Ambedkar on preferential treatment
  valerian rodrigues

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CRITICS and beneficiaries both, often associate the complex system of preferential regime that modern India came to spawn with B.R. Ambedkar, and rightly so. Unfortunately there has been insufficient reflection on the principles and concerns that persuaded him to propose such a regime and the approaches towards preferential treatment under different political conditions. In contrast, when policies of affirmative action were initiated on a large scale in the United States in the 1960s, a distinct body of ideas on social justice were formulated and their relationship to the larger liberal concerns was drawn out.

Ambedkar did not agree with the colonial policy of divide and rule that saw India as made of a number of distinct interests which had to be given separate representation. His plea for special consideration and safeguards to certain communities and social groups was based on a wholly different set of reasons. He also disagreed with mainstream nationalist opinion that with the consolidation of India’s nationhood social divisions would make way for a densely shared common identity.

From early on, starting with his statement to the Southborough Committee in 1919, he consistently argued that the Indian polity cannot be solely based on the foundation of equal rights and liberties. In the system of liberal dispensation being formulated in India, he felt, there need to be certain special provisions for the disadvantaged groups as well as for those who are different on grounds of religion, language and nationality. He argued that the inability to attend to social disadvantages and differences cannot be defended on grounds of justice and fairness and is likely to compromise political stability. He felt that a major drawbacks of liberal democracy was its insensitivity to reach out proactively towards those subject to disadvantages of one kind or the other.

In turn, Ambedkar proposed a set of principles justifying preferential treatment, and along with it, suggested an entire complex of public institutions and policy measures to combat disadvantage and reach out to differential considerations. In his early formulations Ambedkar argued for special provisions for the untouchables on grounds of representation, social presence and selfhood. In later years, he reworked these principles and placed greater stress on equality and democracy. Although both sets of arguments complement each other, they were revisited whenever occasion arose .



One of the early arguments of Ambedkar for special provisions to the disadvantaged groups concerns representation.1 With appropriate modifications this argument can be applied to other groups as well whose interests and concerns are not adequately taken into account while formulating public policy. He argued that the first purpose of representation is ‘to transmit the force of individual opinion and preference into public action.’2 When a group or community is denied representation, or denied it in fair measure, then its beliefs and preferences have little bearing in shaping public policy.

In India between the touchables and untouchables there is almost an impassable barrier and ‘no shared bonds of aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge and common understanding.’3 Therefore, virtual representation cannot meet the need. Besides the disadvantaged, and particularly the untouchables, have much to gain or loose depending on the kind and extent of representation available to them. The untouchables, for instance, may not have ‘large property to protect from confiscation. But they have their very person confiscated.’4 Representation can help them to seek rights and resources to pursue their aims and objectives otherwise impossible to pursue.



Representation needs to take the concrete context in view to identify appropriate modes open to it and the extent to which they have to be pursued. There are no ideal-typical models holding good everywhere. The progress of franchise in any society does not lay down a model for other societies to follow. In this regard, he felt that Britain could be a model for India. There is no guarantee that a limited franchise produces a better government either. A narrow franchise aimed at elite representation may bolster the importance of some communities to the detriment of others.5

Unlike generally understood, communal representation need not necessarily harden social divisions: It could be a way of dissolving them by bringing together ‘men from diverse castes who would not otherwise mix together in the legislative council.’6 and by begetting new forms of associated life such associations could threaten ‘fossilised’7 ways of life and help dissolve ‘set attitudes’.



He argued that a minority should find not numerical but adequate representation. But it should not be so preponderant as to dictate terms to the majority. In the context of the Simon Commission and his plea for joint electorates with reservation for Scheduled Castes, he argued that minority representation should be of such a magnitude ‘as would make it worth the while of many a party from the majority to seek an alliance with the minority. If the party is compelled to seek an alliance with a minority, the minority is undoubtedly in a position to dictate. If it is drawn for the alliance then it is adequately represented.’8

While giving due consideration to the educational and economic status of minorities, he felt that the actual figure ‘be the ratio of its population to the total seats multiplied by some factor which is greater than one and less than two.’9 The lower the standing of the community the greater should be its electoral advantage over the rest. If a minority is not protected with weightage and adequacy, it will be entirely submerged. Weightage, he felt, could be determined by employing a four-fold criteria: numbers, social standing, education and economic strength. While keeping the demographic composition in view, those who are economically and socially backward with low educational accomplishments deserve additional consideration.

