How the political aspirations of Dalits were sidelined at the freedom negotiations

BR Ambedkar had secured “separate political recognition” for Dalits from the British at the Round Table Conference of 1932—an earlier attempt to negotiate India’s constitutional future. This promise fell apart eventually. BRITISH LIBRARY/ALAMY PHOTO
19 July, 2022

In a confidential report, dated 24 April 1942, the governor of Bombay, Roger Lumley, updated the viceroy, Victor Hope—better known as Lord Linlithgow—about public reactions to the Cripps’ proposal. At the time, the Japanese army was making gains on the eastern borders during the Second World War. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, had dispatched the leader of the House of Commons, Stafford Cripps, to get Indian nationalist leaders to support the war. The support was crucial to gain the confidence of Indian soldiers fighting for the British, especially since Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army was helping the Japanese.

The main offer from Cripps in exchange was a promise to let Indians frame their own constitution after the war. But, getting the support of the nationalist leaders meant getting the support of their followers, who were perpetually divided on communal lines. The major communities whose support mattered to the empire were Caste Hindus, Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Sikhs and Christians. While the 206 million Caste Hindus made up a majority of the population, as per the 1941 census, others were officially identified as political or religious minorities. Of them, Muslims and Scheduled Castes—having populations of 92 million and 49 million, respectively—were numerically bigger minorities that would often ally to balance out Caste Hindus in their negotiations with the British. (For various reasons, the population of Scheduled Castes was contested, with some estimates putting the figure up to 60 million)

The Indian National Congress represented Caste Hindus, the Muslim League represented Muslims and both sought to ally with Scheduled Castes (previously known as Depressed Classes) for political gain. But the Congress always projected itself as the sole representative of all Indians, including Muslims and Scheduled Castes. It rejected the Cripps proposal, saying the promises were to be realised “in future.” Cripps gave Muslims the option to draft their own constitution in the future, but the League rejected it for relegating the creation of Pakistan to “the realm of remote possibility.” The proposal contained nothing for Scheduled Castes specifically, or for Sikhs and Christians. The outcome was giving unsolicited equal political space to the League vis à vis the Congress and, in the process, allowing encroachment upon the shares of other minorities. In the following years, the British would focus on convincing only the League and the Congress. There were two other factors that contributed to the political marginalisation of Scheduled Castes during the negotiations: the League’s assertion of Muslims being a nation instead of a minority, and the poor performance of the Scheduled Castes Federation in the provincial elections of 1946.   

Lumley summarised the failed proposal as having produced a “net gain” to the government, except for one exception. “The exception to which I referred is Ambedkar,” Lumley wrote. BR Ambedkar, the founder of the Scheduled Castes Federation, had played a crucial role in obtaining a status of political minority for Dalits. Ambedkar had told Lumley that the Cripps proposal “went back on the August Declaration” and that he felt very “disillusioned” with the government. In August 1940, the British Empire had declared that any “future constitutional scheme” for India would be conditional to the safeguards of the minorities under “any system of government.”

Nevertheless, Lumley summed up Ambedkar’s protest as a “personal matter” and asked the viceroy to not be “unduly” concerned. The governor’s analysis was probably based on the belief that Dalits lacked political consciousness. He said that Ambedkar was “the only individual amongst them who is capable of thinking for them.” In his response to Lumley, Linlithgow was more objective. “I got the impression from various quarters,” he wrote, “that Cripps possibly treated these minorities as we used to call them with insufficient care and that he left on them too definitely the impression that the only people who really mattered were Congress and the Muslim League.” After leaving India, Cripps would admit in a press conference that an agreement with Dalits, Christians and Sikhs to include “some new basis” for a future India would have taken “months or years” and that his immediate task was to secure “the defence of India.”

