July 25, 2020
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Bhimrao’s Sharp Arrow

Anticipating majoritarianism’s danger, Ambedkar advocated safeguards for Dalits

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Bhimrao’s Sharp Arrow
Bhimrao’s Sharp Arrow

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar always feared that the Hindus, specifically the caste Hindus, whom he often addressed with the cold appellation—Touchables—would gang up communally, pose as a political majority, and run away with what he called the ‘title deeds’ of democ­racy. The usage of this heaped category that lumps close to 65 per cent of the subcontinent’s population (52 per cent obcs plus the rest of the privileged dwija/twice-born communities), problematic though it is, indicates a shift from an earlier, more nuanced position Ambedkar held in 1931. That was when he saw the various jatis belonging to the four varnas—Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, Brahmin—as “a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a des­cen­ding scale of contempt”, a system he believed “gives no scope for the growth of that sentiment of equality and fraternity so essential for a democratic form of government”.

A lot had changed from 1931 to 1945, but Ambedkar was still smarting from the defeat inflicted on him by the blackmail fast his principal adversary, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, undertook in Poona in 1932. Till the success at the Round Table Conference in 1931, Ambedkar was coasting along. With the Mahad Satyagraha (1927) and stellar performances in the Bombay Legislative Council behind him, he had come to be seen as the distinctive voice of the Untouchables. He consistently argued that the Untouchables should not be clubbed with Touchable Hindus. This position—echoed previously by Panditar Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), the radical Tamil Buddhist thinker—was first articu­lated by Ambedkar during his submission to the Southborough Franchise Commis­sion in 1919, where he submitted that the Untouchables formed “a separate element in India’s social life”, and hence were a social minority. Chandra Bhan Prasad, in one of his 2003 Dalit Diary columns, said: “That was Ambedkar’s first political statement.”

After eight years, when Ambedkar led 3,000 Dalits to drink water from a tank in Mahad maintained with public funds, and thus establish “the norm of equality”, the obduracy of the caste Hindus and Gandhi’s conspicuous silence on the thirst of the Untouchables for equality made him arrive at a conclusion historians of the Left, Right, Congress and Subaltern Studies have refused to acknowledge: “The satyagraha movement started by Gandhi was backed by the people as it was against foreign domination. Our struggle is against the mass of caste Hindus and naturally we have little support from outside.” All his life, Ambedkar identified the Hindus (which translated into the Brahmin-Baniya Congress) as the principal adversaries of Dalits in the social and political field.

Despite all efforts to keep him out of the Constituent Assembly, Jogendranath Mandal got him elected.

Yet, Ambedkar convinced the British to accept the fact that Untouchables deserved separate electorates and the double vote. This was granted by the Communal Award of August 16, 1932. What did this entail? The Scheduled Castes were to have their own electorates and exclusi­vely choose their representati­ves. Additi­onally, they would have a second vote—to choose who among the Tou­chables would be the least inimical to them. Untouchables, regarded habitually by Touchables as lesser humans unfit for association, needed such protection if they were to be treated as equal. Democ­racy, premised on ‘one person one vote’, needed to be modified to suit the subcontinental context composed of multiple minorities. Ambedkar was making an immense moral demand of the Hindus: for the crime of practising untouchability over centuries, Hindus will not be allo­wed to vote for Untou­chables for 10 years. But the Scheduled Castes will have a say in choosing who among the Hindus could possibly be their friend. This was a modest price he was seeking of Touchables who owed an unrepayable debt for generations of slavery and dehumanisation of 15 per cent of the population whose very shadow they were afraid of.

After Gandhi stymied this scheme, Ambedkar faced one electoral humili­ation after another. He found it impossible to get self-respecting, independent Dalits into legislatures. Several times, his own defeat was inevitable. In fact, his election to the Constituent Assembly required a miracle.

Padma-award-friendly court historians and Films Division-style propaganda by the likes of Shyam Benegal (his Sam­vidhan series for Doordarshan) would have us believe that it was at Gandhi’s benevolent and large-hearted suggestion that Ambedkar was made chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution. The truth is every effort was made to ensure that Ambedkar did not even enter the Constituent Assembly. In the 1946 elections to the provincial assemblies, Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation suffered crushing defeats. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system led to only pliable Dalits—‘Harijans’—being elected from reserved constituencies. In the July 1946 elections to the Constituent Assembly, then Bombay prime minister B.G. Kherat engineered Ambed­kar’s defeat at Vallabhbhai Patel’s behest. Jogendra­nath Mandal, SCF leader from Bengal, stepped in to get Ambedkar elected to the Constituent Assembly from Bengal where Mandal had forged an alliance with the Muslim League.

Lasting legacy Dalits in Mumbai on his 51st death anniversary

It was at this juncture that, unsure of his place and role in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar prepared a memorandum in March 1947: States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India. This ‘Constitution of the United States of India’ offe­red a unique solution so that a communal majority did not wear the garb of political majority. The minorities—Muslims, Dalits or Sikhs—if they were not to be “crushed and overwhel­med by the communal majority”—ought to have greater representation in a legislative body than their actual share in the population.

Had Ambedkar’s formula been accepted, we wouldn’t have had the aberration of a party with 31% voteshare winning.

States and Minorities echoed Ambedkar’s presidential address to the SCF in 1945, where he said: “In India, the majority is not a political majority. In India, the majority is born; it is not made. That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority.” He offered a prescient formula to thwart the communal majority from claiming a political majority. In the Central Assembly, the Hindus, who form 54.68 per cent of the population, should get 40 per cent representation; Muslims with 28.5 per cent should get 32 per cent; Scheduled Castes with their 14.3 per cent should get 20 per cent; 1.16 per cent Indian Christians 3 per cent; 1.49 per cent Sikhs 4 per cent; and 0.05 per cent Anglo-Indians 1 per cent. In Bombay, the Hindus, who are 76.42 per cent of the population, should get 40 per cent representation in the legislature; Muslims, 9.98 per cent of the population, 28 per cent; 9.64 per cent Scheduled Castes, 28 per cent, and so on. The minorities must get representation positively disproportionate to their ratio in population while for the majority community it is capped at 40 per cent. That is, less should have more, and more should have less. Where Hindus were outnumbered, like in pre-partition Punjab, Muslims comprising 57.06 per cent would get 40 per cent representation; Hindus at 22.17 per cent, 28 per cent, and so forth. This formula could well have even prevented Partition.

This is because Ambedkar believed “majority rule is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice. A majority community may be conceded a relative majority of representation but it can never claim an absolute majority”. In Thoughts on Linguistic States (1955), he says, “It would be enough to have plural member constituencies (of two or three) with cumulative voting in place of the system of single-member constituency embodied in the present Constitution.”

Had the FPTP system been modified according to Ambed­kar’s formula, we would not have had the gross statistical aberration in the 2014 general election: with just 31 per cent of the total voteshare (not the share of the total population), the BJP won 282 Lok Sabha seats. No party ever has won so many seats with so less a voteshare. The Hindus have ganged up communally. In the 2007 Gujarat election, Muslims at 9 per cent of the population could elect only five MLAs (2.7 per cent) to the 182-member assembly. In 2012, only two got elected. For 25 years now, Gandhi’s Gujarat has not elected a single Muslim to the Lok Sabha. The ‘Gujarat model’ Ambe­dkar feared is now being experimented with in Uttar Pradesh. Caste has found a perfect fit with parliamentary democracy.

Had Ambedkar had his way, someone like Narendra Modi would have found it difficult to get elected even to a pancha­yat. And we would not have had Amit Shah’s mug staring at us from every hoarding in the capital.

(Anand is publisher, Navayana.)

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