Poona Pact: A Reappraisal

Special on Poona Pact Day on 24th September

Poona Pact Ambedkar

Caste is considered the cornerstone of Indian Hindu society. In this structure of hierarchical inequality, the untouchables were at the bottom and were officially called ‘Depressed Classes’ till 1935. Gandhiji had rewarded him with the name of ‘Harijan’ which was not accepted by most of the Untouchables. Now they have chosen the name ‘Dalit’ for themselves which is indicative of their downtrodden status. Currently, they constitute about one-sixth (16.20%) of the total population of India and one-fifth (20.13%) of the total Hindu population. The Untouchables have been deprived of all types of social, religious, economic, and educational rights in Hindu society for centuries and to a large extent they are so even today.

Dalits have been facing many types of deprivations and disabilities. They have a long history of struggle to get equal status in Hindu society and politics. When Shri. E.S. Montague, Secretary of State for India, made this important announcement in Parliament in 1917 ‘”The aim of the British Government is to give Dominion States to India, so the Dalits held two meetings in Bombay and presented their demand letter to the Viceroy and the visiting Secretary of State for India. As a result, the lower castes got an opportunity to present their problems in various provinces to the touring commission in advance of the Indian constitutional reforms of 1919.

Thereafter, a long and complex series of various commissions, conferences and councils took place. The Montague Chelmsford Report in 1918 was followed by the Muddiman Committee Report in 1924, which talked about the extremely low representation of the Depressed Classes in the counsels and measures to increase it. The Simon Commission (1928) accepted that the Depressed Classes should be given adequate representation. From 1930 to 1932, three Round Table Conferences were held in London in which the right of Dalits along with other minorities to cast their vote in the making of the future Constitution of India was recognised. This was a historic and decisive event. In these Round Table Conferences due to the effective representation and forceful presentation of Dalits by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Rao Bahadur R. Srinivasan, Dalits got the independent political right of separate electorate in the ‘Prime Minister’s Award’ announced by the British Government on August 17, 1932. With this award, Dalits got the right to elect their own representatives through separate electorates on reserved seats and got the right to two votes to elect upper caste people in general caste constituencies. Thus, for the first time in the history of India, the Untouchables got the right to political freedom which could pave the way for their liberation.

By the said award, based on the recognition given to Dalits as a minority under the Government of India Act, 1919, along with other minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo Indians, and some others, they could get their representatives to the provincial legislatures and the Central Assembly in the form of separate electorates. They got the right to choose for themselves and the number of seats was fixed for all of them. In this, 78 seats were reserved as special constituencies for the Untouchables.

After the announcement of the said award, Gandhiji announced a fast unto death from September 20, 1932, in Yerwada (Poona) jail on August 18, 1932, in protest the right to separate elections for Dalits. Gandhiji believed due to this the untouchables would be separated from the Hindu society which would disintegrate the Hindu society and Hindu religion. It is known that he had no opposition to the same rights given to Muslims, Sikhs and Anglo-Indians. Taking note of this apprehension, Gandhiji sent a letter to the then British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald on August 18, 1932, appealing to abolish the separate electorate rights given to the Dalits decide for a joint electorate and save the Hindu society from disintegration n. In response to this, the British Prime Minister wrote in his letter dated September 8, 1932, “Under the plan of the British Government, the Depressed Classes will remain a part of the Hindu society and they will vote equally in Hindu electorates, but such a system will not be implemented for the first time. This will continue for twenty years and despite being a part of the Hindu society, there will be a limited number of special constituencies for them so that their rights and interests can be protected. In the present situation, it has become necessary to do so. Wherever there will be special constituencies, there will be special constituencies for general Hindus. The Dalits will not be deprived of voting in the general constituencies. Thus, the Dalits will have the right to two votes – one for their member in the special constituency and the other for the general members of the Hindu community. We have deliberately omitted what you call the communal election.: Dalit caste voters will be able to vote for the upper caste candidate in general Hindu constituencies and upper caste Hindu voters will be able to vote for the Dalit caste candidate in his constituency. In this way, the unity of the Hindu society has been preserved.” After giving some other arguments, he requested Gandhiji to leave the fast unto death.

But Gandhiji, in response, considered fasting unto death as his sacred religion and said that merely giving double voting rights to the Depressed Classes cannot prevent them and the Hindu society from disintegrating. He further said, “In my understanding, making arrangements for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes is an injection to destroy the Hindu religion. This will not benefit the Depressed Classes.” Gandhiji had also given similar arguments in the second and third Round Table Conferences, in response to which Dr. Ambedkar rejected Gandhiji’s claim of being the sole representative and well-wisher of the Dalits and asked him not to oppose the political rights of the Dalits. He had also said that at present the Dalits are only demanding independent political rights and not for creating a separate country separate from the Hindus. But Gandhiji had a selfish interest in protecting the interests of the upper caste Hindus and keeping the Untouchables as slaves of the Hindu society. This was the reason why, denying all the facts and arguments, he started a fast unto death on September 20, 1932, against the right to separate electorates for the Untouchables. This was a critical situation. On one side there was a huge powerful Hindu community in Favor of Gandhiji, on the other side Dr. Ambedkar and the Untouchable community. Ultimately, due to immense pressure and fear of possible genocide of the Untouchables and with the aim of saving Gandhiji’s life, Dr. Ambedkar and his colleagues had to sacrifice the right to separate electorate for the Dalits and sign the so-called Poona Pact with the upper caste Hindus on September 24, 1932. In this way, the Untouchables had to lose their right to political freedom due to Gandhiji’s stubbornness.

