Sunday, June 20, 2021

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Grapples with the Communal Problem: India's Journey to Liberal and Secular Democracy.

A perennial issue of any constitutionalist is how to ensure that representative democracy while being representational also safeguards the interests of minorities and this is further compounded by trying to protect religious minorities in a climate that is strife torn. In a speech delivered on 6th May 1945 Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, lawyer and economist, alumnus of Columbia University and London School of Economics, grappled with what he called, “communal deadlock”.

Context and Need for the Book

Addressing the annual gathering of All-India Scheduled Castes Federation on 6th May 1945 Ambedkar formulated a set of proposals for India’s intractable communal problem. 

The address was delivered nearly a week after Hitler’s suicide and two days before Victory in Europe Day during World War 2. Jawaharlal Nehru, concluding his last and longest incarceration, had been released, along with the rest of the Congress leadership in March 1945 as England eyed a near certain victory in the war. The question of India’s independence was only a question of “when” and not “if”, despite Churchill still at the helm. As premier the bulldog warrior had declared, “I’ve not become his majesty’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”. In soon to be conducted elections the British voters, now tired of being an empire and looking dreadfully at reconstruction required at home, would vote out Churchill, ‘the defender of the realm’.

India, leaders thought, would at least become a dominion if not a sovereign republic. Talk of a Constituent Assembly was, based on Ambedkar’s remarks, perhaps in the air, to draft a constitution for a dominion or a free India. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, now clamoring for a Muslim nation, would launch ‘Direct Action Day’ more than a year later in which bloody communal riots would tear asunder West Bengal. 

In this backdrop Ambedkar puts forward constitutional solutions that he felt would address the “communal deadlock”. His key motivation, as he stated,  was to debunk the notion that Scheduled Castes were only interested in their own issues and were uninterested in other issues or incapable of proposing constructive ideas for other problems. 

The Sapru Committee

Ambedkar’s address is constructed as a rebuttal to what he perceived as the shortcomings of “Sapru Committee Report”, hence an introduction is needed to what it was.

Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

‘Sapru Committee’, headed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, was formed by the “Non-Party Conference” in 1941 drawing upon members who did NOT belong to the major parties of Congress, Communist Party and Muslim League. Rejecting the demand of Pakistan the Committee put forward proposals in 1945 addressing the communal question. “The Report was 343 pages long, excluding twenty appendices”. The report became, in the opinion of Ray Smith and V.P. Menon, a damp squib. Nevertheless eight members of the committee went on to become members of the Indian Constituent Assembly later on.

Sapru, a Kashmiri Hindu, was also related to Allama Iqbal who was a key architect of the idea of Pakistan. 

Breakdown Clause and the Dilemma it Posed

A section of Indians felt, in Ambedkar’s telling, that the British should address the communal problem and frame India’s constitution. Still contending with a possibility of India being a Dominion Ambedkar objects to that. 

The Government of India Act, 1935, had embodied a “notorious” clause whereby when there is a “breakdown” of constitutional governance a government would be imposed to maintain Law and Order. To Ambedkar this was an important and necessary imposition because a failure of constitutional governance is a “crime against society and civilization”. But this also means, in the Dominion setup, perhaps, a British government can dismiss and impose governance. This, Ambedkar cautioned, would be undesirable for a nation seeking self governance. 

The only way out of the dilemma was for Indians to frame their own constitution. Note, The Breakdown Clause is perhaps at the root of Article 356 which was later used, rather always recklessly, by governments in free India.

Sapru Report Critiqued

Ambedkar tackles Sapru’s report head on. Curiously Ambedkar rubbishes the idea of a Constituent Assemble stating that unlike the Founders of America who were groping in the dark to create a constitutional governance India’s leadership has well established constitutional frameworks to pick and choose from and thus no need for a Constituent Assembly. The only question worth tackling that remains for India is the communal problem.

Bringing, as always, the scalpel of a data analyst Ambedkar proceeds to show how Sapru, compared to Stafford Cripps’ plan given undue equivalence in numbers to Hindus and Muslims in the Constituent Assembly. While coming close to Cripps’ total number of seats, Sapru, quite egregiously, gives 51 seats each to Hindus and Muslims arguing that this was in exchange for Muslims being subjected to joint electorate. Ambedkar trashes that argument saying Cripps plan, giving 50 seats to Muslims and 77 to Hindus, too had, in effect, a joint electorate. “It (Sapru’s report) has given something for nothing to one element and thereby put the other communities in a hazard”.

The real data analyst part is in how Ambedkar studies the composition of legislatures and identifies unerringly, how, beneath the veneer of seats lies a real conundrum of minorities relying on majority communities for being elected to the constituent assembly. (See Reference for detail). “Hindus with their excess of 217 votes can elect 20 non-Hindus, who would be dependent on them; the Muslims with their excess of 44 seats can elect 4 non-Muslims” whereas “the Scheduled Castes with a shortage of 69 votes” will “for 7 seats” depend on Hindus and Muslims”.

