Legacy of the Poona Pact: Caste hierarchy preserved, minorities alienated

The ‘unity of Hindus’ argument that Gandhi used to oppose a separate electorate for the Untouchables is in currency today and is used to oppose reservations for OBCs and women and spread Islamophobia


Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi had sharp differences about the polity of the independent India that was taking shape. Their differences ranged from policies to be formulated against untouchability, reformation versus rejection of Hinduism, refinement versus rejection of caste system, idea of India as a nation of castes and/ or religious communities, and views on village order and industrialization. These differences reached a climax in the run-up to the Poona Pact which turned out to be the defining moment for the future of the Untouchables in India. The pact was the moment when political representation of any vulnerable group like religious minorities (Muslims, Christians or Sikhs), labour or even women was also put aside in the name of the unity of the nation. Though the pact concerned the Depressed Classes, it has had far-reaching consequences in India after Independence. A widely shared view is that the pact  was the turning point leading to the present crisis in India in which the former Untouchables don’t have effective representation and women and religious minorities are insufficiently represented in decision-making bodies (Anand, 2009). The rhetoric which was used to get Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact was carried forward not only in the newly born nation but is still used by dominant powers in Indian polity. The pact might have been signed almost a century ago, in 1932, but the rhetoric that led to its signing has not only survived but also has strengthened.

Between 1930 and 1932, the British government organized three Round Table Conferences to discuss the future of India and the sharing of power between the British and the Indians. M.K. Gandhi did not participate in the First Round Table Conference. In the Second Round Table Conference (late 1931), he claimed he was representing the whole of India. He argued that the formerly Untouchable groups were Hindus, hence there should not be a separate electorate for them. He also said that Ambedkar did not represent the Untouchables. In his memoir, Bhagwan Das (2004) has written that among the Dalits, Ambedkar was far more popular than Gandhi! 

After returning to India, both Gandhi and Ambedkar started mobilizing Dalits. Gail Omvedt (2005) writes, “Most of the known Dalit activists in the country supported Ambedkar’s position, and most continued to do so throughout.” Ambedkar lobbied with the British Cabinet and finally on 16 August 1932, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald announced the Communal Award that accepted separate electorates for Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. This made Gandhi furious, especially because he felt political safeguards for Untouchables would divide Hindus. He saton a fast-unto-death against these provisions. He even asked Aga Khan, a leader of the Muslim League, to oppose a separate electorate for Dalits. Even today, Gandhi’s logic is used by most Hindu upper-caste men to argue that the abolition of all kinds of affirmative actions, including reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and women, is a must for the bigger goal of “unity of Hindus”. Ambedkar had no other option but to sign an agreement for nominal representation of Dalits in place of real representation. Gail Omvedt (2005) calls this fast “moral blackmail”. 

Statues of Gandhi and Ambedkar

The Poona Pact, signed on 24 September 1932, effectively decided the future of all socio-religious minorities in independent India. The pact made Dalits completely dependent upon caste Hindus. Later, in his book What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables (1945), Ambedkar elaborated how Gandhi made the electoral democracy in India dysfunctional, for all minority groups were now dependent upon the dominant castes to elect a leader. The Untouchables got reservation, but their leaders had to pander to the upper-caste leaders to win elections (Ram 1982). The “unity of Hindus” and “unity of nation” rhetoric gained currency after the pact and the upper castes used it to their advantage. For example, separate electorates for religious minorities were done away with on the pretext of “unity of nation”. Sardar Patel, who was chairing the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, accepted that the minorities (like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians) had a right to reservation in various legislatures in proportion to their population but two years later, in 1949, he rejected the proposal (Hasan, 2009). Today the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are India’s three poorest social groups (Thorat, Tagade and Naik 2018), and scholars are of the view that this is due to lack of effective representation in legislatures. What flies in the face of the “unity of Hindus” argument today is that “Hindu” men oppose reservation for “Hindu” women and “Hindu” upper castes oppose reservation for “Hindu” OBCs. It has now become the norm to label Hindu OBCs and Hindu women as “meritless people clamouring for reservations”. Wasn’t French anthropologist Louis Dumont (1970) right when he said hierarchy is the essence of Hindu society?

Thus, when Ambedkar and even the British wanted proper representation for Scheduled Castes, religious minorities (Muslims, Sikhs and Christians), women and labour, our upper-caste leaders were opposed to any such provision. The legacy of Gandhi, which has been a pretension of Hindu homogeneity and unity, continues to beleaguer India. He acknowledged religious groups but not social groups and he didn’t believe in the right of the historically deprived and therefore vulnerable social groups to represent themselves. Gandhi’s assumption that Hinduism was India’s national religion was made explicit by V.D. Savarkar. While countries like New Zealand, Canada and Australia have regularly carried out electoral reforms  to give due representation to all vulnerable groups, India remains firm that the powerful can represent the powerless. We are seeing a growing rate of crimes against women, Dalits and religious minorities. Islamophobia, patriarchy and casteism remain the three most prominent problems of today’s India. It is high time we learnt from the electoral practices of successful democracies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.


Ambedkar, B. R. (1945). What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables. Bombay: Thacker & Co.

Anand, S. (2009, September). Resurrecting the radical Ambedkar. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from India-Seminar.com: http://www.india-seminar.com/2009/601/601_s_anand.htm

Das, B. (2004). In Pursuit of Ambedkar. New Delhi: Navayana.

Dumont, L. (1970). Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hasan, Z. (2009). Politics of Inclusion: Castes, Minorities and Affirmative Action. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Omvedt, G. (2005). Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India. Penguin.

Ram, K. (1982). The Chamcha Age. New Delhi: Kanshi Ram.

Thorat, S., Tagade, N., & Naik, A. K. (2018). Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A socio-religious analysis. Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 1-18.

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