'Caste first' elections: Is it time to revisit Ambedkar's idea of separate electorates for Dalits?

The 'caste first' story is repeating itself in the vast political battlefields of UP, MP, West Bengal, AP, TN, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat -- states that command more than 300 of the 540 Lok Sabha seats.
Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)
Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)

It is a cacophony of castes that's leading the dance of political democracy in the campaigning for the 2024 general elections across the 29 states and eight Union territories.

In Bihar, for example, when the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) announced its list of Lok Sabha candidates it was simply a case of 'caste first': there were 10 candidates out of 17 belonging to the upper castes; Janata Dal (United) led by the mercurial Nitish Kumar had 16 candidates with his typical bouquet of caste-mix: Bhumihars, OBC, EBC (Economically Backward Class), Mahadalit and Muslim candidates. The Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) has five seats carefully distributed among its own Paswan family and trusted loyal lieutenants as they vie for Dalit and Muslim votes.

The 'caste first' story is repeating itself in the vast political battlefields of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat -- major states that command more than 300 of the 540 Lok Sabha seats.

Andhra Pradesh, for example, with 25 seats at stake has been the electoral playground of two powerful castes: the Kammas and Reddys. They have conveniently shared political power over the last five decades. Now when the Bahujan Samaj Party picks up the gauntlet to challenge the status quo, it seems like a voice in the wilderness. Undoubtedly, the Bahujans are in a majority; their population is higher in number but their representation in the legislatures is pathetically low. One leader quipped, "We witness democracy for the caste and by the caste!"

Tamil Nadu, the land of Periyar and social welfarism, has witnessed the empowerment of a sea of castes: the Vellalars, Chettiyars, Mudhaliyars, Naidus, Gounders, Nadars, Yadavas, Thevars and Vanniyars have organised themselves to assert their political strength.

Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)
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The genius and curse of caste as Ambedkar saw it

As the nation commemorates the 133rd birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, constantly hailing him as 'Father of Indian Constitution', his writings on 'the curse of caste' are relevant and important in today’s aspirational India.

Moreover, his stringent determined campaign for ‘separate electorates’ is worth revisiting now when the Muslims have been ‘invisibilised’ and the Dalits are little better than pawns in a complex chessboard of today’s political democracy.

"Caste can exist only in the plural number," Ambedkar said, (Chapter 19, Volume 5 'Writings and Speeches, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar').

"Caste to be real can exist only by disintegrating a group. The genius of caste is to divide and to disintegrate. It is also the curse of caste. Few, however, realize how great this curse of caste is. It is therefore necessary to illustrate the vastness of this curse by reference to the disintegration brought about by caste," he wrote, focusing on the example of Maharashtra Brahmins who are divided into 25 castes and further sub-castes.

Similar is the case with the Saraswata Brahmins, Kanyakubja Brahmins, Gauda Brahmins, Utkala Brahmins and the Maithila Brahmins. Through the enumeration, Ambedkar showed how the Brahmins themselves have been overwhelmed by "what I call the curse of caste".

Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)
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50 million Untouchables, yet a denial of their existence

With the might of the British Raj at its peak, Ambedkar began his quest for social democracy and 'separate electorates' when he posed a big and basic question.

"What is the total population of the Untouchables of India? For the Census of India taken in 1931 gives it as 50 million. That this is the population of the Untouchables had been found by the Census Commissioner of 1911 and confirmed by Census Commissioner of 1921 and by the Simon Commission in 1929. This fact was never challenged by any Hindu during the twenty years it stood on the record,” he wrote in From millions to fractions (in Book 3 of Volume 5 ‘Writings and Speeches, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’).

It was in 1932 when the political scene erupted over Untouchables, or the Depressed Classes as Ambedkar referred to them.

The Lothian Committee, appointed in consequence of the recommendations made by the Franchise Sub-Committee of the Indian Round Table Conference in 1931, came to India and began its investigation. The future architect of the Indian Constitution was a member of the Indian Franchise Committee, and he wrote, “the Hindus adopted a challenging mood and refused to accept this figure (of 50 million) as the correct one. In some provinces the Hindus went to the length of denying that there were any Untouchables there at all. This episode reveals the mentality of the Hindus and as such deserves to be told in some detail."

Before accepting membership of the Indian Franchise Committee, Ambedkar had stipulated that the decision of the question - whether the Untouchables should have joint or separate electorates - should not form part of the terms of reference to the Committee. This was accepted and the question was excluded from the purview of the Indian Franchise Committee.

“I had therefore no fear of being out voted on this issue in the Committee -- a strategy for which the Hindu Members of the Committee did not forgive me. But there arose another problem of which I had not the faintest idea. I mean the problem of numbers… Strange as it may appear the issue of numbers was fought out most bitterly and acrimoniously before the Indian Franchise Committee. Witness after witness came forward to deny the existence of the Untouchables. It was an astounding phenomenon with which I was confronted," he revealed.

Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)
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The demand for separate electorates

Ambedkar had demanded that his community (the Dalits) be treated as a distinct minority when he presented his evidence before the Simon Commission in 1928.

These were his exact words: "The first thing I would like to submit is that we claim that we must be treated as a distinct minority, separate from the Hindu community. Our minority character has been hitherto concealed by our inclusion in the Hindu community, but as a matter of fact there is really no link between the depressed classes and the Hindu community."

"Secondly, I should like to submit that the depressed classes minority needs far greater political protection than any other minority in British India," he explained, "for the simple reason that it is educationally very backward, that it is economically poor, socially enslaved, and suffers from certain grave political disabilities, from which no other community suffers. Then I would submit that, as a matter of demand for our political protection, we claim representation on the same basis as the Mahomedan minority. We claim reserved seats if accompanied by an adult franchise."

Ambedkar was clear that he would ask for separate electorates if there was no adult franchise.

"Further, we would like to have certain safeguards either in the Constitution, if it is possible, or else in the way of advice in the instrument to the Governor regarding the education of the depressed classes and their entry into the public services," said Babasaheb, with an eye on the future.

BR Ambedkar(L) and Mahatma Gandhi
BR Ambedkar(L) and Mahatma Gandhi

The 1932 Gandhi-Ambedkar standoff

Why did 1932 become a flashpoint between the Congress leaders and Ambedkar leading the charge of the Depressed Classes?

Ambedkar is forthright in his explanation: "Up to 1932, the Untouchables had no political importance. Although they were outside the pale of Hindu Society which recognizes only four classes namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, yet for political purposes they were reckoned as part of the Hindu Society. So that for political purposes such as representation in the Legislature etc., the question of the population of the Untouchables was of no consequence."

Moreover, the Minorities Sub-Committee of the Indian Round Table Conference had accepted the principle that under the new Constitution the depressed classes should be given representation in all Legislatures in proportion to their population. It is thus that the population of the Untouchables became a subject of importance.

Between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, the disagreements and arguments rose in tenor to become chargesheets and political statements publicly circulated in India and England.

Gandhiji had consistently said that he was opposing the claims of the Depressed Classes for separate representation for he did not want the Hindu Community to be subjected to vivisection or dissection.

In 1932, Gandhiji had to face an equally powerful counter-charge carried in Writing and Speeches, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: "Attempts are being made to show that Gandhiji and the Congress alone represent the Depressed Classes by presenting addresses through a handful of hirelings and dupes. Is it not our duty to demonstrate the fact by coming out in thousands and proclaiming the truth? This is our chargesheet against Gandhiji and the Congress."

Find echoes of it in the politics of today?

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist)

Dr BR Ambedkar. (File)
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