The Poona Pact 1932 was an agreement between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi on the political representation of the Depressed Classes (a loose term that referred to Dalits/Untouchables/Scheduled Castes). A little more than a month earlier, Ramsay Macdonald, the British Prime Minister, announced the Communal Award that gave Depressed Classes separate electorates for central and provincial legislatures. Gandhi viewed this as a danger to the Hindu community that would de-link untouchables from Hindus. Ambedkar and other leaders of the Depressed Classes welcomed the award.
On 20th September 1932, while in prison, Gandhi announced a fast unto death till the time separate electorates were removed from the Award. The British had have given the assurance that it would make changes to the Award if these changes were the result of an agreement between the communities concerned. Indian political leaders realised that the best chance to get Gandhi to terminate his fast was to facilitate an agreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Initially, Ambedkar was not fazed by Gandhi’s fast. But later, he came around and agreed to negotiate. In the end, Gandhi and Ambedkar came to an agreement – the Poona Pact 1932 – that discarded separate electorates.
The Poona Pact is a very short document written a quasi-legal style. It contained nine points, seven of which laid out the manner and quantum of representation of the Depressed Classes at the central and provincial legislatures. Separate electorates for Depressed Classes did not feature in the document, instead, the Pact put forward a system of the joint electorates with reserved seats. It reserved 148 seats from the general electorate for Depressed Classes,78 more than what the Award had proposed.
The Pact also called for the non-discrimination of Depressed Classes in public services and urged for efforts towards the fair representation of the community in public services. It also contained a provision that proposed the earmarking of a portion of the state’s educational grant for Depressed Classes.
The Pact was sent across to British authorities who then set aside the sections dealing with untouchables. Promptly, Gandhi broke his fast on 26th September 1932. The Pact influenced the Government of India Act 1935, separate electorates were given to Muslims, Sikhs and others, but not to the Depressed Classes.
The leaders of the Depressed Classes, including Ambedkar, were not happy with the Poona Pact. Even though the numbers of seats reserved was double than what the Award had offered, separate electorates were viewed as a critical tool for political representation. Also, as Ambedkar himself argued, the Award had given Depressed Classes a double vote: they could use one vote for the separate electorates and another for the general electorate. Ambedkar felt that the second vote was ‘a political weapon was beyond reckoning’ for the protection of Depressed Classes’ interests.
The Pact was a historic moment in India’s constitutional and political history. It brought to bear the tensions between and the Depressed Classes and the Hindus, one that would continue to haunt the freedom movement and negotiations between Indians and the British. To a large extent, the Pact further reinforced and augmented the claim that Depressed Classes were a political minority whose interests could not be ignored while drawing up the constitutional future of India.
Poona Pact, Agreed to by Leaders of Caste-Hindus and of Dalits, at Poona on 24-9-1932
The following is the text of the agreement arrived at between leaders acting on behalf of the Depressed Classes and of the rest of the community, regarding the representation of the Depressed Classes in the legislatures and certain other matters affecting their welfare.
1. There shall be seats reserved for the Depressed Classes out of general electorate seats in the provincial legislatures as follows: –
Madras 30; Bombay with Sind 25; Punjab 8; Bihar and Orissa 18; Central Provinces 20; Assam 7; Bengal 30; United Provinces 20. Total 148. These figures are based on the Prime Minister’s (British) decision.
2. Election to these seats shall be by joint electorates subject, however, to the following procedure
All members of the Depressed Classes registered in the general electoral roll of a constituency will form an electoral college which will elect a panel of tour candidates belonging to the Depressed Classes for each of such reserved seats by the method of the single vote and four persons getting the highest number of votes in such primary elections shall be the candidates for election by the general electorate.
3. The representation of the Depressed Classes in the Central Legislature shall likewise be on the principle of joint electorates and reserved seats by the method of primary election in the manner provided for in clause above for their representation in the provincial legislatures.
4. In the Central Legislature 18 per cent of the seats allotted to the general electorate for British India in the said legislature shall he reserved for the Depressed Classes.
5. The system of primary election to a panel of candidates for election to the Central and Provincial Legislatures as i herein-before mentioned shall come to an end after the first ten years, unless terminated sooner by mutual agreement under the provision of clause 6 below.
6. The system of representation of Depressed Classes by reserved seats in the Provincial and Central Legislatures as provided for in clauses (1) and (4) shall continue until determined otherwise by mutual agreement between the communities concerned in this settlement.
7. The Franchise for the Central and Provincial Legislatures of the Depressed Classes shall be as indicated, in the Lothian Committee Report.
8. There shall be no disabilities attached to any one on the ground of his being a member of the Depressed Classes in regard to any election to local bodies or appointment to the public services. Every endeavour shall be made to secure a fair representation of the Depressed Classes in these respects, subject to such educational qualifications as may be laid down for appointment to the Public Services.
(Adult franchise but reservation has been provided for Dalits on population basis, till 1960),
9. In every province out of the educational grant an adequate sum shall be ear-marked for providing educational facilities to the members of Depressed Classes,