. The scheme originally was planned for only ten years in the 1950 Constitution and was extended solely to ensure accelerated development of the untouchables and tribal communities, who even after such unique representation were continuously oppressed. This was probably a way the nation would wash its sins (and the continuing sins) of thousand of years of oppression and alienation. After eight decades of such a system of elections, almost a fourth of Parliament today comprises of the Scheduled Caste (untouchable) and Scheduled Tribe (tribal) members.
This all happened because on August 4, 1932, Dr B.R. Ambedkar secured reserved seats for the untouchables from the British rulers in the run-up to the 1935 Indian Constitution formation. Along with the untouchables, minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians and Europeans also secured reserved seats. But Mahatma Gandhi objected to the representation of untouchables and went on a fast unto death and eventually an agreement, the ‘Poona Pact’ was agreed on, by which Gandhiji ensured a formula whereby an untouchable candidate’s election would be decided by the majority Hindu voters. In such a formula, the untouchable voters have no role to elect their ‘own’ representatives, unlike Muslims and other minorities, who had their own ‘separate’ seats. Before Independence, India had two elections, in 1937 and 1946.
Ambedkar, forced by the fast-unto-death threat of Gandhi to sign the pact in 1932, went on to later analyse the 1937 results when untouchables were elected for the first time in history. Trying to save Gandhi’s life, Ambedkar had said on September 19, 1932: “I however trust the Mahatma will not drive me to the necessity of making a choice between his life and the rights of my people. For I can never consent to deliver my people bound hand and foot to the caste Hindus for generations to come.” But the Mahatma ensured the latter.
In his 1945 magnum opus, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables, Ambedkar commented on the status of untouchable (SC) legislators in a political party: “They were completely under the control of the Congress party executive. They could not ask a question which it did not like. They could not move a resolution which it did not permit. They could not bring in legislation to which it objected. They could not vote as they chose and could not speak what they felt. They were there as dumb driven cattle. One of the objects of obtaining representation in the Legislature for the Untouchables is to enable them to ventilate their grievances and to obtain redress for their wrongs. The (party) successfully and effectively prevented this from happening.” He observed that the political parties chose less qualified SC persons while selecting candidates for election. “And in the case of the Untouchables, those with little or no qualifications were selected in preference to those who had.”
When the new India Constitution was framed after Independence, the same election formula continued and, as feared, untouchables were “bound hand and foot to the caste Hindus for generations to come”. To vitiate it further, at the fag end of 2012, a Scheduled Caste member of Parliament elected from a Scheduled Caste reserved constituency in UP, did something unprecedented. Under the directions of his upper caste-dominated political party, during a Parliament session, he snatched and tore up a legislative bill intending to restore promotions in jobs to Scheduled Castes—a community he belongs to and was elected from.
What made the MP act against the very purpose for which he was elected from a reserved constituency? Well, the anti-defection law under the Tenth schedule of the Constitution in 1985 grants such power to the political parties whereby no member can speak or vote against the party position in Parliament. Political parties have created a fear psychosis over the anti-defection law and further bound elected members to their commands.
The irony is that a political party from Uttar Pradesh—10 of its 22 MPs are from SC-reserved constituencies—employed these very MPs to act in such a deplorable manner. In such a situation, there is no doubt that it’s time the anti-defection law is amended so that its draconian nature does not compel reserved seat legislators to use it against the very purpose for which reserved seats were created by the founding fathers of the Constitution.
(The author is an IAS officer. Views expressed are personal.)