The Indian National Congress (Congress), of which Mr. Mohandas Gandhi headed for most of his political career, never supported fair political representation for Dalits. The party formed in 1885 and not one president brought up social reform from 1895 to 1917. Generally, Congressmen believed that working on social problems distracted from making India free of British Rule. Social reform could be carried out by individuals or community organizations. In 1917, Congress began its program for social reform. Ambedkar accuses the Congress of only making this resolution to counter the depressed classes’ loyalty pledge to the British government.
On November 11, 1917, representatives of depressed classes met in Bombay to pass a resolution on how their freedom was a prerequisite for the independence of India. British India must first pursue a serious program to improve the economic, social, and political position of the depressed classes before they would support independence. The resolution had even more pronounced importance because His Majesty’s government had accepted a policy to make India independent gradually. Often the British government acted as arbitrators between the depressed classes and Hindus.
At the time, there were two competing schemes for the Independence of India. The first was the “Scheme of Nineteen” put forth by 19 elected members of the Imperial Legislative Council. This scheme had more support by the British government. The counter plan was “The Congress League Scheme”. The Congressmen wanted a more aggressive approach to independence marked by the ratification of a constitution. The All-Muslim League had recently supported the Congress League Scheme. Now that the depressed classes came into opposition, Congress could not claim the overwhelming majority of Indians supported their plan.
Britain first mandated the independence of India in the Government of India Act of 1919, which mandated in ten years a commission to investigate creating a constitution of India. The Royal Commission was formed in 1928 and headed by Sir John Simon. Sir Simon did not believe the Commission should include Indians. The Congressmen protested and the government compromised by promising a Round Table Conference to be held after the Commission. The Conference included Indians for the finalization of the Constitution.
The first Round Table Conference began on November 12, 1930. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and Dewan Bahadur R. Srinivasan represented the Depressed Classes. Serval committees formed, one of which was the Minorities Committee. At that time, the issues of removing untouchability and reforming Indian society were collectively referred to as the communal question.
The first draft of the Constitution submitted in 1919 addressed the communal question. However, the Minorities Committee was able to correctly detail a plan for the inclusion of depressed classes in Indian society. There were anti-discrimination laws specified in the Constitution covering government institutions, public accommodations like hotels, and schools. Also, violence motivated by caste or in retaliation for one protesting for their rights were outlawed. Depressed Classes received access to all public water sources.
Depressed classes would also be given full adult suffrage and weightage. Weightage is giving a population a larger share of the vote than their population would allow. The First Round Table Conference did not determine details of Depressed Class representation. However, there was mention of Depressed Class reservations in the Provincial Legislature, Central Legislature, and Executive Cabinet.
The Indian National Conference boycotted the British government during the First Round Table Conference. Gandhi came as one of the representatives of Congress. Ambedkar describes him as an egotistical zealot, that held the other delegates in contempt. He felt he was the only one at the Conference that was chosen by the people. Also, Gandhi had been in negotiations in secret with the Muslim delegation.
Once the Second Round Table conference began, Gandhi asserts he would only recognize special treatment for Muslims and Sikhs. The Muslim delegation declared that if Dalits get weightage, it will not come from the Muslim’s portion. The government awarded Muslims weightage earlier, and Congress agreed to it. Ambedkar threatened to leave if the depressed classes were not adequately represented and have weightage. The general meetings in the Second Round Table Conference adjourned with no resolution.
The Minorities Committee met later. They were able to agree on provision for Depressed Class inclusion and weightage. The resolution stated that the representatives that were the author represented 46% of India. Gandhi holds in his opposition, and the Conference adjourns with no proper resolution. The matter of special electorates for Depressed Classes would go to arbitration with His Majesty’s Government.
Gandhi would give his reasoning for supporting special electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, but not Dalits. He felt both Sikhs and Muslims had highly educated electorates with nuanced political consciousness. The Dalits had neither. If Dalits were given special electorates, then they would be a political enemy of high caste Hindus. They would have to oppose the Hindu with very few resources. The Dalits and Hindus must be rebuilt as a unified community. As the community naturally progresses, animosity between the groups would subside. Many Hindus were working for reform because they realize that the oppression of Dalits hurts India’s ability to self-rule.
To rebut Gandhi’s non-sensical argument, Ambedkar questions how much Hindus feel ashamed of their role in the oppression of Dalits. Most Hindus do not see Dalits as kith and kin. The actions, or better inaction, of Congress, illustrates that there is no real effort to improve the lot of the Untouchables. With political power, Dalits could secure enough resources to improve education and other resources to improve their condition.
Ultimately, Gandhi is arguing Dalits can’t have the political power to improve their condition, because their situation was too low due to their lack of political power. The Castes System robbed the Dalits of education and the ability to be involved in politics that would naturally produce an educated electorate. These same arguments are made today when advocates ask for specific redress. The conflict between Gandhi would culminate in Gandhi’s famous fast til death.