In a July 1942 press statement, Ambedkar said that the Cripps proposal displayed a “Munich mentality”—referring to the 1938 agreement Britain, France and Italy had made with Nazi Germany—“the essence of which is to save oneself by sacrificing others.” He said the offer to revise the constitution was “intended to win over” the Congress, while the promise of a future Pakistan was meant to appease the League. Ambedkar also explained how the political positioning of Dalits had been downgraded over the last couple of years. In an address to the Federation the same month, he recounted how he began his political career with the “proposition” that Dalits were “not a sub head of Hindus.” He had secured “separate political recognition” for Dalits from the British at the Round Table Conference of 1932—an earlier attempt to negotiate India’s constitutional future. But, after failing at the conference in “defeating the claim of Untouchables to be treated as a distinct element,” Mohandas Gandhi had started a hunger strike. Ambedkar said that Gandhi “unsettled a settled fact” through the strike and that he had to sign the Poona Pact to “save his life.” He asserted that the status of Dalits as a separate element was cemented after the August Declaration.

Ambedkar added that, in the past, Dalits and Muslim had formed solidarity “based on interest of community,” which had now changed “due to change in the vision” of the League. “The Muslim League when it was resuscitated by Mr Jinnah after the 1937 election began with the ideology that the Musalmans were a minority,” he said. However, ever since the Pakistan resolution of 1939, the League “holds that the Muslims are a nation.” According to Ambedkar, this changed the League’s “political alignment” into “Muslims versus Non-Muslims,” and their demand for political parity with the Congress was “against the interest of all Non-Muslims.” He suggested to his followers that they had neither ally nor patronage in politics anymore and they must remain united.

In June 1945, Archibald Wavell, the next viceroy, again invited the leaders, including Ambedkar, to break the deadlock. Wavell suggested the formation of a new executive council—the highest governing body in British India—with all members except the viceroy and commander-in-chief being Indian. The plan gave Muslims and Hindus equal representation. Wavell persuaded Ambedkar to accept two seats for Scheduled Castes against his demand for three. Within a year, in March 1946, the Cabinet Mission—a three-member committee representing the new Labour government in Britain—revised the Wavell plan. They reduced the number of council seats for Scheduled Castes to one.

In July that year, Ambedkar wrote to the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, asking for his “intervention” against the reduction of seats. He also wanted Attlee to declare that Dalits formed a distinct political minority. “Cabinet Mission heaping upon Scheduled Castes one wrong after another, bent on sacrificing them with view appease Congress,” Ambedkar wrote in a telegram. Attlee responded to Ambedkar in August. “The reason why they have revised the policy followed at the Simla Conference of 1945 is, as you suggest, the result of the elections to the Provincial Legislatures,” Attlee wrote, adding that the results did not “substantiate what you say about the achievements of candidates belonging to your Federation.”

The elections, held in December 1945 and January 1946, were crucial since, under the Cabinet Mission plan, the Constituent Assembly was to be made up of members elected by the provincial legislatures. The Assembly was to make the constitution of an Independent India. The League won almost ninety percent of the seats in Muslim-majority provinces, while the Federation performed badly in reserved seats. Muslim legislators were returned through separate electorates, made up exclusively of Muslim voters, but Dalit candidates had lost their separate electorates, thanks to the Poona Pact, and had to contest reserved seats with voters from all castes and religions. Separate electorate is a method of political representation where a particular minority gets elected through votes of only that minority population. Ambedkar tried explaining this to Attlee in another letter and wrote, “all I can say is that you have misunderstood the situation and I am afraid no outsider who does not know the significance of the facts or the method of the election will be able to understand what they mean without proper explanation.” Attlee refused to accept any of Ambedkar’s demands.

The Cabinet Mission had envisioned India as a federation of two unions—a Hindu and a Muslim India—without territorial divisions. The Congress’s objection to the grouping of Muslim provinces eventually led to the League’s withdrawal from the plan. It resulted in the partition of India. Ambedkar chaired the drafting committee of sovereign India’s constitution, but he had few allies in the assembly. Most of his demands on social, economic, political and cultural safeguards for Scheduled Castes were defeated. What Dalits got in the form of reservation was a compromised version.