‘A mean deal’: Dr Ambedkar exposed the practice of Dalit tokenism by political parties

The BJP’s selection of tribal leader Draupadi Murmu as its Presidential candidate and its nomination of maestro Ilaiyaraaja to the Rajya Sabha is mere tokenism, writes the author.
A collage of Ilaiyaraaja and Draupadi Murmu
A collage of Ilaiyaraaja and Draupadi Murmu

After its Parliamentary Board meeting, the BJP announced Draupadi Murmu, a tribal leader from Odisha, as its presidential candidate, thereby claiming inclusive politics. After his recent comparison of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dr Ambedkar, maestro Ilaiyaraaja was nominated as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. In March this year, 28-yr-old DMK’s Priya Rajan became the youngest and first-ever Scheduled Caste Mayor of Chennai. Consequently, the ‘Dravidian model’ was lauded for accommodating Dalits.

Ensuring representation of SCs and STs is construed as the working of Indian democracy. With the system of Reserved Constituencies in elections, the Constitution ensures their representation in the Legislature. Article 330, 332 and 243D mandate the reservation of seats for SCs and STs in the Lok Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies and Panchayats respectively. But are the SCs and STs given sufficient political power to influence legislative and executive action for the purpose of securing their welfare? Is democracy really in action? The answer could be derived from Dr Ambedkar’s exposition of the principle underlying the selection of SC/ST candidates by political parties for election/nomination.

In his book What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, Dr Ambedkar highlights the policy adopted by the Congress Parliamentary Board in selecting its candidates for election. The party followed the communal principle of choosing a candidate whose caste was predominant in a constituency. Though unjustifiable, Ambedkar conceded even this consideration as understandable, as the object was to adopt a safe candidate who will pull through. But the Congress went further and set down different classes of qualifications for different classes of candidates.

To Dr Ambedkar, this principle revealed a deep-seated plot. He explains, “From the candidates selected by the Congress, the candidates from the Brahmin and allied communities were the most highly educated, candidates from the non-Brahmins were moderately educated and those from the Untouchables just about literates. This system of selection is very intriguing. There seems to be a deep laid game behind it. Anyone who studies it carefully will find that it is designed to allow none but the Brahmins and the allied castes to form the main part of the ministry and to secure for them the support of a docile unintelligent crowd of non-Brahmins and Untouchables who by their intellectual attainments could never dream of becoming rivals of the minister-folk but would be content to follow the lead for no other consideration except that of having been raised to the status of members of the Legislatures.”

Just a few months ago, the above principle was illustrated in a press meet with Priya Rajan wherein DMK Minister Sekar Babu, who had accompanied her, benevolently remarked that the young mayor was a child and stopped the press from further questioning her.

Indian politics is tailor-made to subject politicians belonging to SC/ST to the rigours of party discipline. As Dr Ambedkar observed, they continue to be completely under the control of the party they belong to. They cannot ask a question that the party will not like. They cannot move a resolution that the party will not permit. They cannot bring in legislation that the party objects to. They cannot vote as they choose and cannot speak what they feel.

Though Article 330, 332 and 243D guarantee the representation of SCs and STs, they cannot vent their grievances and obtain redressal for the wrongs done to them. The current Indian political system is successful in effectively ensuring this by choosing carefully from Dalits. Some might find this argument speculative, if not wishful thinking. But it is neither when evaluated against the memorandum submitted by Dr Ambedkar to the Indian Round Table Conference in 1930. This event was historical as SCs were allowed to be represented separately for the first time by two delegates, namely Dr Ambedkar and Dewan Bahadur R Srinivasan. Even in this political debut, wherein the British government acknowledged the right of the SCs to be consulted in the framing of a constitution for India, Dr Ambedkar’s demand was visionary – a perfect benchmark to evaluate the present political theatrics.

Right to representation in the Cabinet

From the very beginning, Dr Ambedkar had pressed in the discussions at the Round Table Conference that Dalits must not only have the right to be represented in the Legislature, they must also have the right to be represented in the Cabinet. He argued that the woes of the Dalits are not due so much to bad laws as due to the hostility of the administration, which is controlled by the Hindus who import into the administration their age-old prejudices against Dalits. Dalits can never hope to get protection from the police, justice from the judiciary or the benefit of a statutory law from the administration, so long as the public services continued to be manned by the Hindus. The only hope of making the public services less malevolent and more responsible to the needs of Dalits is to have members of the section in the higher Executive.

For these reasons, Dr Ambedkar had at the Round Table Conference pressed the claim of Dalits for the recognition of their right to representation in the Cabinet with the same emphasis as he had done for the recognition of their right to representation in the Legislature. The Round Table Conference accepted the validity of the claim and considered ways and means of giving effect to it. It is pertinent to note Condition No. VIII in Dr Ambedkar’s scheme of political safeguards for the protection of Dalits in the future Constitution of a self-governing India:

Condition No. VIII


Just as it is necessary that the Depressed Classes should have the power to influence governmental action by seats in the Legislature, so also it is desirable that the Depressed Classes should have the opportunity to frame the general policy of the Government. This they can do only if they can find a seat in the Cabinet. The Depressed Classes therefore claim that in common with other minorities, their moral rights to be represented in the Cabinet should be recognised. With this purpose in view the Depressed Classes propose; that in the Instrument of Instructions an obligation shall be placed upon the Governor and the Governor-General to endeavour to secure the representation of the Depressed Classes in his Cabinet.

