In this post, we look at the initial periods of Indian constitution-making to get a sense of how Constituent Assembly members engaged with affirmative action. Specifically, what affirmative action provisions did representatives of minority communities demand?
In January 1947, Govind Ballabh Pant moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly to set up an Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities and Tribal and Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas (hereafter ‘Advisory Committee’). In his speech Pant said -
‘the question of minorities everywhere looms large in constitutional discussions. Many a constitution has foundered on this rock. A satisfactory solution of questions pertaining to minorities will ensure the health, vitality and strength of the free State of India…It is necessary that a new chapter should start and we should all realise our responsibility. Unless the minorities are fully satisfied, we cannot make any progress: we cannot even maintain peace in an undisturbed manner’
And so, an Advisory Committee was set up, which in turn appointed a Sub-Committee on Minorities. This Sub-Committee, with representation from different communities, was tasked with proposing constitutional safeguards. Here, we only focus on those relating to affirmative action.
The Committee decided that the best starting point for its work was to solicit individual proposals from its members through a questionnaire prepared by K.M. Munshi. These submissions were critical in that they set the stage for Assembly’s engagement with affirmative action.
Most proposals submitted by members were done on behalf of their respective communities that included: Schedules Castes, Sikhs, Anglo Indians, Tribals, Indian Christians, and Parsis.
B.R. Ambedkar, in a reversal of the Poona Pact 1932, demanded separate electorates for Scheduled Castes in legislatures. He also wanted reservations in union and state ministries and cabinets, local government and public services. A lot of these demands were re-iterations of what in the Political Demands of Scheduled Castes (1944), prepared by the Scheduled Castes Federation that Ambedkar had founded. Other members representing Scheduled Caste interests put forward proposals on the same lines as Ambedkar’s.
While Harnan Singh and Ujjal Singh, representing the Sikh community, asked for reservation in central legislatures and in the cabinet, they seemed to have been more concerned about representation at the provincial level. They wanted Punjab to be divided into two sub-provinces North-West and South-East with a cabinet and legislature of their own. Subjects that were of common to both would come under a joint legislature with 25% Sikhs represented in the joint cabinet. They also asked for 25% of reservation of public service posts in Punjab and 10% in Uttar Pradesh.
Anglo-Indian members of the Committee S.H Prater and Frank Anthony also wanted reservations at central legislature and cabinet and provincial levels. Interesting, their demand for reservation in public services was slightly different from other proposals. They wanted a constitutional provision that specifically reserved posts in Railways, Customs, Posts and Telegraph departments. They argued that most Anglo-Indians were dependent on these posts for their livelihoods.
R.N Brahma sought protections for those Tribals who had left tribal regions in Assam and settled down in other parts of the country, mostly the plains. This proposal too included reservations at the central and provincial legislatures and public service posts.
Homi Mody, representing the Parsis, did not want any protections per se but argued that if other minorities go them, then Parsis would also want similar protections. Indian Christians made no specific demands.
Not all members of the sub-committee were stoked about affirmative action measures. K.T. Shah was against communal electorates which he felt was the main reason behind the rise of political parties ‘on religious lines and not economic and political ideals’. He wanted care to be taken to avoid the abuse of minority rights against the majority community. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was against minority safeguards in toto. She felt that demands for special privileges and safeguards weakened those who demand them. Both Shah and Kaur did not seem to be representing any minority community interests, and this could explain the positions they took.
From the submissions made to the sub-committee, it is clear that demands for affirmative action provisions took the form of political representation in legislatures and cabinets and reservations in public services. Only the Scheduled Castes demanded separate electorates. There was one other community, in fact, the most critical in the political history of separate electorates in India: the Muslims. Where were the Muslims in these sub-committee meetings? At this stage, the Muslim League had boycotted the Assembly’s proceedings.
In the next post in this series, we will look at how the sub-committee reacted to the demands made by its individual members and trace the evolution of affirmative action provisions further into the constitution-making process.