Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables

The Poona Pact was a compromise measure that rescinded an award of separate electorates to the untouchables but gave them reserved seats in an electoral college.

Summary of Event

The Second Round Table Conference Second Round Table Conference was called both to frame a new constitution for British India and to establish gradual moves toward self-government that would lead to dominion status and then independence. It was held in London in 1932. At the conference, members of the British government, including Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and representatives of the Indian National Congress Party, met to discuss constitutional safeguards, the protection of minority communities in India, and the establishment of provisional and central legislatures. The All-India Muslim League All-India Muslim League[All India Muslim League] had successfully convinced the British government that Muslims and other minority groups needed these types of safeguards to protect their political, economic, and educational interests. [kw]Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables (Sept. 25, 1932)
[kw]Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables, Poona (Sept. 25, 1932)
[kw]Representation to India’s Untouchables, Poona Pact Grants (Sept. 25, 1932)
[kw]India’s Untouchables, Poona Pact Grants Representation to (Sept. 25, 1932)[Indias Untouchables, Poona Pact Grants Representation to (Sept. 25, 1932)]
[kw]Untouchables, Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s (Sept. 25, 1932)
Poona Pact (1932)
Yeravda Pact (1932)
India;Poona Pact
[g]India;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
[g]South Asia;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 25, 1932: Poona Pact Grants Representation to India’s Untouchables[08130]
Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji
Gandhi, Mahatma
[p]Gandhi, Mahatma;Poona Pact
MacDonald, Ramsay

As the need for constitutional safeguards became widely recognized, other communal groups—including Sikhs, Indian Christians, Mahrattas, Anglo-Indians, members of the European community, the so-called backward classes, and women—also petitioned the government for special representation in the 1935 Indian constitution. One such religious group was the untouchables, the Hindu “outcastes” (also known by their more political names of “scheduled castes” or “depressed classes”), whom Mahatma Gandhi referred to as Harijans, or “children of God.” The untouchable classes were divided into three categories—untouchables, unapproachables, and unseeables. In 1962, the number of untouchables was estimated at about sixty million (out of three hundred million Hindus).

It was very difficult for the Congress Party to accept the idea that there were two communities in India—the Hindus and the largest minority, the Indian Muslims—whose interests diverged. The prospect of recognizing differences between caste Hindus and the group historically known as the untouchables was extremely daunting. When an August 4, 1932, decision made communal awards not only to Muslims but also to the depressed and other classes, Gandhi, who was in Yeravda Prison for his civil disobedience activities, reacted very strongly. He deeply opposed the creation of separate electorates for the depressed classes and the government’s insistence that fundamental differences lay between them and caste Hindus. Prime Minister MacDonald tried to justify the decision, and in response Gandhi began a fast that he vowed would continue until his death if separate electorates were not lifted. In essence, Gandhi wanted one electorate that would include all classes, and he wanted caste Hindus to recognize their moral and social responsibilities toward eradicating untouchability and bringing “outcaste” persons into the fold.

In a September 16 statement announcing his fast, Gandhi said that he would begin eating as soon as the threat of separate electorates was removed once and for all. As a prisoner, he considered himself unfit to set forth his proposals, and he agreed to accept any accord that was made by a joint electorate composed of responsible caste Hindus and members of the depressed classes and was accepted by mass meetings of all Hindus. Essentially, Gandhi required the removal of the state-sanctioned inequality that had long been attached to untouchability.

The Poona Pact, also known as the Yeravda Pact, was reached on September 24 and signed on September 25, 1932. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a highly educated member and representative of the depressed classes, agreed to the pact on September 26. The pact was seen as a compromise: While it continued to recognize the special status of the depressed classes, it would not award separate electorates to them. Instead, an electoral college of members of the depressed classes would be created, and voters would elect four candidates to participate in primary elections. The general electorate would then vote on the winners of the primary elections. Although the provision was designed to last ten years, it could be abolished earlier.

In every province, the pact provided money for the establishment of educational facilities for members of the depressed classes, and it also required that members of the depressed classes be allowed as candidates for public-service jobs. The scheme for primaries, in which only the depressed classes would have a vote, was proposed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru; this feature made the compromise more palatable to Ambedkar.

The Poona Pact, which later became part of the 1935 Indian Constitution, offered less to the depressed classes than had the 1932 communal decision. However, the fact that the pact established separate electorates secured Ambedkar’s reputation as an effective voice for the untouchables. Crucially, the pact gave legitimacy to the idea that the caste system in India was unfair and certainly outdated, an idea that had strong religious as well as political implications. Gandhi himself said that he saw the division of castes as a religious matter and moral issue, and he believed that these matters could only be corrected by Hinduism itself rather than by what he called “political constitutions.”


