Communal Award

Communal Award an official policy statement of the British Government in respect of the composition of provincial legislatures as a further step towards the transfer of power to the Indian people. The Award defined the methods of selection and the relative strength of representation of various communities in the legislatures as they were expected to be formed under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935.

When the Indian leadership failed to come up with a constitutional solution of the communal issue at the close of the second session of the Round Table Conference (1931) the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald made it clear that in the event of the failure of the several Indian communities and interests to reach any agreement, His Majesty's Government would be compelled to apply a provisional scheme. The Second Round Table Conference got off to an uncertain start in September 1931 with Mahatma Gandhi attending as the sole Congress delegate and the princes demonstrating reluctance to enter a federation. The Sikhs were represented by two delegates. Of the enlarged membership of 114 at this conference, 51 were appointed to form the Minorities Committee assigned to make a recommendation concerning communal representation and procedures to protect the rights of minorities. Progress within the committee was made difficult by the tenacity with which the Muslim delegates held to the demand for separate communal electorates. They claimed that seats in the legislatures of the Muslim majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal should be based on the actual population ratios there, while seats in provinces in which Muslims were in a minority should be based on negotiated ratios weighted favourably towards the Muslims in the manner of the Congress-Muslim League Pact signed in Lucknow in 1916. Of the other major interests present at the second conference, the Muslims were able to win the support of only the delegates of the so-called minor minorities, the Hindu Depressed classes, the Anglo Indians and a section of the Indian Christians, each of whom found it of advantage to conjoin their own claims with those of the Muslims. The Congress leader Mahatma Gandhi had been unsuccessful in persuading the representative of the minorities to reach an agreed formula for representation. Thereafter the representatives of the Muslims, the Depressed classes, the Indian Christians, the Anglo-Indians and the British interests produced and submitted a joint statement which they claimed, should stand or fall as a whole. The sole outcome of the second session was the widening of the cleavage between the Congress and the minorities, especially the Muslim League. The initiative thus was passed from the Indian National Congress to the British Government. MacDonald's statement of promise and a warning was concretised some nine months later, after a final attempt to open the way to a negotiated settlement through a consultative committee but before the start of the Third Round Table Conference, in the form of a Communal Award. The Award announced on 16 August 1932 was officially spoken of as Communal Decisions.

The Award was in the form of an arbitral settlement of the conflicting claims of various interests in regard to the composition and method of election to the provincial legislatures. This involved not only the question of the method of providing representation to the religious communities but also of the relative strength to be accorded to each in relation to the other in every province, the method and relative strength of representation of non-communal special interests, and the size of the legislative bodies. The main consequence of the Award was the fragmentation of the Indian electorate still further.

The Award demarcated the following communal constituencies: general (composed of Hindus and other residual communal groups), Muslim, Sikh, Indian Christian, Anglo-Indian, European, Hindu depressed classes (with electors voting also in the general constituency), and tribal or backward areas. The right of separate electorate was not only given to the Muslims of India but also to all the minority communities in the country. The Award declared the untouchables as a minority, and thus the Hindu depressed classes (dalita) were given a number of special seats to be filled from special depressed class electorates in the area where their voters were concentrated. Under the Communal Award, the principle of weightage was also maintained with some modifications in the Muslim minority provinces. Principle of weightage was also applied for Europeans in Bengal and Assam, Sikhs in Punjab and North West Frontier Province, and Hindus in Sind and North West Frontier Province. Though the Muslims constituted almost 56% of the total population of the Punjab, they were given only 86 out of 175 seats in the Punjab Assembly. The Muslim majority in Punjab was thus reduced to a minority. The formula favoured the Sikhs of Punjab, and the Europeans of Bengal the most. Special seats were designated for women within the various communal categories to ensure their representation in the provincial legislature. The Award also preserved some non-communal special constituencies, such as labour, commerce, landholders, and universities.

The Award was not popular with any Indian party. Muslims were not happy with the Award, as it has reduced their majority in Punjab and Bengal to a minority. Yet they were prepared to accept it. In its annual session held in November 1933, the All India Muslim League passed a resolution that reads: 'Though the decision falls far short of the Muslim demands, the Muslims have accepted it in the best interest of the country, reserving to themselves the right to press for the acceptance of all their demands.'

On the other hand, the Hindus refused to accept the awards and decided to launch a campaign against it. For them it was not possible to accept the untouchables as a minority. They organized the Allahabad Unity Conference in which they demanded for the replacement of separate electorates by joint electorates. Many nationalist Muslims and Sikhs also participated in the conference. The Congress completely rejected the Award. Since the Award had also provided for separate electorates for the Depressed classes, Gandhi wrote to the Prime Minister and asked for its revocation, failing which he would undertake a fast-unto-death. The British Government realized that Gandhi had a point in that the Depressed classes were an integral part of the Hindus, and therefore the government withdrew the proposal. Thereafter Gandhi held negotiations with Dr. B.R Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables, and managed to sign the Poona Pact under which the Depressed classes were given more seats from the general Hindu quota than they had been provided under the Communal Award of 1932. [Masudur Rahman Khan]