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The Makings of Dalit Political Power

Even in today’s India, dalit politics continues to be shaped by the ideas and struggles of BR Ambedkar against an unjust social system that had its roots in orthodox Hindu caste structures. Raja Sekhar Vundru provides a historical perspective to the emergence of dalits as a distinct political force


AMBEDKAR hailed from a family of military men. His father Ramji Sakpal was a Subedar Major in the British Indian Army. Ambedkar’s maternal grandfather and six uncles were also Subedar Majors in the British force. Subedar Major was the highest post any Indian could rise to in the British Army. The valour, loyalty or spiritual liberation did not break the shackles of centuries of untouchable status for the dalits. The untouchables were treated with unqualified disdain and hatred: physically, socially, economically, spiritually just as the Hindu social order demanded, upon its inhabitants.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, born in a military cantonment in 1891 and received his initial education at a less-stigmatic military environment. In his first exposure to the society, he was treated as an untouchable as brutally as it must be, despite his different military back-ground. As a child, he was denied water, beaten up for drawing some water and could not ride a cart even after he paid for it. Ambedkar later shifted to Bombay and was a city boy where he pursued high school and college education. He won a scholarship to study abroad and was the first ever untouchable to do so.

After his education at the Columbia University, New York in 1916, he was appointed as the Military Secretary in July 1917 to his bene-factor Maharaja of Baroda. The lowest class of officials and peons refused to serve him for his untouchable origin, despite his rank as a military secretary. He was denied accommodation by every lodge and was beaten up for hiding his caste at a Parsi lodge in Baroda. The Columbia-educated Military Secretary of Princely state of Baroda had to go back to Bombay in September 1917 solely for the reason that he couldn’t find a rented accommodation to live.

He went to London with the help of the descendant of Sivaji, the Maharaja of Kolhapur, Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj. He finished studies at the London School of Economics and was called to the Bar in 1923. He was conferred Doctor of Science in Economics in 1923 and had earlier received his Doctor of Philosophy from the Columbia University in 1917. After he returned as one of most erudite and qualified Indians of his times, his untouchability pulled him down. His expertise in finance and markets was useless as no one wanted to do business with his stock brokering firm after they became aware of his dalit origins.

In 1919, Ambedkar made his first political foray by appearing before the Southborough Commission for submitting a plea for untouchable representation and civil rights. He sought universal adult franchise even when Europe was grappling with the same question. He desired representation for dalits as per their population percentage in legislative bodies. Ambedkar’s rise to pre-eminence as a dalit leader came due to his democratic principles, that dalits should be allowed to represent their issues themselves, meaning that they do not need any other community or any non-dalit to represent their problems, by the principle of self-determination. Ambedkar’s consistent position was that instead of leaving the untouchables at the mercy of the higher castes, the wiser policy would be give power to untouchables themselves who are anxious, not like others, to usurp power but only to assert their natural place in the society.

Therefore, he sought political representation for the dalits and sought that such representation be on the basis of population percentage of the dalits. But none of his demands were accepted by the British. His education at the Columbia University and the London School of Economics and his skilful articulation of democratic principles, self-determination and representation in legislative bodies won him many followers, including accolades from none other than the Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj.

In 1920, at the Nagpur Depressed Classes Conference, Ambedkar wrested the initiative and leadership of the dalits from the high-caste leaders of the Congress party, who claimed to be fighting for their cause. He exposed the plans of upper castes of nominating one or two dalit to the legislative assembly by a body of upper caste elected representatives of the assembly.

The policy of gradual opening of legislative bodies in British India to Indians brought forth the issue of integrating Indian society ridden with caste hierarchy and religious minority issues. Muslims through the Minto-Morley reforms and later in 1919 through Montague-Chelmsford reforms secured separate seats with the electoral method of Separate electorate in the Legislative Councils in all the British Provinces. Ambedkar catapulted to greater prominence by repeatedly exposing the regressive mindset of the high-caste leaders of the Congress, who claimed to be reforming the society, including Gandhi, when it came to agreeing to a share in the representation in political bodies.

