How the political aspirations of Dalits were sidelined at the freedom negotiations

19 July 2022
BR Ambedkar had secured “separate political recognition” for Dalits from the British at the Round Table Conference of 1932—an earlier attempt to negotiate India’s constitutional future. This promise fell apart eventually.
BR Ambedkar had secured “separate political recognition” for Dalits from the British at the Round Table Conference of 1932—an earlier attempt to negotiate India’s constitutional future. This promise fell apart eventually.

In a confidential report, dated 24 April 1942, the governor of Bombay, Roger Lumley, updated the viceroy, Victor Hope—better known as Lord Linlithgow—about public reactions to the Cripps’ proposal. At the time, the Japanese army was making gains on the eastern borders during the Second World War. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, had dispatched the leader of the House of Commons, Stafford Cripps, to get Indian nationalist leaders to support the war. The support was crucial to gain the confidence of Indian soldiers fighting for the British, especially since Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army was helping the Japanese.

The main offer from Cripps in exchange was a promise to let Indians frame their own constitution after the war. But, getting the support of the nationalist leaders meant getting the support of their followers, who were perpetually divided on communal lines. The major communities whose support mattered to the empire were Caste Hindus, Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Sikhs and Christians. While the 206 million Caste Hindus made up a majority of the population, as per the 1941 census, others were officially identified as political or religious minorities. Of them, Muslims and Scheduled Castes—having populations of 92 million and 49 million, respectively—were numerically bigger minorities that would often ally to balance out Caste Hindus in their negotiations with the British. (For various reasons, the population of Scheduled Castes was contested, with some estimates putting the figure up to 60 million)

The Indian National Congress represented Caste Hindus, the Muslim League represented Muslims and both sought to ally with Scheduled Castes (previously known as Depressed Classes) for political gain. But the Congress always projected itself as the sole representative of all Indians, including Muslims and Scheduled Castes. It rejected the Cripps proposal, saying the promises were to be realised “in future.” Cripps gave Muslims the option to draft their own constitution in the future, but the League rejected it for relegating the creation of Pakistan to “the realm of remote possibility.” The proposal contained nothing for Scheduled Castes specifically, or for Sikhs and Christians. The outcome was giving unsolicited equal political space to the League vis à vis the Congress and, in the process, allowing encroachment upon the shares of other minorities. In the following years, the British would focus on convincing only the League and the Congress. There were two other factors that contributed to the political marginalisation of Scheduled Castes during the negotiations: the League’s assertion of Muslims being a nation instead of a minority, and the poor performance of the Scheduled Castes Federation in the provincial elections of 1946.   

Lumley summarised the failed proposal as having produced a “net gain” to the government, except for one exception. “The exception to which I referred is Ambedkar,” Lumley wrote. BR Ambedkar, the founder of the Scheduled Castes Federation, had played a crucial role in obtaining a status of political minority for Dalits. Ambedkar had told Lumley that the Cripps proposal “went back on the August Declaration” and that he felt very “disillusioned” with the government. In August 1940, the British Empire had declared that any “future constitutional scheme” for India would be conditional to the safeguards of the minorities under “any system of government.”

Nevertheless, Lumley summed up Ambedkar’s protest as a “personal matter” and asked the viceroy to not be “unduly” concerned. The governor’s analysis was probably based on the belief that Dalits lacked political consciousness. He said that Ambedkar was “the only individual amongst them who is capable of thinking for them.” In his response to Lumley, Linlithgow was more objective. “I got the impression from various quarters,” he wrote, “that Cripps possibly treated these minorities as we used to call them with insufficient care and that he left on them too definitely the impression that the only people who really mattered were Congress and the Muslim League.” After leaving India, Cripps would admit in a press conference that an agreement with Dalits, Christians and Sikhs to include “some new basis” for a future India would have taken “months or years” and that his immediate task was to secure “the defence of India.”

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Scheduled Castes BR Ambedkar Indian National Congress Muslim League Caravan Columns