Reviews

Voting rights for all: On differences over reserved constituencies

Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System Raja Sekhar Vundru Bloomsbury ₹499  

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was a rarity in our polity. He had to fight against heavy odds, being a Dalit, and facing poverty, humiliation, social deprivation and other forms of injustice and segregation. He fought his way up on the ladder of politics and gave himself a good education both in India and abroad. He got a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a D.Sc. from the London School of Economics, the first Dalit to do so. During his stay in the U.S., he observed the living conditions of African-Americans in Harlem. He realised there was a similarity between untouchables in India and the blacks in the U.S., but that untouchability was “far worse than slavery.”

Ambedkar vs Gandhi

When Ambedkar became a staunch defender of Dalit rights, he had to contend against Mahatma Gandhi whose views on Hindu society were at variance with his. Gandhi had an overarching view of Hinduism and pleaded that it was the duty of those in the Hindu fold to safeguard interests of all its members, including Dalits. It was a clash between two values which led to a political malaise over the reservation issue for years until it was resolved after Independence with the adoption of the Constitution, which Ambedkar helped draw up. Sadly, during his lifetime, neither his intellectual rigour nor political sagacity received recognition.

In recent years, Dalit scholars like Narendra Yadav, Anand Telumbde and Gail Omvedt have tried to make amends. In his detailed narrative, which was in the works for 15 years, Raja Sekhar Vundru deals with an important aspect of Ambedkar’s life — his role in devising our electoral system.

Decades after Mandalisation and reservation conceded by successive governments, it seems unbelievable that there were such lengthy debates and differences, including mistrust, over the issue. As part of constitutional reforms, the British were keen to bring about adequate representation to different religions and groups in the legislatures at the Centre and in the States and broker a deal. There were three Round Table Conferences held in London —Ambedkar attended all the meetings while Gandhi attended only the second. Vundru meticulously records the developments both in formal and informal sessions. There were often open, verbal clashes between Ambedkar and Gandhi.

In all the rounds, Ambedkar objected to any move which would leave out the depressed classes from any representative government. He went on to add, “The settlement of our problem must be a part of the general political settlement and must not be left over to the shifting sands of sympathy and goodwill of the rulers of the future.” Gandhi, on his part, said, “I am against political separation of untouchables from Hindus. That would be absolutely suicidal.” As Vundru writes, “it was a fight to the finish in which Gandhi lost the first round in London.”

The clash over Dalits

What surprised Ambedkar was that even as Gandhi and Congress had agreed to minority (Muslim) representation in the Lucknow Pact, they were unwilling to concede the same claim to Dalits. There is evidence to show that Gandhi lobbied with other groups to prevent their support for separate Dalit reservation and he failed. When Gandhi went on a fast-unto-death, he was in prison, and negotiations shifted to Yerwada Jail in Pune. After six days, the Poona Pact was signed. Chapter Four of the book discusses the Pact, which accepted the continuance of the system of representation of depressed classes by reserved seats “until determined by mutual agreement between both the communities concerned in the settlement,” i.e. the untouchables and Hindus. For Ambedkar, it was a compromise. Possibly, he signed it to save a precious life.

However, as Vundru says, “Ambedkar never stopped claiming the separate electorate method, which he lost in the Poona Pact bargain, till his last.” In his later writings, Ambedkar exposed the working of the representative system based on the Poona Pact and how the joint electorates failed to serve the Dalits’ interests. His attacks on the Congress Party, especially Gandhi, were bitter.

After Independence and with the formation of the Constituent Assembly to frame our Constitution, Ambedkar had a second life. He was the only Dalit member and 30 other Untouchable members of the Congress Party could not be counted upon to fight for Dalits’ cause. In the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar was isolated and threatened to walk out. He did not attend the meetings for three or four days. It was then that the Congress members agreed, rather grudgingly, to reservation for untouchables with the proviso that it would be only for 10 years. It is another story that it is being extended decennially.

There was another fight over universal franchise. Ambedkar stood for it as a fundamental right. However, the Congress led by Sardar Patel did not agree. Ambedkar’s legal acumen could not win the final battle; it was agreed to include adult franchise in the Constitution though not as a fundamental right.

There are many other significant developments and debates covered in this book. What Vundru has achieved is to restore the status of Ambedkar, his contributions to our electoral system and his unswerving commitment to Dalits’ rights. He does this without being judgemental about Gandhi which is rare among Dalit scholars.

Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System; Raja Sekhar Vundru, Bloomsbury, ₹499.

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