AROUND the same time, as Ambedkar made his political foray, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—a Gujarati lawyer, who was later called the Father of Independent India, arrived in India from South Africa in 1915 on the invitation of his political mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi by then was known for his struggle for the rights of Indian community for 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi recreated his tested South African formula in India in his initial campaigns for the rights of farmers and textile mill workers in 1917-18 with great success.

His strategy of Satyagraha and non-cooperation were put to test successfully in Kaira in Gujarat and Champaran in Bihar and it brought him two staunch followers in Rajendra Prasad, who became the first President of Independent India and Vallabhbhai Patel, who became the first Deputy Prime Minister of India. Gandhi’s rise to pre-eminence in the leading political party, came when his strategy of non-cooperation was passed to be deployed across India at the Calcutta Special Congress Session in 1920. Before this, Gandhi ensured that his followers passed the resolutions in Provincial Congress Committees of Bihar and Gujarat in favour of non­cooperation.

On September 2, 1920, in the Subjects Committee of the Congress Session, Gandhi proposed a resolution of non-cooperation in the form of boycott of foreign goods and elections to the Legislative Councils after the reforms of 1919. His refusal to attend government functions; gradual boycott of schools, colleges and courts, refusal to serve in the British army in Mesopotamia and surrender of all British titles and honorary offices were some of the methods that Gandhi deployed to broad-base his non-cooperation movement.

MOTILAL Nehru, a prominent lawyer from Allahabad along with the Muslim leader MA Jinnah and others opposed Gandhi’s proposal. Though, Motilal later changed his stance. Gandhi’s resolution was passed by 144-132 votes in the Subjects Committee and in the open Congress Session by 1826-884 votes. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a prominent Hindu leader of the Congress from Benares, who was to later sign the Poona Pact with Ambedkar in 1932, opposed Gandhi’s resolution of non-cooperation at the session. At that time Gandhi’s victory was also ascribed to his endearance of Muslims as a result of his support to Khilafat movement and the support of prominent Muslim leaders like Shaukat Ali and Muslim delegates of this Congress Session.

As the British started opening up legislative bodies to the Indian natives, the issue of untouchability and removal of this scourge became a prominent social and political matter. Among the dalit leaders, Ambedkar singularly rose to prominence by questioning the attitude of the Congress towards the removal of untouchability; the attitude of high-castes to representation of dalits to elected bodies and mainly the attitude of the British government towards the dalits. His tirade against the British on not focusing on 60 million untouchables and leaving them to the vagaries of the Hindus and the Indian social systems brought an attitudinal shift in the British government. He found a major support from the likes of Winston Churchill, who was a great critic of the Indian caste system and supporter of the untouchable cause.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

By 1919, when Gandhi entered the political landscape in India, the electoral system that existed had a limited franchise and the British by then granted reserved seats to the Muslims with the separate electorate method of election since 1909. Gandhi’s idea of non -cooperation rejected the concept of contesting the Legislative Council elections and the Congress did not contest elections of 1920. To the contrary, the dalits under Ambedkar were looking for a political opportunity to claim representation, which they thought would be one of the methods by which they could uplift themselves from their lives of slavery and oppression.

After Gandhi’s arrival, though not through his involvement, Hindus and Muslims entered into a crucial electoral pact called the Luck-now Pact in 1916. The pact had arrived between the Indian National Congress led by Balgangadhar Tilak representing the Hindus and the All-India Muslim League led by M.A. Jinnah on behalf of the Muslims. This was done in the name of Hindu -Muslim unity, but was more of an agreement to electoral sharing of the seats in the Legislative bodies. Primarily, the Hindus and Muslims decided on sharing the elect-ed seats in the legislative bodies between them; prescribing the proportion of Muslim representation and allowed Muslims a separate electorate.

