The Beginnings Of "affirmative Action"
The British government had allowed separate electorates for "depressed classes" in the 1932 announcement of future government in India made after the Round Table Conferences in England. This provision was made at the insistence of the untouchable representatives, B. R. Ambedkar from the province of Bombay and Rao Bahadur Rettamalle Srinivasan of Madras—the two most active areas of reform—who felt, in the face of demands for separate constituencies from all other minorities, that proper elected representatives could only be elected by untouchables themselves. Mohandas K. Gandhi, then in prison for activities against the government in the interests of independence, thought separate electorates were too divisive and began a "fast unto death." Ambedkar gave in but bargained for reserved seats for untouchables in all elected bodies to be elected by the general electorate. Gandhi then began the Harijan Sevak Sangh (Organization for the Service of the People of God), which was intended to bring the issue of untouchability as an evil to the public mind and to bring change to the hearts of caste Hindus. Harijan became the most popular word for the general public, replacing depressed classes, exterior castes, outcastes, and untouchables, terms previously used. Ambedkar and other politically awakened untouchables rejected the word as patronizing and meaningless. The basic disagreement was between belief in a change of heart and belief in legal and political means of securing human rights.
By 1935 it had become clear that untouchable castes must be listed to determine who exactly would be eligible for the reserved seats and for educational and economic benefits. The criteria for listing stipulated specific castes in specific areas that were denied religious rights of entry into temples and civil rights of entry to public places and the use of wells. The word specific was necessary because the ways of identifying who is an untouchable can vary. Occupation is not always a reliable guide. Laundrymen (Dhobis) and barbers may be untouchables in certain areas of the north but not in the state of Maharashtra. The new term scheduled castes, those on a list or schedule, was applied to 429 castes. (By 1993 the number was given in a survey conducted by K. S. Singh as 4,635, using the same criteria but noting subcastes and small castes not previously identified.)
The background for these concessions, probably the first "affirmative action" in the world, was from movements among untouchables themselves, which were especially important in Madras and Bombay, provinces that in the early decades of the twentieth century decreed that "depressed classes" should be represented in government bodies and, in the case of Bombay, that public places should be open to all. There were a number of leaders in various movements for dignity and human rights in many areas, but the dominant figure since the late 1920s was B. R. Ambedkar, who continued to be important in the early twenty-first century.
Ambedkar was born to a Mahar army schoolteacher and was urged to secure education both by his father and by caste Hindus interested in reform. He graduated from Elphinston College in Bombay, one of very few untouchables in western India to do so, and with the help of the reform-minded non-Brahman princes of the princely states of Baroda and Kolhapur was given a chance to secure an M.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in New York and a D.Sc. from the University of London. He also became a barrister in the course of his two periods overseas. He returned to India as one of the most highly educated men in western India and an instant source of pride to untouchables. From then on, Ambedkar tried to convince the British to give attention to untouchable needs and to awaken all untouchables to progress through conferences, newspapers (although the literacy rate was very low), and an occasional public demonstration for rights. He founded political parties as well as social organizations and an educational system, and in 1947 he was asked to serve as law minister in newly independent India's first cabinet. In that capacity, he was chair of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution.
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