Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Relations between Dr. Ambedkar and the Congress -- The Constituent Assembly and Beyond

Yesterday, at an election rally in New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati accused the Congress party of mistreating Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and ensuring his defeat in the first general elections. A similar allegation was made by BJP President L.K. Advani a few weeks ago. I have not been able to find the full text of Mayawati's speech. However, the "salient points" of Advani's speech have been posted on the BJP President's website. According to Advani:
The Congress party never gave Dr. Ambedkar his due. It defeated him in the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952. A new book by Dr. H.V. Hande, a senior leader of the BJP in Tamil Nadu (Ambedkar & The Making of the Indian Constitution, published by Macmillan) throws light on how Dr. Ambedkar could not find a place among the 296 members initially sent to the Constituent Assembly. A Dalit leader from East Bengal withdrew himself, paving the way for Dr. Ambedkar to enter the Constituent Assembly as a member in his own right. Again, it was Mahatma Gandhi who prevailed upon Jawaharlal Nehru to include Dr. Ambedkar in his Cabinet.
The Congress party promptly hit back at Advani's speech. Home Minister P. Chidambaram accused the BJP of displaying newly minted affection for Ambedkar and referred in particular to Arun Shourie's controversial book, Worshipping False Gods, that was highly critical of the Dalit leader. Without wading into the political dimensions of this debate on Indian history, it would be useful to dispassionately analyze Mayawati's and Advani's contentions based on historical facts that are in the public domain.

Advani basically makes three points: (1) Ambedkar was unable to make it to the Constituent Assembly and someone had to withdraw for him to become a member; (2) it was Mahatma Gandhi who made Nehru inducted Ambedkar into his interim cabinet; (3) the Congress ensured Ambedkar's defeat in the 1952 General Election as there was no love lost between the party and the Dalit leader. Mayawati appears to reprise the first and third point. On the first point, she goes a bit further than Advani in specifically charging the Congress with blocking Ambedkar's entry into the Constituent Assembly, the entity which drafted and adopted our Constitution.

To fully appreciate Advani and Mayawati's complaint about Ambedkar 's membership of the Constituent Assembly, one must understand how that body was constituted. As a consequence of the Cabinet Mission's ill-fated attempt to broker a deal between the Congress and Muslim League, elections were held in July 1946 to the provincial legislatures of British India. These legislatures then elected 296 members to the Constituent Assembly (allocated roughly in the ratio of one to one million). The remaining seats in the Assembly were to be filled by representatives from princely states. Ambedkar was among the 296 members originally elected to the Assembly in 1946 from the provinces. B. Shiva Rao's first volume on the Framing of our Constitution has the original list of these members. Dr. Ambedkar's name is listed as a representative of Bengal.

Ambedkar was the sole representative in the Constituent Assembly of the Scheduled Castes Federation. The Federation won 14 out of the 148 reserved seats in the 1946 provincial elections. Its poor performance was due to several reasons including high property qualifications for voter registration that disenfranchised most Dalits; the Congress party's superior electoral mechanism and zeal to ensure its candidates were elected from reserved constituencies; the joint electorate system after the Ambedkar-Gandhi Poona Pact; and the fact that many Dalit leaders had already joined the Congress.

In the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar joined 29 other Dalit members many of whom elected under Congress tickets. Most of the Congress Dalits were associated with the All India Depressed Classes League led by Jagjivan Ram. Ambedkar was elected by the undivided Bengal legislature with five transferable votes (a minimum of four was required). The Scheduled Castes Federation did not have five members in the Bengal legislature. Therefore, it has been speculated that the votes for Ambedkar came from Anglo-Indian members, independent members who were Dalits, and possibly even the Muslim League.

Ambedkar was forced to seek election from Bengal, a province he did not have much connection with, because he lacked the requisite support in his home province of Bombay. Throughout the 1940s, Ambedkar and the Congress clashed bitterly over the issue of Scheduled Caste rights and representation. Ambedkar was an unyeilding critic of the party's positions on many issues, which he believed were enimical to the Scheduled Castes' interests. Therefore, Patel personally directed the Bombay Congress to select strong Dalit candidates who could defeat Dr. Ambedkar's nominees.

Despite this political enimity, once in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar worked closely with his Congress colleagues in formulating and drafting our national charter. His cooperation and professional approach to the task led many Congressmen to soften their opposition to him, with some believing that he had acceptably moderated his previously radical positions.

This thaw between the Congress and Ambedkar stood the latter in good stead. Under the partition plan, Ambedkar lost his Assembly seat because Bengal was divided and fresh elections for the Constituent Assembly were to be held in West Bengal. When it became apparent that Ambedkar could no longer continue in the Assembly, the Congress high command decided that he was too valuable to lose. M.R. Jayakar, a jurist from Bombay, had resigned from the Assembly, and his place was to have been filled by G.V. Mavlankar. The plan was for Mavlankar to preside over the Constituent Assembly when it functioned as the central legislature for the Indian dominion from 15 August 1947 (Rajendra Prasad was in the cabinet and could not preside over the legislature). But the Congress party decided it would rather have Ambedkar fill Jayakar's place to ensure his continuance in the Assembly.