Together they demanded from the British for a higher share of elected seats in provincial legislative councils, seeking at least 80 per cent of elected seats and twenty by nomination. The pact also fixed the percentage of seats to be reserved for Muslims in each of the provinces: Punjab (50 per cent); the United Provinces (30 per cent); Bengal (40 per cent) Bihar and Orissa (25 per cent), the Central Provinces (15 per cent), Madras (15 per cent), Bombay (33.3 per cent), Assam (no provision) and the Central or Imperial Legislative Assembly (33.3 per cent). Muslims got weightage under the Lucknow Pact far greater than they had in 1909.

THIS Lucknow Pact was incorporated into the 1919 Government of India Act. But the most important concession the Muslims and Hindus agreed upon was that if any Bill or a clause or resolution affecting the Muslims should be passed in any provincial Council, it will need the consent of three-fourth of Muslim members in the Assembly. This being the camaraderie between the Muslim and Hindu leaders in the Congress and the Muslim League, Gandhi’s resolution of not contesting election for the Legislative Councils in 1920 perturbed many.

In 1919, Ambedkar made his first political foray by appearing before the Southborough Commission for submitting a plea for untouchable representation and civil rights. He sought universal adult franchise even when Europe was grappling with the same question

Jinnah, who would eventually seek and achieve a separate country for the Muslims called Pakistan in 1947, was side lined in the 1920 Congress Session at Nagpur and left the membership of Congress Party. The Legislative concessions agreed for the Muslims under the Lucknow Pact remained intact and Gandhi never opposed them.

The Constitution of India under the British was to be reformed every 10 years and in 1927, the British Government announced the appointment of Simon Commission for further electoral reforms for native Indians. This process involved consultation with the representatives of political groups and also social organisations. A similar exercise was done in 1917, which resulted in the Montague­ Chelmsford electoral reforms, based on which elections were held in 1920. In anticipation of further reforms, Jinnah organised a meeting of all Muslim parties in Delhi in March 1927 and put forward demands known as Jinnah’s 14 Points.

The demands were similar to the Lucknow Pact: the Central Legislature to have not less than one­ third Muslims members; representation in elected seats through the separate electorate method provided it was open to the community to seek common or joint electorates; adequate share for Muslims in jobs; safeguards for religion, culture among others and at least one-third of the Cabinet should have Muslim ministers.

Simon Commission was truly a turning point in deciding electoral reforms of India. Despite the Congress’ opposition to the Commission, Ambedkar represented through his organisation Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha on behalf of the dalits and Jinnah representing the Muslims, appeared before the Commission and placed their demands for the Constitutional framework and representation of their communities. Several other dalit and Muslim organisations also gave evidence before the Commission.

Opposing the Simon Commission was a decision of the Congress and Gandhi went with the flow of his Party. Gandhi’s stance to the Simon Commission was not very vociferous. Gandhi’s position of non-cooperation to the 1920 elections had a bearing on the way he looked at the Simon Commission as an insignificant event, even though the Commission proposed further electoral reforms. But the Congress galvanised forces and converted the opposition to the Commission into a major political event. ‘Simon Go Back’ was a successful slogan and Congress workers were pitted in front of the buildings where the Commission started meeting various political leaders, including Jinnah and Ambedkar. The latter was dubbed as a British stooge and a traitor for his cooperation with the Simon Commission. Ambedkar, who was nominated as a Depressed Classes member of the Bombay Legislative Council in 1926, was elected to work with the Simon Commission in a Committee of the Bombay Legislative Council in August 1928.

The Simon Commission Report came out in May 1930 and it recommended continuation of separate electorates for minorities. Dalits for the first time were recognised as a distinct political group but were allotted reserved seats with Hindus and with a special provision

Ambedkar in his claim before the Simon Commission sought reserved seats with right to vote for all dalits failing which he sought a separate electorate. Eighteen dalit organisations appeared before the Simon Commission and 16 of them sought separate electorates for dalits. The majority of the Dalit organisations sought political representation as per their population percentage and put across the political stand of the dalits as a minority community and that too with the lowest social status. For the dalits, it very clearly dawned upon that all those persons and organisations who were talking about the removal of untouchability, removal of civil disabilities of access to water and roads and schools were merely paying a lip service. Regarding their political demands, dalits found no supporters. Ambedkar on his behalf emphasised in his statement before the Simon Commission that dalits should be treated “as a distinct and independent minority”.

