A striking feature of the Constitution of India, 1950 is the presence of an affirmative action architecture. In May 2019, CADIndia will look at how this was designed by focussing on different strands of the debates in the Constituent Assembly.

But first, in this opening post in the series, we look at the constitutional imagination on affirmative action that existed before the formal constitution-making process that started in 1946. We do this by paying attention to critical constitutional documents – written by the Indians and the British.

In the early years of the 20th century, the minority problem was swiftly gaining prominence. The Muslim community, becoming more aware if its minority status was increasing vocal about its political demands. The Indian National Congress was wary. Key to its strategy of demanding greater self-government powers from the British was to portray a united India that was not afflicted by communal divisions

The British was quick to recognise the Muslim community as a minority and gave it political salience. This was primarily motivated by its desire to keep the Indian political class fragmented. And so, the British for the first introduced separate electorates for the Muslim community in its Indian Councils Act 1909. A measure which the Congress was not pleased with.

However, in 1916, the Muslim League and the Congress came together to draw up a proposal asking the British for greater self-government powers. They felt that combining forces would be more effective to get the British to take action. They jointly drafted the Lucknow Pact 1916, which contained separate electorates for Muslims – something that the Congress was not in favour of before. Three years later, the British in the Government of India Act 1919, extended separate electorates to Sikhs, Anglo Indian and Christians as well.

The Congress-League bonhomie in 1916 fizzled out by the mid-1920s, the Congress reverted to its earlier stand on separate electorates. The Commonwealth Bill 1925, in which many Congress members played a key role, curtly stated – ‘There shall be no electorates’. Congress also contributed significantly to the Nehru Report 1928. The Report rejected separate electorates but proposed reservation of seats

 ‘for Muslims in provinces where they are in a minority and non-Muslims in the N.W.F. Provinces’. Further, these reservations were limited to a period of 10 years after which the question was to be reconsidered.’

In 1932, close on the heels of the failed round table conferences, the British put forward the Ramsay Communal Award that granted separate electorate for schedules castes, Muslims, Sikhs, bassists, Indian Christians. The Government of India Act 1935 too, continued the device of separate electorates.

At this point, we see that separate electorates, focussing on representation of communities in legislatures, was the dominant way in which affirmative action was thought about in constitutional documents.

In 1944, however, we find that ideas on affirmative action transcended political representation. The Scheduled Castes Federation, founded by B.R. Ambedkar, passed a series of resolutions – Political Demands of Scheduled Classes 1944 on India’s constitutional future. In addition to political representation, it demanded that reservations for Scheduled Castes should be extended to executive, municipalities, local boards, public services and public service commissions. These types of affirmative action measures were not put forward by many, though the Sapru Committee Report 1945 did contain a provision on the representation of communities in public services. It, however, rejected the idea of separate electorates.

A year later after the Sapru Report, the Constituent Assembly was set up and began drafting the Constitution. In the following posts in the series, we will look at how the framers of the Constitution imagined affirmative action and the trace the debates and conflicts that emerged.