From Separate Electorate to Caste Reservation: Ambedkar's Ideologies For Uplifting Dalits in India
From Separate Electorate to Caste Reservation: Ambedkar’s Ideologies For Uplifting Dalits in India

CONTEXT: Failure of Revolt of 1857, Failure of Congress Constitutional Policy of Political Mendicancy, Failure of Swadeshi and Boycott Movement 1905, Failure of Militant Nationalism and Revolutionary Activities {1907-1914}, Failure of Home Rule Movement [1916], Failure of Non-Cooperation Movement [1920-1922], failure, failure and failure after failure, but the nationalist struggle for INDEPENDENCE, for SWARAJ, for POLITICAL EMANCIPATION continued…

Though these nationalist movements failed to achieve the desired swarajya for India but within this massive period, it expanded its domain to various microscopic sections of India- from men to women, from old to school-going students, from rich industrialists to poor peasants and mill workers and from Hindus to Muslims. Despite this remarkable growth, the nationalist movement failed to eradicate or even dilute the strict solid caste distinctions between upper-caste Brahmins and lower-caste Dalits.

Caste-Stratification in India (Source-Alamy)
Caste-Stratification in India (Source-Alamy)

According to Hindu Brahminical shastras, Hindus of India since a long time in past had been intrinsically subdivided in terms of caste- Brahams and Kshatriyas generally referred to as upper caste who lie topmost in the social hierarchy; followed by traders and moneylenders (Vaishyas) and; weavers and potters (Shudras). Dalits who existed at the lowest level in the social configuration [called varna system] were brutally maltreated and discriminated by upper sections of society. In such a casteist community, there prevailed untouchability and caste marginalization on an expansive scale that deprived Dalits of basic human necessities, like water, shelter, and denied them accessibility to schools, colleges, public spaces and government offices.

During the late 1910s, the radical free-thinker, jurist and economist Dr B.R. Ambedkar arrived in India who campaigned for the rights of EQUALITY for Dalits and made an incredible contribution in uplifting the socially depressed, economically poor and educationally backward section of Indian social configuration.

This article is a modest attempt to analyze the radical “Ambedkar Ideologies” and his campaigns and Satyagrahas that challenged the intrinsically ruthless Brahmin rule in Indian social matrix within the timeline of 1920-1930 for contextually understanding Ambedkar’s decision for demanding “Separate Electorates for Dalits” in India.


Born in the untouchable Mahar family in Madhya Pradesh on 14 April 1891, Ambedkar had experienced the destructive impacts of social caste-system in his childhood days – neither he could sit inside the classroom nor could he drink water from the public water resource in school and even the village barber refused to cut his hair. Having faced such atrocious treatment at such tender age, he resolved himself to eradicate such excruciating casteist practices from India.

Ambedkar's Achievements (Source: Newsfiction)
Ambedkar’s Achievements (Source: Newsfiction)

Even though he wasn’t treated equally in school, he continued his education and eventually passed his matriculation in 1907 from Elphinstone School. By 1912, he successfully managed to obtain his degrees in Economics and Political Science from Bombay and thereby, making him eligible for employment in the princely state of Baroda. In 1913, the 22-year old Ambedkar was awarded an academic scholarship by Gaekwad of Baroda that empowered him to pursue his post-graduation degree in Columbia University, New York and after its completion, he came to India in 1917.

Bound by his ethical duty to serve Baroda, he accepted the position of Military Secretary in Gaekwad that had been offered to him but he had to quit from it when he couldn’t make any accommodation arrangements for him in casteist social composition. Thereafter, he tried his best to involve himself into various professions but his socially-constructed identity of Mahar continued to be a barrier in his life even though he was educated, capable and talented.  Finally, in 1918, he started tutoring political economy as a professor at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai.