Scrutinising the present

Judging by the above standards, the present representation of SCs and STs in the higher Executive i.e. the Cabinet requires scrutiny. The national and state political parties have long become aware of the rising consciousness among Dalits about the value of vote. Though not holding key ministries, a token representation of SCs and STs in the Cabinet has become inevitable. Also not to forget that such statistics of SC/ST cabinet ministers fits only in the liberal definition of Cabinet itself.

But are these representatives able to influence the legislative and executive action for the purpose of securing the welfare of their community? Or are they content to have been raised to the status of member of the Legislatures solely because of their downtrodden identity? Are they the “docile” crowd or the vociferous representation of the SCs and STs posing threat to the conventional upper caste minister-folk?

At this juncture, it is relevant to note Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s observation: as long as there are foreign-educated, dominant-caste ministers who find a Cabinet position via the Rajya Sabha, SCs, STs and OBCs will continue to lose out. He points out that the Dwija caste representation in the ministerial list will go down drastically if Rajya Sabha members are made ineligible to become ministers in the Union government. Ilaiah even calls the gaining of power via the Rajya Sabha as a route of manipulation. Running the Union government via the upper house with “proxy-intellectualism” is not a democratic method, regardless of BJP or Congress rule. Some prominent politicians who have followed this route are Nirmala Sitharaman, S Jaishankar, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shourie, etc. Is the same route open for Dalits to become cabinet ministers? To answer in the affirmative would be unconventional for a political critic.

Can Left, Right and Dravidian parties heed to Dr Ambedkar’s crucial demand?

Coming back to Dr Ambedkar’s attempt to secure the representation of Dalits in the Governor’s Cabinet, there were two ways of effecting the proposal. One was to have a statutory provision in the Government of India Act to make it a binding obligation that would be impossible to evade or to escape; the other was to leave it to a gentleman’s agreement—to a convention—as is the case in the English Constitution.

Dr Ambedkar and the representatives of the other minorities did not insist upon the first in deference to the wishes of some leading Indians to not show such distrust in one’s own countrymen. At the same time, they were not prepared to accept the second alternative as there was no enforceable sanction behind it. A via media was agreed upon – a clause was introduced in the Instrument of Instructions to the Governors, imposing an obligation upon them to include representatives of the Minorities in the Cabinet. The clause ran as follows:

“In making appointments to his Council of Ministers our Governor shall use his best endeavours to select his Ministers in the following manner, that is to say, to appoint in consultation with the person who in his judgement is most likely to command a stable majority in the Legislature those persons (including so far as practicable members of important minority communities) who will best be in a position collectively to command the confidence of the Legislature. In so acting, he shall bear constantly in mind the need for fostering a sense of joint responsibility among his Ministers.”

But the fate of this provision ended with the Congress depriving Dalits their right to representation in the Cabinet. Then Governors gave full accommodation to the Congress’s own selection.

Dr Ambedkar might have hoped that democracy would progress in India and Dalits would eventually find a share in the power politics. Only this explains why he was not desperate to ensure Dalits’ right to representation in the Cabinet by way of constitutional provisions itself. But the history of Indian politics has only carved out a sad commentary. Beyond their guaranteed right to be represented in the Legislature, the right of the SCs and STs, though comprising one-fourth of the population as per the 2011 census data, to be represented in the Cabinet has fallen into oblivion. Their politics has become un-statesmanlike and it does not aspire holding crucial Cabinet posts. With no say in the higher Executive, they have no hold in the real administration.

In a way, this explains the jugglery of token representation employed by the Dravidian parties or by the BJP, Congress and the Communist parties – be it national or state. The clause in the Instrument of Instructions mentioned above, guaranteeing Cabinet representation for men and women of stellar character from Dalits, is miserably inconsonant to the connecting chord of popular political parties. This democratic demand is only met with cold indifference and studied silence.

Ilaiyaraaja is nothing but a token when it comes to the representation of Dalits. Draupadi Murmu will likely become the nation’s first President from the Scheduled Tribe community. But are they chosen because they are the voiceless voices of Dalits? Will the country’s first citizen unfailingly stand for its downtrodden citizens? Will the musician learn the responsibility of speaking for the weaker sections? Will the Dalit ghettos of Chennai achieve civic development from its Mayor? These are the pertinent questions to be asked and answered as well.

Dr Ambedkar envisioned men of learning so great that they could sit on the pinnacle of the palace and from there can make the overall surveillance of Dalits. To protect his people, he desired to create such sharp-eyed people. The suo moto realisation of this vision is not possible as Indian politics is yet to acquaint itself with the pith and substance of an efficient representative democracy. Dalit tokenism only reconfirms the already established ‘norm’ of the docile representation of SCs and STs in Legislatures and Executives. This practice has long been exposed by Dr Ambedkar under the Chapter ‘A Mean Deal’. This meanness will continue until a conscious attempt is externally made against the established norm. Besides, while the attempt can be anticipated only from the ghettos of Dalits, are its representatives aware of this responsibility? Draupadi Murmu, Ilaiyaraaja, Priya Rajan can assert this by their affirmative actions in the national, state and local realm respectively.

AB Karl Marx Siddharthar is a practising advocate, channelising his interest in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. He is also the author of UNCASTE: Understanding Unmarriageability: The Way Forward To Annihilate Caste.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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