“The excess representation granted to the smaller minorities is only an eyewash”, concludes Ambedkar.

Principles Vs Methods

The approach to the communal problem, says Ambedkar, is “fundamentally wrong” by focusing on “methods” instead of “principles”. The then current approach proceeds in a trial and error process of using one ‘method’ after another sans satisfying a principle. 

“When a community grows powerful and demands certain political advantages” the majority community responds, Ambedkar says, by conferring concessions to “win its goodwill”. “There is no judicial examination of its claim; no judgment on merits. The result is that there are no limits to demands and there are no limits to concessions”. 

Proposing that a “governing principle” be identified and made binding on all Ambedkar outlines the principle of representation in legislature, executive and administrative arms of the government. 

Representation and Majoritarianism

Before outlining the principle Ambedkar presents his mechanism of representation of the various communities in Executive and Legislature. In the Executive branch he proposes a proportional representation for Hindus, Muslims and Scheduled castes in relation to their population. About Christians and Sikhs, quite unsympathetically, he says, given their meager population, they cannot be afforded proportional representation without enlarging the Executive to a “fantastic degree”. While true, his tone comes across as dismissive. May I say, a touch Gandhian perhaps.

In addressing the issue of representation in the Legislature Ambedkar uses a formula. A community that has 50-60% population gets roughly 40% seats; a community that is second in population strengt, whether it is 10% or 30%, gets roughly 30% seats and then third largest gets another 20-30%. See the tables below.

The advantage of this system is that that the majority community, Hindus or Muslims, cannot legislate anything without adding the votes of one or other minority groups. On the other hand two minority groups could join together and legislate without the numerically majority community. This scheme and the principle behind it is sheer genius in constitutional governance. This’d become clearer when Ambedkar enunciates his principles.

To allay fears of shortchanging Muslims or Christians Ambedkar lays out in tables that Muslims actually get far more seats than the then Government of India Act gave them and the other communities preserved their then proportions with no injury. 

Combating a Permanent and Communal Majority

Perhaps the most important and puzzling part of the speech is where Ambedkar is rather ready to jettison any clamor for separate electorates. Ambedkar and Gandhi’s titanic clash on the question of separate electorate leading to the Poona pact echoes till today and yet here is Ambedkar saying “Joint electorate or separate electorate is a matter of machinery for achieving a given purpose. It is not a matter of principle”.

“The purpose is to enable a minority to select candidates to the legislature who will be real and not nominal representatives of the minority”. Perhaps he felt that his scheme achieves that holy grail and hence the issue of separate electorate becomes moot. 

Ambedkar is at his best articulating a case ‘against’ the proposition of ‘simple majority’. He leans heavily on lessons learned from American constitution here. In “A word to Hindus” he eviscerates the support for simple majority by citing the example of America where a simple majority does not suffice for major legislation. He also identifies that “in India the majority is not a political majority. In India the majority is born; it is not made. That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority”. 

As I explained above Ambedkar’s governing principle in arriving at his formula for representation is that the numerical majority can never legislate independently of any minority group but allows the minority groups to become sufficient majority. In this he is as fair as Solomon to both Hindus and Muslims. “The representation”, Ambedkar concludes, “is a balanced representation. No one community is placed in a position to dominate others by reason of its numbers”.

Ambedkar and Muslims

Hindutva ideologues, turning a convenient blind eye to the very harsh rhetoric of Ambedkar against Hindus and Hinduism, harp on quotes from his “Thoughts on Pakistan” that paint an unflattering picture of Islam and Indian-Muslims. Sure they are as painful to any Muslim as Gandhi’s utterances on Dalits. But, like Gandhi on Dalits, that is not all there is to Ambedkar on Muslims. 

Ambedkar certainly felt that unlike Hindus or Muslims the Scheduled Castes were political orphans and lacked any powerful agency despite their numbers and he certainly felt that he owed unto them his all. He was not entirely wrong. 

About his proposal he says it is “for an United India” and that his proposal removes the “danger of a communal majority, which is the basis of Pakistan” demand. He is sympathetic to the demand of Pakistan as it is “founded on principle of self-determination” but argues that his “plan is better than the plan of Pakistan”. 

A more pertinent idea of Ambedkar that would’ve helped Muslims in India today is his suggestion to promulgate a law designed to make it illegal for a “social boycott”.

Published in 1945 as a book, “States and Minorities” is the clearest articulation of safeguards for minorities that literally presages even the American Civil Rights Laws against discrimination. He defines a “social boycott” as

“Refuses to let or use or occupy any house or land, or to deal with, work for hire, or do business with another person, or to render to him or receive from him any service…..”

Social boycotts are not uncommon in India. More recently during protests against CAA Muslims businesses or Muslims in businesses were ostracized by an organized social boycott by Hindutva lobbies via WhatsApp propaganda. 


