Ambedkar’s proposal can check India’s majoritarian problem

Courtesy Ajay Tallam/Flickr
19 August, 2022

In March 1915, Antony MacDonnell, a member of the viceroy’s executive council—the apex governing body in British India—reiterated his objection, first expressed during the debates over the Indian Councils Act of 1909, to having one member of the council represent all Indians. “It would not be possible to find any single Indian gentleman who would be accepted as representative by the Indian peoples owing to their ever present hostility which, open or beneath the surface, pervades the two great creeds in India, Mahomedans and Hindus,” he told the council. He said such a policy would not “command confidence” from either of the communities. In pre-independent India, much of the turf war was understood as being played out between these two communities.

In 1935, a constitutional reform identified Scheduled Castes as a political minority, a constituency distinct from Hindus, and guaranteed their representation in the legislature. Until then, Muslims, Sikhs and Indian Christians had these safeguards. On 8 May, RA Butler, the undersecretary of state for India, told the House of Commons that communal representation was the best possible way to make India a self-governing nation. Butler denied that the government was operating under the principle of “divide and rule,” noting that it had unsuccessfully tried to build consensus on the question among Indian leaders at the two Round Table Conferences before announcing the communal award. 

In August 1947, the Constituent Assembly decided to retain the provision of communal representation, with a few changes, from the Government of India Act, 1935. In May 1949, however, the assembly overturned its previous decision due to the changed circumstances in Punjab and Bengal but kept the constitutional safeguards for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and, in future, for socially and educationally backward classes. This has been an important feature of constitutional reforms for a century. Although the reserved representation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the legislatures has been largely symbolic over the decades, minorities are being politically and culturally marginalised even further since the Narendra Modi government came to power. I use the word “symbolic” because minority representatives have often been elected on the majority parties’ tickets and have been dependent upon the majority community’s votes. After Independence, Scheduled Castes also lost their status of being a political minority.

In such a time, it becomes imperative to revisit BR Ambedkar’s political proposal published in May 1945. The proposal—presented, in a speech titled “Communal Deadlock and A Way to Solve It,” at a session of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation—laid out the vision of a united India, in which representation in legislatures and executives would be determined by population but capped at forty percent for any one community. If the majority community in a polity made up more than forty percent of the population, the excess seats would be distributed among minority communities “in inverse proportion to their social standing, economic position and educational condition.” The arithmetic of representation allowed the possibility that if all minorities joined together, they could throw off the majority population from power. It was not meant to be only against Caste Hindus, since Muslims made up the majority in provinces such as Sind or Bengal.

Communal representation had been a part of the colonial constitution for four decades. Ambedkar’s proposal, too, suggested representation on the communal basis, treating Scheduled Castes as a minority. But, since our Constitution now grants representation to religious minorities in jobs and services on a class basis, Ambedkar’s proposal can also be implemented using the same basis for them. The proposal also fixes the problem of symbolic representation by suggesting a method of separate electorates—a voting system in which religious or political minorities elect their own legislators with only their votes.

Since “the danger of communal discrimination by majority against minorities forms an ever-present menace to the minorities,” Ambedkar said, “the executive power assumes far greater importance than legislative power.” He proposed that the representation of Hindus, Muslims and Scheduled Castes in the executive “should be equal to the quantum of their representation in the legislature.” For numerically smaller minorities, such as Sikhs and Christians, he suggested the reservation of “one or two seats in the cabinet.” The executive, he said, should “have its mandate not only from the majority but also from the minorities in the legislature.”

Ambedkar said that a system that allowed a political party that had won an election to form a government “on the presumption that it has the confidence of the majority is untenable in Indian conditions.” Majority rule, he said, “is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice. A majority community may be conceded a relative majority of representation but it can never claim an absolute majority.” As he explained, in a section of the lecture addressing the concerns of Hindus,

In India the majority is born; it is not made. That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority. A political majority is not a fixed or a permanent majority. It is a majority which is always made, unmade and remade. A communal majority is a permanent majority fixed in its attitude. One can destroy it, but one cannot transform it.

He had suggested that “the prime minister and the cabinet members from the majority communities should be elected by the whole House [all legislative members] by a single transferable vote.” Single transferable vote is an electoral method in which voters give preference to all the candidates in order of their liking instead of casting one vote to one candidate. Ambedkar proposed that cabinet members from minority communities should be elected by “a single transferable vote” only from that community in the legislature.

In the legislatures, Ambedkar proposed a method of separate electorates for minority members. He believed that only the separate electorate gave “an absolute guarantee to the minority, that its representative will be no others except those who enjoy its confidence.” Alternatively, he suggested that minority members could be elected through a joint electorate if a minimum percentage of their community were able to vote. Ambedkar did not care for just a symbolic representation of  minorities but wanted to see “real” representation.

Ambedkar laid out some principles to guard against majority rule when it came to seat distribution. “The relative majority of representation given to a majority community in the legislature should not be so large as to enable the majority to establish its rule with the help of the smallest minorities,” he said. Further, “a combination of the majority and one of the major minorities should not give the combine such a majority as to make them impervious to the interest of the minorities.” He added that the “distribution should be so made that if all the minorities combine they could, without depending on the majority, form a government of their own.”

Ambedkar also proposed the representation of all political and religious minorities in public services, which independent India’s Constitution also ensured, although on a caste and class basis. He believed the “doctrine of democracy” demanded that “government must be with the consent of the governed.” He advocated for “the rule of unanimity” over that of the majority for legislative decisions, proposing that any law related to a minority community must be passed with a three-fourths majority that includes at least fifty percent of the community’s votes. If we go by this principle, any bill passed in parliament that affected the Muslim community in the recent past should have had the assent of a majority of Muslim MPs.

The only drawback of the proposal can be said to be its exclusion of tribal communities. Ambedkar explained this by suggesting that these communities were not politically organised and “may easily become mere instruments in the hands of a majority” if given representation. He instead suggested the appointment of a statutory commission for their administration. His assumption may now appear regressive. Tribal areas always remained outside the executive structure of British rule. In the Constituent Assembly, however, Ambedkar made a case for their autonomy, arguing that their laws of inheritance, marriage and customs were different from those of Hindus. 

Ambedkar published his proposal ahead of the viceroy’s meeting hoping that either the Congress or the Muslim League would consider it. The meeting was happening against the backdrop of a communal deadlock in talks since 1942. The League wanted parity in representation for Muslims with Hindus in the legislature and executive, while the Congress wanted to decide all minorities’ issues through a constituent assembly. The one-upmanship between them had politically marginalised non-Muslim minorities. The Congress rejected Ambedkar’s proposal. After Independence, Ambedkar submitted his ideas before the minorities subcommittee of the Constituent Assembly, but almost all of them were defeated. The All-India Scheduled Castes Federation, which performed badly in the provincial elections of 1946, had few allies in the assembly to back his plan.