Indians live on the principles of equality, democracy, liberty, fraternity and socialism, taught to us by our Indian Constitution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lockdown extension announcement coincided with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 129th birth anniversary. Dr Ambedkar is rightly recognised as the modern Buddha of his age. This title was given to him by Mahant Veer Chandramani, the great Buddhist monk who initiated Babasaheb to Buddhism. PM Modi invoked the dreams and legacy of the “architect of the Indian constitution”, saying, “I am well aware of the problems you have faced – some for food, some for movement from place to place, and others for staying away from homes and families. However, for the sake of your country, you are fulfilling your duties like a disciplined soldier. This is the power of ‘We, the People of India’ that our Constitution talks about.”
The Poona Pact and a coercive fast by Mahatma Gandhi:
- Three Roundtable Conferences were held between 1930 and 1932 by the British Government to discuss constitutional reforms in India, with the ever-growing demands of self-rule.
- Dr Ambedkar had proposed the idea for a separate electorate for Dalits and untouchables in the first conference, which the Congress boycotted. After the Gandhi-Irwin pact, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was appointed the only representative of the Congress at the second conference. He vehemently opposed the idea of a separate electorate.
- It is important at this point to make the distinction between separate electorate and reserved constituency clear.
- The Award of 1932 was built on the notion of separate electorates that the British government had already put in place through the Morley-Minto Reforms (1909) and the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (1919).
- Separate Electorate: The community to which the electorate belongs would choose their own leaders via an election in which the candidates of only their community would be allowed to contest and only their community members would vote.
- This would mean that the elections for choosing the leaders of that particular community would be held separately and would not come under general elections.
- In 1932, the British announced the formation of separate electorates for the ‘Depressed Classes’ in the Communal Award. Gandhi was in for a toss. He decided to fast unto death to overturn the decision.
How Poona Pact helped to conjure the Constitution:
In late September 1932, B.R. Ambedkar negotiated the Poona Pact with Mahatma Gandhi. The background to the Poona Pact was the Communal Award of August 1932, which, among other things, reserved 71 seats in the central legislature for the depressed classes. Gandhi, who was opposed to the Communal Award, saw it as a British attempt to split Hindus, and began a fast unto death to have it repealed.
Fair representation in the form of a Joint Electorate:
- According to Ambedkar, the caste question is a political issue and wanted a political solution for upliftment of depressed classes.
- Ambedkar insisted that a political democracy was meaningless if the so-called depressed classes were not equal participants in it.
- According to Gandhi caste issue is a social one. He wanted to reform it by changing the hearts and minds of people.
- Ambedkar was in favour of annihilation of the caste system as it was beyond reforms.
- Gandhi did not support the abolition of the caste system or Varnashrama order. He was in favour of bringing behavioural change in the society regarding the ills of the caste system.
- In a settlement negotiated with Gandhi, Ambedkar agreed for depressed class candidates to be elected by a joint electorate.
- However, on his insistence, slightly over twice as many seats (147) were reserved for the depressed classes in the legislature than what had been allotted under the Communal Award.
- In addition, the Poona Pact assured a fair representation of the depressed classes in the public services while earmarking a portion of the educational grant for their uplift.
Positive outcomes of the Poona Pact:
The Poona Pact was an emphatic acceptance by upper-class Hindus that the depressed classes constituted the most discriminated sections of Hindu society. It was also conceded that something concrete had to be done to give them a political voice as well as a leg-up to lift them from a backwardness they could not otherwise overcome. The concessions agreed to in the Poona Pact were precursors to the world’s largest affirmative programme launched much later in independent India. A slew of measures were initiated later to uplift Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Despite what Ambedkar had achieved for the depressed classes through the Poona Pact, there were carpers. The Poona Pact had several positive outcomes for Ambedkar. It emphatically sealed his leadership of the depressed classes across India. He made the entire country, morally responsible for the uplift of the depressed classes. Most of all he succeeded in making the depressed classes a formidable political force for the first time in history. In the Draft Constitution Dr. Ambedkar prescribed single citizenship, a single judiciary and uniformity in fundamental Laws to integrate Indian society which was not only divided into caste and class, but also into regions, religions, languages, traditions and cultures. Therefore, a strong Centre was indispensable to maintain territorial integrity and administrative discipline.
The Poona Pact has changed the Indian Political history and the destiny of millions of Dalits across the country. On the 129th year of his birth on April 14 this year, we would do well to remember Ambedkar as much for the Poona Pact as we do for the Constitution he helped conjure. Without the former, the latter would never have been. However, social stigma attached to the caste system still remains in the Indian society. Therefore, in order to establish an egalitarian society in true sense, Gandhian Philosophy and Ambedkar’s notion of Social Democracy is much more relevant than ever before. One hopes that those in power, those who embody the nation state, stop providing lip service to this dalit intellectual by trying to co-opt him in status quoist narratives. And yes, he is not just the “Architect of the Indian constitution”.