Although according to the Poona Pact, the number of seats reserved for Dalits in the ‘Prime Minister’s Award’ was increased from 78 to 151, but due to joint electorates, they were deprived of the right to choose their own representatives, the consequences of which are still being suffered by the Dalit community till date. The first elections were held in 1937 by including the provisions of the Poona Pact in the Government of India Act, 1935, in which, despite Gandhiji’s assurance to the Dalit representatives that Congress would not interfere, Congress captured 78 out of 151 seats. Because in the joint electoral system, Dalits again became dependent on upper caste votes. Disgusted with this deceit of Gandhiji and Congress, Dr. Ambedkar had said, “Dalits have been cheated a lot in the Poona Pact.”

The independent political existence of the Dalits could have been secured due to the dependence of the upper caste Hindus on the Dalits by allowing the untouchables to elect their own representatives in the form of separate elections through the Prime Minister’s Award and by having the right to double vote, but the compulsion of making the Poona Pact forced the Dalits to again Made the upper caste Hindus slaves. Through this system, the MPs or MLAs who are elected on reserved seats are not actually elected by the Dalits but by the political parties and the upper castes, who have to live as their slaves/bondsmen. All political parties keep strict control over such representatives with slave mentality and do not allow them to raise or speak on any Dalit issue beyond the party line. This is the reason why the position of Dalit representatives in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies is like Bhishma Pitamah of Mahabharata, who when asked, “When Draupadi was being disrobed in the court of Kauravas, why did you not speak?” To this his reply was, “I have eaten the salt of the Kauravas.” (Bhagwan Das)

In fact, the Prime Minister’s Award gave Dalits independent political rights, enabling them to choose their own representatives and become their voice. Besides this, due to the right to double vote, the upper caste Hindus also depend on them in the general constituencies and do not dare to anger the Dalits. This could have created a new equation in the Hindu society which would have paved the way for Dalit liberation. But Gandhiji violated the political freedom of Dalits by making false claims of disintegration of Hindu society and Hindu religion and by adopting the unethical tactic of fasting unto death, due to which Dalits again became political slaves of the upper castes. In fact, Gandhiji’s move was political to a great extent, which is also clear from what he later said to Sardar Patel on one occasion:

“I am horrified by the consequences of a separate electorate for the Untouchables. Despite separate electorate rights for the other classes, I will still have scope for bargaining with them, but I will have no means of bargaining with the Untouchables. They do not know that a separate electorate will divide the Hindus so much that it will result in bloodshed. The Untouchable goons will join the Muslim goons and kill the Hindus. Does the British government have no idea of this? I don’t think so.” (Mahadev Desai, Diary, page 301, Ist volume).

From this t statement of Gandhiji, you can guess the real purpose of Gandhiji to force the Untouchables to sign the Poona Pact.

Due to the joint electorate system of Dalits and their dependence on upper-caste Hindus, no political party of Dalits can flourish, even if it is the Republican Party of India (RPI) founded by Dr. Ambedkar. For this reason, Dr. Ambedkar also had to face defeat in elections twice because the upper caste vote is decisive on reserved seats. For this reason, upper-caste parties win most of the reserved seats. It was because of these ill effects of the Poona Pact that Dr. Ambedkar had said that political reservation in the Constitution should be continued only for 10 years. But various political parties have been extending it continuously for 10-10 years till now, not in the interest of Dalits but for their own selfishness because this gives them the facility to elect their favourite and enslaved Dalit MPs and MLAs.

The upper caste Hindu political parties buy the Dalit leaders and the Dalit parties become weak and disintegrate. This is the reason why the Bahujan Samaj Party, the so-called Dalit party in North India, is also following the Brahmins and Baniyas and is forced to accept slogans like “It is Ganesh, not elephant, it is Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh”. Now it has transformed from Bahujan to Sarvajan. Due to these circumstances, Dalits have suffered a lot and have become political slaves of the upper castes. Therefore, in this context, it would be appropriate to review the appropriateness of the Poona Pact. Should Dalits think of raising the demand for separate electorates again?

Although the terms of the Poona Pact included the abolition of untouchability, reservation in government services and provision of budget for the education of Dalits, the condition of their implementation remains pathetic even after 75 years of independence. Dr. Ambedkar, while expressing his apprehensions in a large meeting of upper caste Hindus in Bombay on September 25, 1932, called for the approval of the Poona Pact, and said, “We have only one concern. Will the future generations of Hindus agree to this agreement? Will you comply?” On this, all the upper caste Hindus said in one voice, “Yes, we will.” Dr. Ambedkar also said, “We see that unfortunately, the Hindu community is not a united group but a federation of different communities. I hope and trust that you, on your part, will consider this accord sacred and will act in an honourable spirit.” Do the upper caste Hindus today know a little about faithfully implementing this agreement made by their ancestors with the Dalits? There should be introspection. If they see their own harm in implementing this agreement honestly, then should they not return the political rights of separate electorates to the Dalits?

Now, since there is no possibility of restoration of a separate electorate in the present circumstances, Dalits should take their politics out of caste politics and adopt politics of issues. Along with this, instead of voting for someone only based on caste, one should vote to keep in mind the work done by that person in the interest of the Dalit class. Dalits will also have to be free from hero worship, about which Babasaheb had fully cautioned. Instead of political isolation, Dalits should join hands with democratic, secular and progressive forces. They should remember that liberation for all lies in the liberation of Dalits.

S. R. Darapuri, National President, All India People’s Front

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