MEANWHILE, the Congress, which was opposed to the Simon Commission, called an All Parties Conference and appointed a Committee under Motilal Nehru to draft a new Constitution in May 1928. The Nehru Committee invited representatives from all over, including the Sikhs but did not invite any dalit organisations or individuals. Yet, they suggested in the Report, without consulting with any dalit group, that they could be taken care of by special electorates or by nomination. The report finally recommended that these suggestions of special electorates cannot be carried out and only the general ‘Declaration of Rights’ for all the people will be extended to dalits also and that will suffice.

For dalits, the Nehru Report was an eye-opener to realise the stand of all political parties, especially the Congress, regarding the serious-ness with which they dealt with the demands of the dalit electoral aspirations and rise in politics. The report primarily aimed at nullifying the Lucknow Pact in 1916 and discarded the provision of separate electorate for minorities. Jinnah opposed the Nehru Report on this ground. The report also rejected the plea of the Akali Dal and the Central Sikh League for separate representation, which was sanctioned to them for the first time by the Montague-Chelmsford reforms and incorporated in the Government of India Act, 1919. Naturally, the Sikhs also rejected the Nehru Report.

The Simon Commission Report came out in May 1930 and it recommended continuation of separate electorates for minorities. Dalits for the first time were recognised as a distinct political group but were allotted reserved seats with Hindus and with a special provision. Any dalit could contest election only if he was declared fit to do so by the Governor of the State. Ambedkar declared that dalits can-not leave what is good for them to the authority of the Governor and launched a scathing attack on the British government as the costliest government in the world.

Congress naturally rejected the Simon Commission Report as it was not a part of the negotiations. Ironically, the Congress and the national movement originally opposed the Simon Commission for not having a single Indian representation on the Commission. It created its own Nehru Report, which never invited dalits for their opinion. Such partisan behaviour of the Congress gave enough ammunition to Ambedkar to attack those who denied political rights to dalits. The political situation of 1930 paved way for a wider discussion for further constitutional and electoral reforms for a self-governing India through the Round Table Conference. But in August 1930, Ambedkar declared that the dalit movement “will result in emancipation of our people and the establishment of such a state of society in this country of ours in which one man will have one value in all domains of life-political, social and economic.” Definitely by August 1930, dalits declared their political independence and in the next few decades under the leadership of Ambedkar they were seen to attain and sustain their political independence.

After Gandhi’s ascendancy to power in the Congress and Ambedkar’s rise as a leader of dalits in 1920, the following decade saw several significant events until the 1930 Round Table Conference. Gandhi had Muslim leaders in the Congress firmly on his side except for Jinnah, who left the membership of Congress after the Congress Session at Nagpur in 1920. Motilal flip-flopped on his allegiance to Gandhi on the question of contesting the Legislative Council elections in 1920. The Congress Party bowing to Gandhi’s wishes and the non-cooperation resolution did not contest elections. Motilal initially supported Gandhi in the 1920 Calcutta non-cooperation resolution after their discussion and he undertook to win over C.R. Das also. In March 1922, Gandhi was tried for sedition and was sentenced to six years of imprisonment.

Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj
Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj

While Gandhi was in jail, Motilal along with senior leaders of the Congress such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, Vithalbhai Patel and C.R. Das revived the issue of contesting elections and it was promptly opposed by the faction loyal to Gandhi. By then, Motilal had already con-tested the elections of 1920 under the Swaraj Party and became a member of the United Provinces Legislative Council and later in 1923. He was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly (similar to the Central Parliament under the British). After his release from jail due to illness in 1924, Gandhi pacified the warring groups by accepting the proposal to contest the Legislative Council elections as a legitimate political activity of the party. This eventually paved way for the Congress contesting the 1937 elections.