The most immediate consequence of the Poona Pact’s acceptance was the termination of the “epic fast” and the preservation of Gandhi’s life. When he began fasting, Gandhi indicated that his actions were not a response to those who disagreed with him but rather a way to force his supporters to confront an issue—untouchability—that had disturbed him since he was a young man. Putting his life on the line over this matter was a way to show how deeply he was affected by it, although it is important to note that even Gandhi was unwilling for the caste system to be entirely abolished because it was so central to Indian history and culture. In contrast, however, some saw the removal of the caste system as the only way untouchability would disappear.

The Poona Pact did convince the Indian National Congress to put untouchability on its agenda, and as a result the issue became a cause for the reform movement. Other movements had sought to ameliorate the situation of the depressed classes by eliminating subcastes, relaxing caste restrictions, or even abolishing caste altogether. After the pact was signed, Gandhi attempted to eradicate the debilitating social and religious effects of untouchability by opening Hindu temples to untouchables. He remained opposed to interdining and intermarriage, although these eventually took place as well. By not endorsing the interdining and intermarriages that were taking place even then—including private efforts to join the depressed classes and the Sanatanists, or orthodox Hindus, at the table—some said that Gandhi sent ambiguous signals to people who wished to follow his example.

In 1932, the All-India Anti-untouchability League, All-India Anti-untouchability League[All India Antiuntouchability League] an organization to assist the untouchables, was founded. In 1933, Gandhi renamed the league the Harijan Sevak Sangh. That same year, a new weekly paper, Harijan, was also started. The paper published graphic drawings of the miserable habitations in which these “outcastes” lived. Their disabilities were listed at length: In some parts of the country they were denied access to village wells, schools, and post offices, and they were prevented from using umbrellas and wearing sandals. The Poona Pact could not end the curse of untouchability, which was more than three thousand years old, and the Harijans remained at the bottom of Indian society. In fact, after the fast and the signing of the Poona Pact, untouchability even lost some of its stigma: The debate had given the concept moral legitimacy. Poona Pact (1932)
Yeravda Pact (1932)
India;Poona Pact

Further Reading

  • Coupland, Reginald. The Indian Problem: Report on the Constitutional Problem in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. Discusses British India’s constitutions of 1919 and 1935 and the Round Table Conferences that led to the latter statute. Good background for the constitutional problems with untouchability, including itemization of political liabilities of the depressed classes.
  • Desai, A. R. Crusade Against Untouchability: Social Background of Indian Nationalism. 3d ed. Bombay: G. R. Bhatkal, 1959. Provides glimpses of the history of untouchability and what it means as a cultural principle as well as a brief history of reform movements that attempted to improve the situation of people who suffered under it. Also shows the economic basis of untouchability, which historically has favored caste Hindus.
  • Fischer, Louis. “Climax.” In The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. A chapter in an interesting biography of Gandhi that gives a detailed analysis of Gandhi’s fast.
  • Gandhi, M. K. Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings. Edited by John Dear. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. Collection of Gandhi’s writings organized thematically, with topics including nonviolent resistance, the search for God, and the pursuit of truth. Includes a chronology as well as a list of sources and recommended readings.
  • Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1962. A biography of the leader of the depressed classes with a detailed account of the activities of Ambedkar and Gandhi during the second Round Table Conference. Particularly interesting for its recounting of pressures on Ambedkar to accept the Poona Pact and thus end Gandhi’s fast.
  • Majumdar, R. C., ed. Struggle for Freedom. Vol. 11 in The History and Culture of the Indian People. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1969. Good encyclopedic review of Indian nationalism with an interesting and slightly polemic view of Gandhi’s motivations in fighting against untouchability. Lengthy discussion of pre-Gandhi social reforms against this practice.
  • Nanda, Bal R. “Harijans.” In Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. The biographer strongly makes his point that Gandhi, throughout his life, was very much against untouchability. Nanda suggests that fasting might have been a form of coercion, but if so it was directed at Gandhi’s followers rather than those wanting separate electorates—that it was “to sting the conscience of the Hindu community into right religious action.”
  • Parekh, Bhiku. Colonialism, Tradition, and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse. Rev. ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000. Examines Gandhi’s political technique and explains how Gandhi was careful to use Indian symbols during his negotiations that led to the Delhi Pact. A rich analysis by a renowned Indian thinker.

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