For Ambedkar, joint electorate or separate electorate10 as modes of representation are not a matter of principle but mechanisms to achieve certain ends. A separate electorate guarantees that a representative enjoys the confidence of the electorate who are his special concern. It is justified in the context of hardened social identities when each group holds on to its particular interests with little possibility of generalizing them in the foreseeable future. If, however, there is homogeneity of interests then joint electorates with reservation for affected groups is, in his opinion, a better option.11



Against the argument that separate electorate for untouchables, whom he clearly recognized as the bearers of a set of particular interests, would lead to fissures within Hinduism, Ambedkar felt, ‘Social considerations and not religious affiliation is the basis of the acceptance of the electorate.’12 The argument that separate electorates would reinforce an anti-national spirit, he felt, was baseless as not every group demanding separate electorate was anti-national. The demand need not necessarily have a religious or communal nexus. A majority, however, according to him, cannot have a separate electorate as it would result in a permanent domination of the majority over the minorities. When political units are primarily communal, majority-rule based on a community is unjustifiable as it could perpetuate its rule keeping other communities under its tutelage.

Ambedkar’s second argument for preferential treatment was based on social inclusion and the significance of public presence. Preferential treatment provides an opportunity to persons and groups who have hitherto been denied social presence and are excluded in public life. Presence in public life affords an opportunity to actively participate ‘in the process of government.’13 Besides, participation in associated life begets social bonds and stakes.



This makes a big difference to certain societies such as India where, he felt, there were no shared aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge and common understanding and therefore little ‘endosmosis’ across social groups. In India, ‘given two candidates belonging to different groups but purporting to represent the same interest, the voters will mark their votes on the person belonging to the same community,’14 leaving out an entire group from being counted. Untouchable communities suffer the baneful effects of such exclusion the most.

Representation of opinions and preferences alone is not an adequate measure for democracy. It requires personal representation as well. The latter involves ‘representation of opinions as well as representation of persons.’ A government for the people, but not by the people, is sure to educate some into masters and others into subjects; because it is by reflex effects of association that one can feel and measure the growth of personality.’15 It requires that adequate representatives are drawn from the concerned groups. Territorial representation fails to provide adequate and effective representation to minority groups. Such a situation gets further exasperated if the majority and minorities in that area are relatively stable, made of specific social, religious and ethnic cleavages and looked down upon by the majority.

Ambedkar felt that there are some constituencies, such as untouchables, who can be represented only by the untouchables themselves.16 Others cannot understand their situation of dehumanisation, subjugation, denial of respect which one man owes to another as a human being and the denial of rights of citizenship that ensues therefrom. The representative should not merely hail from such a constituency but should be able to effectively highlight its concerns, monitor them across contending interests and pursue their implementation. Further, representation should be ‘in such numbers as will constitute a force sufficient to claim redress.’



Opportunity for social interaction afforded through presence is particularly important for the constitution of a healthy and confident self. In interaction with others a person constitutes himself or herself. Valued or degraded understanding of oneself has to a great extent to do with one’s location in such interactions. ‘What one is as a person is what one is as associated with others.’17 Social exclusion can greatly impair the growth of the human person and communities as has been the case with untouchables in India.

Untouchables have been denied their very personhood and consequently the basis of their treatment as equals. They ‘have their very persona confiscated. The socio-religious disabilities have dehumanised the untouchables and their interests at stake are therefore the interests of humanity.’ What they have been deprived of is something basic that is ‘incomparably of greater interest than interests of property.’18 Social interactions treat untouchables as nobodies and others try to construct superior selves of themselves on that basis.

The former, he says, are like ‘Plato’s slaves’ who ‘accept from another the purposes which control their conduct.’ They are denied their ability to make their choices and consequently their agency. They are socialised ‘never to complain’ or expect ‘improvement in their lot’ or to expect ‘common respect which one man owes to another.’19 The consequence of social dispositions as expressed in untouchability is to deprive its victims from claiming the right of citizenship embodying such claims as personal liberty, equality before the law, liberty of conscience, freedom of opinion and speech, right of assembly, right of representation in the country’s government and right to hold office.



Ambedkar’s second set of arguments for preferential consideration are grounded on equality as an attribute of every person and admitting to this worth the kind of engagement each person should have in a polity. Preferential considerations remove obstacles and enable people to act as equals.

For Ambedkar, equality is not merely a juridical notion as equality before the law, or a political notion as equality of treatment. It is a value that denotes what kind of consideration we need to extend to others and in turn demand from others for ourselves. It sets standards for our ways of life and thereby sustains a regime of rights. Democracy can become a way of life only by extending equal consideration to others.