ACCORDING to Gandhi, the 1920 Nagpur Congress Session also passed a resolution for removal of untouchability. But in the next decade, it was Ambedkar who led stirring agitations against untouchability and politically awakened the dalits. After his return from the London School of Economics in March 1923, he started legal practice. He was nominated as a dalit member of the Bombay legislative Council along with his dalit friend Dr. PG Solanki in December 1926. In July 1924, he established the Bahishkrit Hitakarni Sabha (Organisation for the welfare of the excluded) and eventually took up two agitations. First was about the rights of dalits to draw water from a common drinking water pond in Mahad in 1927 and the other was the entry of dalits in a temple, the Kalaram temple in Nasik.

Mahad municipality in a resolution threw open the drinking water tank to all the people in 1923, but no untouchable was allowed to draw water. During a dalit conference at Mahad on March 20, 1927, Ambedkar along with a large number of followers decided to draw and drink from the tank as matter of right and did so. Following this, riots broke out in the Mahad town injuring several dalits. The next day, Brahmins performed religious rites to purify the water “polluted” by Ambedkar and his followers. Dalits under Ambedkar’s leadership, assembled again in Mahad town on December 25, 1927, to claim their rights on water. On December, 12, 1927, the upper castes of Mahad filed a case in a local court against dalit rights to draw water and obtained an injunction prohibiting dalits from doing so. Keeping in view the Court orders, Ambedkar did not press agitation but burnt a copy of Manusmriti, the codified law of caste system of the Hindus. Dalits took the Mahad struggle as the beginning of their political awakening.

In 1929, a four-month agitation led by the dalits of Poona inspired by Ambedkar tried to enter into Parvati temple, but failed. This attempt was criticised by Gandhi and also in a report of the Congress’ anti-untouchability Sub-committee, submitted by Madan Mohan Malaviya and a Marwari businessman from Wardha, Jamanalal Bajaj. Gandhi, on his part, supported Vaikom temple agitation in Kerala initiated by dalits and a few other castes and negotiated in Vaikom with the temple administrators in March 1925, but failed to get to the public roads around the temple opened. Ambedkar, under his leadership attempted to enter Kalaram temple in Nasik in 1930 and was injured in an attack by the upper castes. This agitation went on till1935 only to prove a point by Ambedkar that neither Gandhi nor the Congress were serious about removal of untouchability. The breach between Gandhi’s Congress and the dalits widened.

The non-Brahmin movement in Western India in the Bombay Province included today’s parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka was founded by Jotirao Phule (1827-90). His writings and his movement sought social justice and equality in a society dominated politically and culturally by the Brahmins

Non-Brahmin Movement

The preponderance of Brahmin caste persons in jobs and politics swayed a non-brahmin movement in 1916 in the Madras presidency are-as. In Madras, 3.1 per cent of Brahmins occupied 88 per cent (and never less than fifty per cent) of all the jobs in the government. The Madras presidency non-Brahmin movement lead by the Justice Party and others was successful under the 1919 reforms in securing re-served seats for non-Brahmins. The Government appointed Lord Meston to arbitrate on the seats to be reserved for non-Brahmin. He heard the Brahmin and non-Brahmin groups and rejected the plea of the non-Brahmin to put a limit on the seats in which Brahmins could contest. The Meston Award granted only 28 seats out of 98 elected seats despite a plea by non-Brahmins that they were seven-ninth of the population.

THE Justice Party won the November 1920 Council elections with an overwhelming majority by winning 68 seats and formed the Government. Out of the 98 seats, non-Brahmins had 28; Muslims 13; Indian Christians 5 and European and Anglo-Indians had 6. There were no seats reserved for dalits. The Government nominated five dalits to the Council, including MC Rajah, an adi-dravida (dalit) leader from Madras, who later became the first dalit member of the Central Legislative assembly in 1926. The non-Brahmin movement resulted in the Dravidian movement later in Tamil Nadu. The parties professing non-Brahmin Dravidian ideologies are in power in the state of Tamil Nadu even today.