Ambedkar’s chief concerns, based on my hitherto sparse readings, are a strong belief in the rule of law and constitutional governance as a protection against systemic racism that was characteristic of India, a search for the holy grail of political representation of minorities wherein the chosen representatives are true and independent representatives and not beholden to the Hindu majority. 

If there is a distinguishing characteristic between Ambedkar and Gandhi it is that he, unlike Gandhi, could never bring himself to trust Hindus. In this his reading of human nature is more in line with Rajaji than the idealistic vision of Gandhi and Nehru. Of course Gandhi and Nehru were no utopians but were using optimism to shape a new future and persistent suspicion would’ve doomed their national enterprise. 

The constant vigil against the tyranny of the numerical majority is very American in spirit. Probably he was familiar with the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay where they too constantly struggle with curtailing numerical majority and wrestle with compositions of legislatures. Notably Federalist papers 55, 57 and 67 are worth reading in this context (see references)

The American system of Electoral College and restricting Senate membership to two, irrespective of size, protects against the harm of tyranny of majority but they also carry within it the seeds of giving minorities, in states like Iowa, too much power compared to a state like California. Essentially a white majority state like New Hampshire or Iowa stands on equal footing with a California or New York. 

On the question of Pakistan it could be argued that Ambedkar was quite prophetic. A nation founded on being homogenous failed to become a liberal and secular democracy. And Muslims in India are seeing how their representation has dwindled in the Parliament corresponding to the rise of militant and fundamentalist Hindutva that is masquerading as party of governance. 

A chief complaint against Gandhi by Ambedkarites is the paternalistic and at time uncharitably dismissive attitude of Gandhi towards Dalits. Ironically Ambedkar too falls prey to that when discussing the neglect of “Aboriginal Tribes” in his proposals due to the fact that they’ve not “developed any political sense to make the best use of their political opportunities and they may easily become mere instruments in the hands either of a majority or minority”. He suggests, based on an example from South Africa, a “Statutory Commission” to administer their areas. This perspective is dangerously close to how Dalits and their own leadership were viewed by others, notably E.V. Ramaswami who alleged that Ambedkar was duped by the upper castes. However, to be fair to Ambedkar, the literacy rates and leadership amongst Scheduled Tribes was indeed no comparison to even the Scheduled Classes. But, he could’ve chosen his words a tad more politely. In this he mirrors Gandhi. 

Ambedkar, unlike Gandhi and Nehru, wrote topical books and monographs. His felicity with language ranks along side any constitutional scholar of repute and his penchant for tables and formula, a challenge for a casual reader, show us that he is ever the professor. The communication styles of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar are as varied as their personalities were. 

While there are legions of Ambedkar scholars their discourse is still in academic halls and propagandistic discussions. On the other end of the spectrum there is deification. I’ve attempted to reach the common reader who is in the middle of that spectrum and this is journey for me too about man who until recent times was more spoken of than read or discussed. 

As always I am thrilled to learn one more facet of India's long march to becoming a liberal and secular democracy. So many who are less known today, like Tej Bahadur Sapru, have played important roles. From the Nehru Report of 1928 to Constituent Assembly post-Independence many sections of India's intellectual leadership were constantly engaged with making India a democracy. It is surprising given how much of that depended on an optimism that liberation would actually come. 


Ambedkar's data on insufficiency of Sapru Committee Recommendation

Ambedkar's analysis of how Sapru's allocation of seats in constituent assembly depends on seats in legislature and how each community has either an advantage (excess voters over the required number to help elect their apportioned quota) or disadvantage (shortage of voters below the required number to help elect their apportioned quota)

Ambedkar analyses mathematically the factor by which the legislative seats should be divided with to yield the final composition. I've simplified it here.

Total Seats by Sapru's Committee in Constituent Assembly == 160

Total seats in legislature = 1577

Factor required to divide the seats in legislature for proportional seats in Constituent Assembly = 1577/160 === approximately 11. 

Hence quota factor = 11 (Ambedkar really calculates these. I've merely paraphrased here). 

  • "The Hindus with their excess of 217 votes can elect 20 non-Hindus, who would be dependent upon them ; the Muslims with their excess of 44 votes can elect 4 non-Muslims, who would be dependent upon them and the Europeans with their excess of 35 votes would be able to elect 3 non-Europeans, who would be dependent upon them."
  • "The Scheduled Castes with a shortage of 69 votes will be able to elect only 13 members on the stock of their own votes and for 7 seats they will have to depend upon Hindu, Muslim or European voters. The Indian Christians with a shortage of 56 votes will be able to elect only 2 seats on the stock of their own voters. For the rest of the 5 seats they will have to depend upon Hindu, Muslim or European voters. Similarly the Sikhs with a shortage of 52 will be able to elect only 3 seats on the stock of their own voters. For the rest of the 5 seats they will have to depend upon Hindu, Muslim or European voters"

  1. Sapru Committee
  2. Sapru 
  3. States and minorities 
  4. Ambedkar's Writings Volume 1 (includes full text of Communal Deadlock and a way to solve it)
  5. Federalist Papers

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