Why was Gandhi opposed to caste-based separate elections?

  • During India’s independence fight, Mahatma Gandhi utilised fasting as a powerful instrument to urge for change.
  • He used it as a form of personal penance as well as a tactic of putting pressure on the British authorities to meet his requests.

The Gandhi-Ambedkar Controversy

  • The Year 1932 Was a Watershed Moment: Gandhi began a hunger strike against the idea of separate electorates for the harijans (lower castes) in September 1932, within the walls of the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune. This action sparked a heated argument with another important politician, B.R. Ambedkar.
  • The Debate’s Aftermath: The “Gandhi-Ambedkar debate” centred on their opposing ideas on caste and ultimately shaped India’s reservation system.
  • Gandhi’s Changing Beliefs Regarding Caste Gandhi maintained conventional ideas on caste in his early years, advocating prohibitions on inter-dining and inter-marriage. He saw caste as an important aspect of Hinduism.

Beliefs Changed

  • As Gandhi became a key figure in India’s freedom movement, his beliefs changed. He championed unity and opposed untouchability, partly influenced by the growing Dalit movement, referring to untouchables as “harijans” or “children of God.”
  • Important Quote: In 1936, Gandhi stated, “I do know that it [untouchability] is harmful both to spiritual and national good.”

Ambedkar’s Radical Caste Opinions

  • Ambedkar’s Point of View: Ambedkar’s position was more extreme than Gandhi’s. He argued that mere reform would not be sufficient to reverse generations of discrimination. He contended that change would occur only when the oppressed rejected their situation, including the divine authority of the shastras (holy books) that upheld caste.
  • Political Empowerment: Ambedkar emphasised the importance of political power in addressing lower caste problems, and recommended separate electorates as a form of affirmative action.
  • Explained: Separate Electorates Separate electorates for lower castes were proposed by Ambedkar, allowing people to vote for candidates from their own community as well as in the general electorate. He believed that doing so would empower the lower classes.

Gandhi’s Opposition to Electoral Separation

  • Gandhi’s Point of View: Gandhi was opposed to separate electorates, believing that they did not do enough for lower castes. He thought that lower castes should strive for leadership rather than settling for a tiny proportion of seats.
  • Concerns: Gandhi was concerned that separate electorates would further divide Hindu society and play into the hands of British colonial authorities who took advantage of internal divides.
  • Difficult Times: Gandhi’s fears were exacerbated by escalating tensions between Hindus and Muslims at the time. Separate electorates for lower castes alongside those for Muslims would erode Hindu unity.

The Poona Pact and the Yerawada Fast

  • Gandhi’s Hunger Strike: In September 1932, Gandhi went on a hunger strike in Yerawada Jail in protest against caste-based elections. He described it as a “God-given opportunity” to give his life for the oppressed.
  • Ambedkar’s Dilemma: Ambedkar was faced with a difficult decision. Giving in to Gandhi’s requests was tough because it contradicted his own beliefs. However, Gandhi’s enormous popularity and the threat of violence against Dalits put him under strain.
  • Under duress, Ambedkar eventually signed the Poona Pact, gaining reservations for poorer castes while putting the idea of separate electorates to rest.

Legacy of the Fast

  • Some regard Gandhi’s fast as a means of thwarting British “divide and rule” methods. Others saw it as coercion because Ambedkar had no alternative but to concede. Ambedkar wondered why Gandhi did not fast against untouchability.
  • Unresolved Tensions: The legacy of the discussion lives on. While the Poona Pact addressed immediate problems, it did not solve long-standing challenges of political representation and social transformation inside India’s caste structure.
  • “The Joint Electorate is… a ‘Rotten Borough’ in which the Hindus get the right to nominate an untouchable to set nominally as a representative of the untouchables but really as a tool of the Hindus,” Ambedkar later remarked.
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