In the current climate of Dalit assertion that has the potential to frustrate the BJP’s dreams of regaining power in 2019, it is relevant to revisit the era when the Dalits asserted their clout in Indian politics for the first time but were stymied by Mahatma Gandhi. This happened under the charismatic B.R. Ambedkar in the 1920s and 1930s and almost succeeded in gaining separate representation for the “Depressed Classes”, as they were euphemistically termed in British legalese, in the central and provincial legislatures. It is equally important to speculate what it would have done to the Hindu-Muslim equation, and therefore the prospect of Partition, if Ambedkar had succeeded in reaching his goal. This article attempts to answer this question.
The politics of the Muslim elite — and all politics in the run-up to Indian independence was elite politics — was driven primarily by a sense of deep insecurity. This tendency was accentuated when it became increasingly clear from the 1920s that the British would have to leave India sooner or later. The Muslim sense of insecurity was rooted in many factors relating to history, demography, lack of progress in English education and, probably most importantly, the shift of the centre of gravity of Indian politics from the heartland of northern and central India, where much of the Muslim elite, the ashraf, were concentrated, to Calcutta, Madras and Bombay and their hinterlands dominated by the new English-educated, predominantly Hindu elite.
Partition was the outcome in substantial part of this insecurity although other factors, including aggressive forms of Hindu nationalism advocated by the likes of V.D. Savarkar, K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar contributed to it in considerable measure as well. The soft Hindutva of many stalwarts within the Congress, including BalGangadharTilak, LalaLajpatRai and Vallabhbhai Patel, added to Muslim concerns, as did Jawaharlal Nehru’s disdain for what he termed the Muslim League’s “communal politics”.
The Muslim elite’s anxieties were centred largely on the demographic and, therefore, political disparity between Muslims and Hindus and the domination of India’s political and economic landscapes by the upper caste Hindu elite.
Political parity between caste Hindus and Muslims, therefore, remained the primary goal of the Muslim League through much of its existence as a political party.
A landmark announcement in 1932 by British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald came close to removing these anxieties. He accepted Ambedkar’s demand that it was necessary for the “Depressed Classes” to have separate representation in the central and provincial legislatures in order to protect their interests which ran counter to the interests of the dominant Hindu castes who also hogged most of the seats in the legislatures. This was the case because elections in British India were held under a very restricted franchise based primarily on property, income and educational qualifications. Only about 13% of the population had the right to vote. The Dalits lagged far behind caste Hindus in all the three qualifications that determined the right to vote and, therefore, were not only under-represented but also represented by members of those castes that were opposed to according equality to them.
The British Prime Minister accepted Ambedkar’s arguments and awarded separate electorates to the Depressed Classes on lines similar to those for Muslims. The Muslim League, recognising the import of this decision in that it had the potential to weaken the caste Hindu leadership’s hold on the entirety of the Hindu population, readily accepted the award. However, to everyone’s consternation, Mahatma Gandhi, who was seen as a leading advocate for Dalit rights, went on a fast unto death to persuade the British to repeal the award. To him, the award was a ploy to divide Hindu society that he found unacceptable. Initially, Ambedkar refused to bend to Gandhi’s coercive fast.
However, when it became clear that Gandhi’s life depended on Ambedkar’s decision, Ambedkar was forced to give up his demand in return for reserved seats for Dalits but on the basis of a single Hindu electorate. Years later, Ambedkar came to bitterly regret his decision.
Equally, if not more important, Gandhi’s extreme reaction to the award of separate electorates to the Dalits convinced the Muslim elite that Gandhi and the Congress were bent on not giving Muslims their due share in the future political arrangement in India. Their reasoning was simple: if implemented, the Communal Award, as it was known, would have led to parity between caste Hindu and Muslim representatives in the legislatures, and the Dalits, who the Muslim elite did not find threatening and who they saw as potential allies against caste Hindus because of the common fear of upper caste domination, would have held the balance. This would have precluded the need for demanding Partition and in all probability kept India united.
This argument sounds plausible because for most of the 1940s Pakistan was but a bargaining counter for Jinnah and the Muslim League. This is why Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, which would have kept India united in the form of a loose federation, but which Nehru torpedoed. With the failure of this last-ditch British effort to keep India united, Jinnah was hoisted with his own petard and forced to accept what he called a “mutilated, moth-eaten Pakistan.”
It appears in hindsight that Mahatma Gandhi’s stance on the Communal Award — even more than Nehru’s refusal to enter into a coalition with the Muslim League in the United Provinces in 1937, which is widely seen as the turning point in Muslim politics in favour of separatism — was responsible for increasing the Muslim leaders’ distrust of the Congress that made Pakistan an attractive option for them. One could plausibly argue that Gandhi’s rejection of the Communal Award sent the message to the Muslim leadership that he and the Congress were more interested in promoting a monolithic Hindu bloc than in nurturing Hindu-Muslim unity or providing justice for the Dalits in the form demanded by Ambedkar. This increased their sense of insecurity and finally led to the demand for a separate state comprising the Muslim majority provinces of British India. The rest is history.