In March 1915, Antony MacDonnell, a member of the viceroy’s executive council—the apex governing body in British India—reiterated his objection, first expressed during the debates over the Indian Councils Act of 1909, to having one member of the council represent all Indians. “It would not be possible to find any single Indian gentleman who would be accepted as representative by the Indian peoples owing to their ever present hostility which, open or beneath the surface, pervades the two great creeds in India, Mahomedans and Hindus,” he told the council. He said such a policy would not “command confidence” from either of the communities. In pre-independent India, much of the turf war was understood as being played out between these two communities.
In 1935, a constitutional reform identified Scheduled Castes as a political minority, a constituency distinct from Hindus, and guaranteed their representation in the legislature. Until then, Muslims, Sikhs and Indian Christians had these safeguards. On 8 May, RA Butler, the undersecretary of state for India, told the House of Commons that communal representation was the best possible way to make India a self-governing nation. Butler denied that the government was operating under the principle of “divide and rule,” noting that it had unsuccessfully tried to build consensus on the question among Indian leaders at the two Round Table Conferences before announcing the communal award.
In August 1947, the Constituent Assembly decided to retain the provision of communal representation, with a few changes, from the Government of India Act, 1935. In May 1949, however, the assembly overturned its previous decision due to the changed circumstances in Punjab and Bengal but kept the constitutional safeguards for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and, in future, for socially and educationally backward classes. This has been an important feature of constitutional reforms for a century. Although the reserved representation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the legislatures has been largely symbolic over the decades, minorities are being politically and culturally marginalised even further since the Narendra Modi government came to power. I use the word “symbolic” because minority representatives have often been elected on the majority parties’ tickets and have been dependent upon the majority community’s votes. After Independence, Scheduled Castes also lost their status of being a political minority.
In such a time, it becomes imperative to revisit BR Ambedkar’s political proposal published in May 1945. The proposal—presented, in a speech titled “Communal Deadlock and A Way to Solve It,” at a session of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation—laid out the vision of a united India, in which representation in legislatures and executives would be determined by population but capped at forty percent for any one community. If the majority community in a polity made up more than forty percent of the population, the excess seats would be distributed among minority communities “in inverse proportion to their social standing, economic position and educational condition.” The arithmetic of representation allowed the possibility that if all minorities joined together, they could throw off the majority population from power. It was not meant to be only against Caste Hindus, since Muslims made up the majority in provinces such as Sind or Bengal.
Communal representation had been a part of the colonial constitution for four decades. Ambedkar’s proposal, too, suggested representation on the communal basis, treating Scheduled Castes as a minority. But, since our Constitution now grants representation to religious minorities in jobs and services on a class basis, Ambedkar’s proposal can also be implemented using the same basis for them. The proposal also fixes the problem of symbolic representation by suggesting a method of separate electorates—a voting system in which religious or political minorities elect their own legislators with only their votes.