MOOKNAYAK: Distressed by the painful verbal, physical and psychological forms of afflictions inflicted on Dalits, the radical Ambedkar, assisted by Chattarpati Shahu Maharaj, began to openly criticize the orthodox and inhumane practice of untouchability in the 1920-Marathi weekly journal “Mooknayak” { Leaders of Voiceless} where he referred to India as “a home of inequalities“. He explained the socio-economic and cultural plight of Dalits and the humiliations and indignities that were intrinsic in Brahminical-Caste System for awakening them to interrogate the reasons for their sufferings and agitate against it. Thereafter, he had to return to London the same year for completing his D. Sc. in Economics.

BAHASKRIT HITKARNI SABHA: Back in India in 1924, Ambedkar started to work as Barrister in Mumbai and as a part-time professor in Batliboi’s Accountancy Training Institute. Not only this, he laid the foundation of  Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha in 1924 on the principle of “Educate, Organize and Agitate” and this association was primarily concentrated on improving the social and economic conditions of untouchables and depressed classes. It functioned to spread education and culture amongst depressed sections by opening hostels for them and providing them with necessary facilities. It worked to rectify the social problems faced by untouchables by putting forward their grievances to the colonial government.

MAHAD SATYAGRAHA, 1927:  In 1923, the Bombay Legislative Council passed a resolution providing to all classes equal accessibility to all government spaces funded by the public. But in Mahad, when this step was imposed, the savasana caste Hindus protested on a magnified scale. Deeply impacted with this apathetic Brahimincal reaction, Ambedkar realized an urgent need to educate Dalits about their rights in a manner so that they can organize themselves to agitate against such excruciating caste-marginalization. Eventually, Ambedkar delivered the heart-touching speech to sensitize Dalits to claim their rights at Kolaba District in Depressed Classes Conference on 19-20 March 1927, as indicated below in his words: 

The Chavadar Tank in Mahad is public property. We’re going to the tank to assert that we too are a human being like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of EQUALITY. {Ambedkar, in 1927 at Mahad}

Inspired by his words, around 3000 Dalits under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar marched to Chavadar Tank and drank its water to quench their thirst for Equality and this revolutionary action in Indian History is remarked by Dalits as “Declaration of Independence” and is celebrated as “Social Empowerment Day” throughout India.

Though Dalits drank water and Brahmins reacted with severe anger but it couldn’t enable depressed sections to attain their target because the riot broke out as the rumour spread like fire that the protestors will enter to Veereshwar temple. Later, upper-caste Hindus argued that the touch of Dalits had polluted the tank and to purify it, they poured into the tank the mixture of cow-dung, cow piss and milk.

Thereafter, 10000 protestors gathered on 25 December 1927 for Second Mahad Satyagraha when Ambedkar heroically burnt the sacred Brahminical manuscript “Manusmriti” for manifesting their collective resistance against the orthodox teachings that it promotes, like- “The Service of  Brahmins alone is declared to be an excellent occupation for Shudra” and “A woman is not fit for independence, her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards her in youth, her sons in old age.” In Indian history, this day is commemorated throughout the country as “Manusmriti Dahan Din.”

Mahad Satyagraha continues to be relevant even today because the caste-discrimination that seems to be invisible to most of us, has been flourishing in multiple forms in ignominious dark corners of the country.[ refer to Hindustan Times Article, Firstpost article]


 Soon after Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar started writing his journal “Bahiskrit Bharat” i.e. “Outcaste” for socially and politically sensitizing Dalits about their civil rights. It is during this time in 1928, Simon Commission landed in India for reviewing Indian administration and suggesting constitutional reformation which was widely boycotted by masses but Ambedkar, on behalf of all-India Depressed Classes, supported it and sought from it “Safeguards for Protection of Interests of the Depressed Classes as a Minority.

He stressed that Hindus and Dalits should be considered distinct communities and the latter require far greater political protection than any other minority in India and therefore, he demanded separate electorates for depressed classes. However, the Simon Commission’s Report came in 1930 and then it proved to be irrelevant. 

