September 24, 2017 marked 85 years since the historic Poona Pact was signed in 1932. It was signed between the two champions of the rights of the erstwhile ‘Depressed Classes’ (now Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes). The leaders were fighting an ideological battle for the emancipation of these people. Although divided by ideologies, they were united in the cause of socio-economic and political upliftment of the people from these classes.
On one side of the ideological battle was a suave, foreign-educated Dalit leader – and on the other was a mass leader whose popularity then cut across race, religion and geographies. The former was Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar and the latter was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The then Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay MacDonald, had announced the Communal Award. This gave a separate electorate for the ‘Depressed Classes’ – which till then had existed only for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. What this meant was that Muslim leaders were to be elected by Muslims, Sikh leaders by Sikhs, and so on. This provision was extended for the ‘Depressed Classes’ too, which meant that they would comprise a separate group and were no longer to be seen as a part of the Hindus.
Gandhi vehemently opposed the Communal Award on the grounds that it would further alienate the ‘Depressed Classes’. The question of abolishing untouchability would cease to exist and they would be subject to discrimination for perpetuity. Ambedkar, on the other hand, saw that the separate electorate in the legislature would help in expediting the overall development of the ‘Depressed Classes’ – and that it was necessary to create a change in the social order. Gandhi demanded that the representatives of the ‘Depressed Classes’ be elected by a general electorate – with seats reserved for them. This meant that on the seats reserved for representative candidates of the ‘Depressed Classes’, vote would be cast by all. Thus, a deadlock ensued.
Gandhi went on a fast unto death from September 20, 1932, at Yerwada Jail in Poona. He proclaimed: “One hundred lives given for this noble cause would, in my opinion, be poor penance done by Hindus for the atrocious wrongs they have heaped upon helpless men and women of their own faith.” This day was observed as a day of fasting and prayers. Temples, wells etc. were thrown open to people from the ‘Depressed Classes’ all over the country.
The Poona pact was signed on September 24, 1932, by leaders of different political leanings – including Madan Mohan Malviya, BR Ambedkar, MC Rajah among others. It abandoned the idea of a separate electorate while advocating for the reservation of seats for the ‘Depressed Classes’ in the Provincial and the Central legislature.
Eighty-five years have passed since that historic moment – and one would expect that the scourge of untouchability would have been completely eliminated – and that the society would be integrated and devoid of discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, colour or religion. After all, aren’t these the ideals for which Gandhi sat on a fast unto death more than eight decades ago? Sadly, we are far from creating a unified society devoid of any discrimination.
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution prohibits untouchability in all its forms. The Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 provided penalties for practising the various forms of untoucability (like preventing a person from entering a place of worship or from taking water from a tank or well). But, a 2014 survey of over 42,000 households across India by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, US, says that one out of four Indians still practise untouchabilty. According to the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, nearly 2 lakh households are engaged in the heinous act of manual scavenging for a livelihood. Even the Indian Railways allegedly employs numerous people for cleaning the excreta of ‘others’ (read the privileged).
Untouchability and social discrimination manifest in various forms like the separation of eating places, schools, workplaces and other public spaces. Even in death, the discrimination does not often vanish when the Dalits are to be cremated at a different place. And just to be clear, this discrimination is all pervasive – cutting across classes, sects, and religions. The form of discrimination changes though – like an urban middle-class family not allowing their domestic help to sit with them or eat in their utensils, or a rural upper-caste family taking a bath if touched by ‘them’.
‘Affirmative action’ in the form of reservations has helped in the socio-economic upliftment of these people – to a limited extent only. The fruits of the reservation have often benefited only a few privileged people among these classes – and have seldom trickled down to the last person. Moreover, this has had catastrophic ramifications. Resentment and anger among other classes is on the rise which is visible by the increasing incidents of violence against Dalits.
One may disagree on the method to be used for the socio-economic development of the people from these classes. It can be debated whether ‘affirmative action’ is the best way to go about it. But there is no denying the fact these classes are still among the most-discriminated group of citizens in this country. The life expectancy of Dalits is four years lower than the national average. Nearly 50% of Dalits in India are illiterate and more than half of their children are under-nourished. One-third of Dalit women are anaemic. This is clearly a gloomy picture.
India is fast aspiring to be a major superpower, which isn’t possible by leaving a strata of our population behind. It is high time that we create a social revolution for the upliftment of all underprivileged people. The Ponna Pact clearly envisaged a more integrated and harmonious society – where the shackles of dogma and regressive thinking are broken to create a harmonious and integrated society.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.