On November 13, 1931, a select committee of the Round Table Conference submitted the Minorities Pact detailing a plan to give Dalits weightage. Weightage is having a percentage of the vote larger than their population size. Also, there would be seats reserved in the legislature and executive cabinet for Depressed Classes. The reserved seats would be elected using a separate electorate of depressed classes. Forty-six percent of the population of India supported the resolution.
Gandhi came out in opposition to the Minorities Pact. He argued that having a specific plan for material redress for the condition of Depressed Classes would make untouchability a permanent status. Instead, untouchability should be removed by building solidarity in the independence struggle. Once British Rule is removed, Indians would naturally work together. There were many already in Hinduism that was working to remove untouchability. By improving the spiritual/psychological condition at the individual level, untouchability would naturally end. The government doesn’t need to protect Depressed classes because Hindus were serious about reform.
The primary advocate for the Depressed Classes was Dr. Ambedkar. He was a Dalit, one the suffered from untouchability, and became a leader in government as well as a world-renowned scholar. He was instrumental in the passage of the Minorities Pact. Gandhi dismissed Ambedkar as bitter about difficulties experienced in his own life. Ambedkar was full of unfounded suspicion and saw all Hindus as enemies. Gandhi could understand his pain because he faced similar treatment as an Indian living in South Africa in his younger years.
Instead of working with Ambedkar to absolve his fears, Gandhi chose to work behind the back of Ambedkar to get the Muslim and Sikh delegation to withdraw their support for the Minorities Pact. Gandhi submitted the Gandhi-Muslim Pact as an alternative. The new pact increased the political power of Muslims and Sikhs with no recognition of other minorities. The British government initiated the Franchise Committee to resolve the discrepancies between the two schemes. The committee began work in January of 1932.
To further undermine the Minorities Pact, Gandhi threatened to go on a hunger strike until all mentions of untouchability are removed from the Constitution. His first letter to Sir Samuel Hoare was dated March 11, 1932. Sir Hoare replied he would make no changes to the Constitution. His Majesty’s Government made the Dalit provision official on August 17, 1932. Gandhi went on a hunger strike the next day.
Ambedkar could let Gandhi fast till death. The provisions were in the Constitution. However, he knew that the death of Gandhi would cause a serious backlash, physical and political, for depressed classes. Ambedkar entered into negotiations with Congress and created a compromise called the Poona Pact. The pact ended the special electorate for Depressed Classes. However, it increased the number of reserved seats in the Provincial (State) Legislatures from 78 to 148. The Central (Federal) Legislature had 18% of its seats reserved for Dalits. The Minorities Pact reserved the seats for 20 years. The Poona Pact reduced this time to 10 years.
The Poona Pact was destructive to the politics of depressed classes. The separate electorate allowed for candidates that specifically addressed Dalit issues to win. If the candidates were chosen from general electorates, the candidate would have to appeal to the masses. In fact, a depressed class candidate could win by only appealing to Hindus in provinces with few depressed class members. The Poona Pact significantly weakened Dalit’s ability to push for their rights.
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