The Round Table Conferences- what is Emergence of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the Separate Electorate

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T he Simon Commission had submitted the report to the government. The Congress, Muslim league and Hindu Mahasabha had boycotted it. The British regime went ahead with the consideration of the report. But in the absence of consultations with Indian leaders it would have been useless. In order to secure some legitimacy and credibility to the report, the government announced that it would convene a Round Table Conference (RTC) in London with leaders of different shades of Indian opinion. But the Congress decided to boycott it, on the issue of granting independence. Everyone knew, more so the government, that it would be an exercise in futility if the Congress did not participate.

T hus negotiations with Congress were started and the Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed on March 5, 1931. It marked the end of civil disobedience in India. The movement had generated worldwide publicity, and Viceroy Irwin was looking for a way to end it. Gandhi was released from custody in January 1931, and the two men began negotiating the terms of the pact. In the end, Gandhi pledged to give up the satyagraha campaign, and Irwin agreed to release tens of thousands of Indians who had been jailed during the movement.

T hat year Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the Congress. The government agreed to allow people to make salt for their consumption, release political prisoners who had not indulged in violence, and permitted the picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops. The Karachi Congress ratified the Gandhi–Irwin pact. However the Viceroy refused to commute the death sentence of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Gandhi attended the Second RTC but the government was adamant and declined to concede his demands. He returned empty handed and the Congress resolved on renewing the civil disobedience movement. The economic depression had worsened the condition of the people in general and of the peasants in particular. There were peasant protests all over the country. The leftists were in the forefront of the struggles of the workers and peasants. T he government was determined to crush the movement. All key leaders including Nehru, Khan Abdul Gafar Khan and finally Gandhi were all arrested. The Congress was banned. Special laws were enacted to crush the agitations. Over a lakh of protesters were arrested and literature relating to nationalism was also declared illegal and confiscated. It was a reign of terror that was unleashed on the unarmed masses participating in the movement. T he movement started waning and it was officially suspended in May 1933 and withdrawn in May 1934.

Emergence of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the Separate Electorate

Dr. Ambedkar

came to the centre stage of the struggles of the oppressed world in the 1920’s. Born in the then so-called “untouchable” caste called Mahar in Central India as the son of an army man, he was a brilliant student and was the first to matriculate from his community.

Ambedkar’s Academic Accomplishments

Ambedkar joined the Elphinston College, with the help of a scholarship and graduated in 1912. With the help of a scholarship from the Maharaja of Barona he went to United States and secured a post-graduate degree, and doctorate, from the Columbia University. Then he went to London to study law and economics. Ambedkar’s brilliance caught the attention of many. Already in 1916, he had participated in an international conference of Anthropology and presented a research paper on ‘Castes in India’, which was published later in the Indian Antiquary. The British government which was searching for talents among the downtrodden of India invited him to interact with the Southborough or the Franchise Committee which was collecting evidence on the quantum and qualifications to be fixed for the Indian voters. It was in these interactions that Ambedkar f irst spoke about separate electorates. He argued the untouchables be given separate electorates and reserved seats. Under this scheme only untouchables could vote in the constituencies reserved for them. Ambedkar felt that if any untouchable candidate contesting elections were to depend on non-untouchable voters he or she would be more obliged to the latter and would not therefore be in a position to worker at freely for the good of the untouchables. If only untouchable voters were to vote and elect in the reserved seats, those elected would be their real representatives.

Ambedkar’s Activism

Ambedkar launched news journals and organizations. Mook Nayak (leader of the dumb) was the journal to articulate his views and the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha (Association for the welfare of excluded) spearheaded his activities. As a member of the Bombay legislative council he worked tirelessly to secure removal of disabilities imposed on untouchables. He launched the ‘Mahad Satyagraha’ to establish the civic right of the untouchables to public tanks and wells. Ambedkar’s intellectual and public activities drew the attention of all concerned. His intellectual attacks were directed against leaders of the Indian National Congress and the colonial bureaucracy. In the meanwhile the struggle for freedom under Congress and Gandhi’s leadership had reached a decisive phase with their declaration that their objective was to fight for complete independence or ‘Purna Swaraj’.

Ambedkar on Separate

Electorate for “Untouchables” Ambedkar was concerned about the future of “untouchables” and the oppressed in an independent India which was certain to be under the control of Congress under the hegemony of the caste Hindus. He renewed his demand for separate electorates, be it before the All-Parties conference or the Simon commission or at the Round Table Conference. T he Congress and Gandhi were worried that separate electorates for untouchables would further weaken the national movement, as separate electorates to Muslims, Anglo Indians and other special interests had helped the British to successfully pursue its divide and rule policy. Gandhi feared that the separation of untouchables from other Hindus politically would also have its social impact.

A meeting between Gandhi and Ambedkar on this issue of separate electorates before they went to London to attend the Second Round Table Conference ended in failure. There was an encounter between the two again in the RTC about the same issue. It ended in a deadlock and finally the issue was left to be arbitrated by the British Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald. The British government announced in August 1932 what came to be known as the Communal Award. Ambedkar’s demands for separate electorates with reserved seats were conceded.

Poona Pact

Gandhi was deeply upset. He declared that he would resist separate electorates to untouchables ‘with his life’. He went on a fast unto death in the Yervada jail where he was imprisoned. There was enormous pressure on Ambedkar to save Gandhi’s life. Consultations, confabulations, meetings, prayers were held all over and ultimately after a meeting with Gandhi in the jail, the communal award was modified. T he new agreement, between Ambedkar and Gandhians, called the ‘Poona Pact’ was signed.

T he Poona Pact took away separate electorates but guaranteed reserved seats for the untouchables. The provision of reserved seats was incorporated in the constitutional changes which were made. It was also built into the Constitution of independent India.

Ambedkar and Party Politics

Ambedkar launched two political parties. T he first one was the Independent Labour party in 1937 and the second Scheduled Caste Federation in 1942. The colonial government recognizing his struggles and also to balance its support base used the services of Ambedkar. Thus he was made a member of the Defence Advisory Committee in 1942, and a few months later, a minister in the Viceroy’s cabinet. T he crowning recognition of his services to the nation was electing him as the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the independent India’s Constitution. After independence Ambedkar was invited to be a member of the Nehru cabinet.

Summary

Gandhi’s entry into politics, bringing in its wake a new impulse, and his experiment of Satyagraha in peasant movements of Champaran and Kheda and in Ahmedabad mill workers’ strike provided the base for the launch of noncooperation movement. T he shortcomings of Dyarchy, introduced in provinces through the Indian Councils Act of 1919 and the challenges posed by non-brahmin movements to mainstream nationalist politics bothered the Congress during this period. Gandhi’s call for protest on the issues of Khilafat, and Rowlatt Act and as a response the British government’s repressive measures leading to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre prompted the Congress to launch non-cooperation movement.

The withdrawal of non-cooperation movement after Chauri Chaura incident resulted in the birth of a short-lived Swarajist Party that carried on the struggle in the legislatures. The Congress boycotted the Simon Commission and the first Round Table Conference and intensified the struggle by launching civil disobedience movement, in the wake of fruitless outcome of Second Round Table Conference. Gandhi’s Dandi March and Rajaji’s Salt March to Vedaranyam in Tamilnadu succeeded in mobilizing the masses for the nationalist cause. T he emergence of Ambedkar as a leader of the Depressed Classes and his support of separate electorate proclaimed by the British under Communal Award prompted Gandhi to undertake a fast unto death that ended with the signing of Poona Pact.

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