Self-Determination and the Minority Question in Colonial India

TAPSA: Tejas Parasher, doctoral candidate in Political Science

Between the late 1800s and the early 1950s, South Asian politics were dominated by demands for elected representative government. These demands were made by nationalists challenging British colonial rule as well as by minority groups contesting nationalist claims. From early histories of colonial India by David Washbrook and D.A. Low to more recent accounts by Rajeev Bhargava and others, principles of representative government in Indian political thought have been understood as either directly inherited from British liberalism, or as departing from liberal antecedents only in their emphasis on the political rights of cultural groups rather than of individual citizens. Current interpretations overlook an important dimension of political representation in colonial India: for many Indian thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, representative government was incompatible with the economic aspects of British liberalism, especially with free markets and private property ownership. This paper traces how economic liberalism became a target of critique in the theory of political representation formulated by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). Reconstructing Ambedkar’s proposals for separate representation of caste and religious minorities over a thirty-year period, from his first engagements with colonial constitutional reform after WWI to his activism with the Republican Party of India in the 1950s, I draw out a theory of democratic government which used minority representation to transform markets and create participatory forms of economic life. Against what he took to be overly political views on representation in Anglo-American constitutionalism, Ambedkar considered group-based representation a tool for moving beyond liberal economic frameworks. I argue that this vision of democracy pushes us to rethink the place of markets within current theories of political representation for historically marginalized groups.

Thursday, October 25, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103