To that end, on June 30, 1947, Rajendra Prasad wrote to B.G. Kher, the prime minister of Bombay, directing him to have Ambedkar elected to the Assembly on a Congress ticket. Prasad explained that it was important to ensure that Ambedkar continued in the Assembly:
Apart from any other consideration we have found Dr. Ambedkar's work both in the Constituent Assembly and the various committees to which he was appointed to he of such an order as to require that we should not he deprived of his services. As you know, he was elected from Bengal and after the division of the Province he has ceased to be a member of the Constituent Assembly. I am anxious that he should attend the next session of the Constituent Assembly commencing from the 14th July and it is therefore necessary that he should be elected immediately.
Besides Prasad, Sardar Patel was also closely involved in the effort to ensure that Ambedkar remained in the Assembly. On the same day as Prasad wrote to Kher, Patel spoke to the Bombay Premier, who was not the greatest fan of Ambedkar, and urged Kher to take prompt action to ensure Ambedkar's election to the Assembly. The next day, Patel tried to pacify Mavlankar by explaining that Dr. Ambedkar's election required "earlier action" since there was only one vacancy available. Patel told Mavlankar that "all people here feel that [Ambedkar's] attitude has changed and he has been a useful Member in the Committee." He advised Mavlankar that "there [was] no hurry" about his election and promised that the Congress would arrange for his election through another vacancy that would occur after a short time. Patel reiterated this position in a letter on 3 July 1947 to Mavlankar in which he noted that "everybody wants [Ambedkar] now." The rapprochement between the Congress and Ambedkar was complete when Ambedkar returned to the Assembly in July 1947 greeted by loud cheers.

The best evidence in support of Advani's second point about Ambedkar being admitted into the interim cabinet due to Gandhi's urgings is Worshipping False Gods. In it, Shourie quotes Jagjivan Ram's wife, Indrani, who claims that Ambedkar requested Jagjivan Ram to lobby Gandhi for a cabinet berth. Interestingly, in Ambedkar and Untouchability, Christoph Jaffrelot also seems to agree with Shourie on this issue, although much of Jaffrelot's book is devoted to rebutting Shourie's criticism of Ambedkar. Quoting his own sources, Jaffrelot states that Gandhi was behind Ambedkar's admission into the cabinet and specifically notes that Nehru was not particularly inclined to Ambedkar. In his largely forgotten gem, The Good BoatmanRajmohan Gandhi elaborates on Gandhi's role in securing Ambedkar's participation through an intermediary, Muriel Lester. Besides quoting from Gandhi's correspondence, Rajmohan Gandhi relies on an early Ambedkar biographer, C.B. Khairmode, in discussing the Mahatma's role.

But the idea that it was Gandhi who was instrumental in ensuring Ambedkar's entry into the Cabinet is not universally shared. Mountbatten who gave Nehru plenty of unsolicited advice about whom to include and exclude (Mountbatten wanted neither Rajaji nor Prasad) seemed pleasantly surprised at Ambedkar's inclusion. But he does not reveal who sponsored Ambedkar for a cabinet position. Valerian Rodriguez in his very useful compilation of Ambedkar's writings argues that purported intervention of Gandhi on Ambedkar's behalf is yet to be fully corroborated.

Another early Ambedkar biographer, Dhananjay Keer believes that Ambedkar was included in the cabinet through the collective efforts of Sardar Patel, S. K. Patil, Acharya Donde, and Nehru. Gandhi, according to Keer, only granted formal approval for this plan when it was presented to him by Nehru. Nehru's involvement in roping in Ambedkar is clear from a letter he sent to Patel on 30 July, 1947. It reads in relevant part:
I have spoken to Ambedkar and he has agreed. He said Law would not give him enough work. I told him him he need not worry about that. There will be plenty of work of many kinds to do.
In the same letter, Nehru asks Rajaji to persuade Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and a few others to join what became the first cabinet of national-unity.

Advani's third accusation (repeated by Mayawati) is facially correct. A Congress candidate did defeat Ambedkar in the 1952 election for the Bombay North Lok Sabha seat. However, it is important to note that the victorious candidate, N.S. Kajrolkar, was a Dalit as well and the constituency was a reserved one. Ambedkar faced the electorate just after he resigned from the Union Cabinet because of differences over the Hindu Code Bill.

While Ambedkar was still in government, the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee actually considered entering into an electoral alliance with Ambedkar's Scheduled Castes Federation. In fact, according to the veteran Congress leader S.K. Patil, the party kept a seat vacant for Ambedkar until the last moment. However, all bets were off after Ambedkar's party entered into an alliance with the Socialist Party. Oddly enough, Kajrolkar later confided to President Rajendra Prasad that Ambedkar lost the election because he did not get the Socialists' support. Ambedkar was subsequently elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1952. But he was defeated in his second attempt to enter the Lok Sabha through a 1954 by-election from Bhandara constituency. Ambedkar took this defeat in his stride. In fact, he learnt about it while on a visit to Rangoon.
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