Thereafter, when Lord Birkenhead provided Indians with the golden opportunity to frame their constitution on mutual  consensus, Nehru Committee was drafted which suffered the scathing criticism from Dalits because it asserted- “The problem of untouchability was a social or religious problem and not a political problem.” Reacting to this blatantly hollow statement, Ambedkar wrote in his editorial- “Bahaskrit Bharat”-

If the problems of untouchables is a social problem, is not that of Muslims a social problem? The Muslims too suffered from the consequences of distorted vision of upper caste, in the same way as untouchables… It’s our firm conviction that the Nehru Committee’s Brahminical strategy aims at perpetuating the Hindu social hierarchy in their struggle for political power. [Taken from K.N. Kadam’s “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement” page no.-26] 


Ambedkar demand for Separate Electorates for Dalits (Source: Wikimedia)
Ambedkar demand for Separate Electorates for Dalits (Source: Wikimedia)

Understanding that the springing nationalist movement is Brahminical strategic struggle for political power and realizing that demanding the upliftment of socially depressed sections from nationalists is worthless,  Ambedkar rather demanded it to from the colonial government in Round-Table Conferences in London in 1931.

“We, the Depressed Classes, demand a complete partition between ourselves and the Hindus… We’ve been called Hindus for political purposes, but we’d never been acknowledged socially by the Hindus as their brethren.” [ Taken from K.N. Kadam’s “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement” page no. 33]

In Second Round-Table Conference in 1932, Dr Ambedkar again put forward the demand of separate electorates for depressed classes to the colonial government, by rhetorically highlighting upon the injustices that Dalits had endured in past and by reflecting upon their minor proportion in the total population. Secondly, he also sought the fundamental right for Dalits that declare “untouchability” to be illegal for any public purpose.

It is during this conference in London, Gandhi claimed to represent all major and minor sections of India and rejected the concept of communal award for Dalit by asserting that doing so will disintegrate Dalits from Hindus. Eventually, when Prime Minister MacDonald granted Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for Dalits in India on 17 August 1932, Gandhi declared fast unto death the very next day for stopping this decision in any way and on 8 September 1932, he received a letter from MacDonald that criticized Mahatma’s intentions to safe-distance Dalits from their fundamental and civil rights, as indicated below:

As I understand your attitude, you propose the extreme course of starving yourself.[].. solely to prevent depressed classes, who admittedly suffer terrible disabilities today, from being able to secure a limited number of representatives of their choosing to speak on their behalf in the legislatures which will have a dominating influence over their future. [ Taken from K.N. Kadam’s “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement” page no. 37]

Ambedkar signed Poona Pact
Ambedkar signed Poona Pact

Aware of the ominous Brahminical-lynching on Dalit people that Gandhian demise could bring, Ambedkar compromisingly negotiated with Gandhi in form of Poona Pact under which he managed to get 147 reserved seats in Provincial Legislature and 18% of the total population in Central Legislature for Depressed Classes. Though he wasn’t satisfied with it in any way because “Reservation” could politically empower depressed classes but not socially equate them to Brahmins, but he accepted it to nullify the future violence on Dalits. Later, Ambedkar intended to utilize “Reservation” for establishing social democracy via political democracy but his dream hadn’t yet been achieved or more likely, it had been submerged under the majestic sweep of distorted Indian history.

To conclude, Ambedkar’s real-life struggles against untouchability had significantly impacted his vision and ideologies for emancipating Dalits for this internally hollow and paralytic social order and according to critics, Ambedkar’s political outlook was much nuanced than Gandhi because it was based on holistic socio-economic equality and development, as reflected in the following statement by Eleanor Elliot:

One way of explaining the conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi, perhaps an oversimplification, is to say that Ambedkar saw advancement for the untouchables in the term of using political means to achieve social and economic equality with the highest classes in modern society, while Gandhi held to a traditional concept of the varna system, cleansed of untouchability, in which untouchables would be Shudras and the clean work made honourable.[Dr Eleanor Zelliot in “Learning the Use of Political Means”]


Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.