The non-Brahmin movement in Western India in the Bombay Province included today’s parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka was founded by Jotirao Phule (1827-90). His writings and his movement sought social justice and equality in a society dominated politically and culturally by the Brahmins. He had the greatest influence in shaping the politics of Western India. He founded the Satyashodhak Samaj (truth seekers society) in 1873.

This movement influenced Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, Maharaja of Kolhapur and a direct descendent of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Shahu Maharaj was mistreated by the Brahmins as a low-caste shudra at a ritual earlier. The Samaj peaked between 1910-30 and lead the non-Brahmin movement and opened its doors to dalits. Ambedkar always considered Phule as his guru. The political movement initiated by Ambedkar in 1920s had the support of Shahu Maharaj and the leaders of the non-Brahmin movement. This helped to create a congenial atmosphere and support for Ambedkar to emerge as an undisputed leader of dalits and provided space for creating a special identity for dalits in their political struggle.

The non­ Brahmins themselves in 1920s were looking for a voice in the Legislative Councils and they also sought reserved seats under the 1919 reforms. This resulted in seven reserved seats to ‘Marathas’ and 13 other similar castes in 1920. The western India and southern India non­ Brahmin movements were closely coordinated through efforts by Shahu Maharaj and the Raja of Panagal in Tamil Nadu. The Marathas rose from the non-Brahmin movement and held power in the state of Maharashtra and continued to rule the political scenario and power. If today in the Legislative Assemblies, there were reserved seats for non-Brahmins, it would have been similar to a proposal for reserved seats of the Backward Castes. Such an arrangement exists in Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies along with one-third reserved seats for women.

Struggle for Representation

The legislative bodies under the British evolved in the electoral representation over a period of time by not only giving space to Muslims to start with, but also to other minorities such as Indian Christians, Anglo Indians and eventually to the Sikhs under the 1919 reforms. The Indian National Congress under Lucknow Pact, 1916 agreed for reserved seats with separate electorates for Muslims and also allowed re-served seats for Muslims even in those Provinces where Muslims were in majority. The 1916 agreement between the Indian National Congress and Muslims was accepted by the British Government and was made part of the Government of India Act, 1919. This situation was well-settled until Gandhi arrived on the Indian political scene in 1920. But Gandhi unsettled all those in the Congress aspiring to contest 1920 elections by pushing his non-cooperation plan, which included not contesting 1920 elections. The elections of 1920 gave opportunities to various groups under the unequal society, which India created over the centuries.

Sustained struggle, which was started by Dalits for civil rights in the colonial set up, demanding access to water, roads, education, jobs and for the removal of disabilities imposed by centuries of untouchability, continued, and ignited dalits to fight for their rights. The nation-al movement demanded a high moral ground from its leadership and the dalits always questioned the national movement leaders as to what they had done for the removal of untouchability and remove the centuries of disabilities imposed upon them by the Hindu social or-der.

MORE importantly, the success of the dalit political struggle lies in the fact that they were recognised as a separate element by the Muslim movement, the non-Brahmin movement and by the caste-Hindu organisations. This got a final stamp on the Indian polity in the Government of India Act 1919, where the Act recognised untouchables as a political class by appointing them to the Legislative Councils, albeit as nominated members. The nominated dalit members were in all 10, in British Provinces of Bombay, Madras, Bengal, United Provinces, Bihar and Orissa and Central Provinces. Specifically, Ambedkar in Bombay and MC Rajah in Madras were successful in raising issues about the plight of the untouchables with the government.

These nominated members were able to showcase as to how representation in legislative bodies could bring in such a sweeping change to ameliorate the wretched condition of untouchables. This unified the aspirations of dalits of 1930s in seeking a political status which they displayed by supporting and consolidating Ambedkar’s leadership across the length and breadth of India during the Round Table Conference in London in1931 vis-a­ vis Gandhi.

(The writer is a 1990 batch IAS officer of Haryana Cadre. He holds a PhD on Ambedkar’s ideas from the National Law School, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal)

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