Ambedkar problematizes regard for equal consideration. Empirically men and women are quite unequal. Our experience highlights numerous facets of human inequality rather than equality. ‘A man’s power is dependent upon (i) physical heredity, (ii) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything which enables him to be more efficient than the savage, and finally, (iii) on his own efforts. In all these three respects men are undoubtedly unequal.’20 The fact of inequality stares us in our face.



He, therefore, called belief in human equality as a construct or a fiction which should nonetheless be considered a governing principle. Only when we uphold equality of men we will not run counter to some of our other deeply held beliefs. Those beliefs become tenable only on the presupposition of equality.

If heredity and upbringing which make men unequal constitute the measure of their estimation, then their efforts, i.e., what they do with their lives, will not be the basis of social relations. Human agency expressed in their efforts will not find recognition. It would ‘not be the selection of the able. It would be the selection of the privileged.’21 Human endeavour and agency will find due acknowledgement only if we treat people equally with respect to heredity and inheritance.22 Therefore, birth and natural assets, education that is not funded out of one’s own earnings, family name, business connections and inherited wealth cannot be the basis for allotment of resources.23



Ambedkar placed another argument for equality in Buddha’s mouth. ‘In the struggle for existence if inequality is recognised as the rule of the game the weakest will always go to the wall.’24 Is it right? Some people are positively disposed to it. They reason: ‘It will help the fittest to survive.’ It does not, however, tell us, ‘Who is the fittest? And are the fittest the best from view of the society?’ ‘Equality may help the best to survive even though the best may not be the fittest.’25

This view is supplemented by the argument that a social body can bring out the best in men and women only when initial equality is extended to them. Utility and progress demand that we treat people on an equal basis. In this case Ambedkar specifies equality as accorded ‘initially’. It does not demand that equality of opportunity remains the condition throughout, disregarding the effort put in by people.

He formulated a fourth argument by appealing to pragmatism. It demands that people be treated equally as it helps us to avoid the traps of unfair treatment. Statesmen have to handle vast numbers. It is well nigh impossible to go on the basis of need or capacity particularly as they are susceptible to continuous changes. Therefore, with fairness in view, the rough and ready rule is, ‘To treat all men alike not because they are alike but because classification and assortment is impossible.’26

The argument of initial equality and equality of treatment work cumulatively. If there is no initial equality there cannot be equality of treatment subsequently. If in the initial run, resources and opportunities are unequal then they would beget unequal individuals, obviously for no fault of theirs. Extending equality of treatment to them, subsequently, will reproduce the unequal condition rather than make amends for it. Preferential treatment makes amends to initial inequality and the distortions it throws up in equality of treatment. It reinforces equality and does not undermine it.



Ambedkar advanced primarily two approaches for preferential treatment that a polity could pursue: the community centred/consociational and the liberal-nationalist, although they are not wholly watertight and often there is a good deal of mix of the two in a concrete setting.

The first approach holds good when society is made up of identities, closed on themselves, that have become independent players on the political scene. These identities are of a relatively durable nature such as based on religion, ethnicity and so on. Here the primary actors are communities and identities, and the political order has to invariably rest on them. Special arrangements for representation of the weaker communities need to made in this context by according additional weightage to them.



When communities have become primary players on the political scene, to offer joint electorate to a minority even with reservation will not affect the dominance of the majority. In unreserved constituencies the majority can simply ignore the minority and in reserved constituencies a minority candidate cannot win an election without the blessings of the majority. It will be granting ‘office without power.’

Under such a political configuration the legislature and executive cannot be merely based on majority support, given the fact that the majority is not merely a political majority but a communal one. It should enjoy the confidence of the minorities as well. Under such circumstances, ‘majority rule is not a sacrosanct principle.’ In general, majority rule is tolerated for two reasons: (i) ‘It is a political majority’ and therefore, (ii) ‘It accepts and absorbs so much of the point of view of the minority that the minority does not care to rebel against the decision’27 of the majority. This is not the case when communities closed in on themselves become primary units on the political scene.

Under such a dispensation, he felt, all communities should be represented in the prescribed proportion in public services subject to minimum qualification, education and age, with no single community having a monopoly. The disadvantaged groups should enjoy special safeguards in services and in the allocation of resources with built-in mechanisms of accountability.

As the constitution is susceptible to amendment, these arrangements even though agreed upon may not last long. In States and Minorities, Ambedkar proposed a complex scheme wherein such constitutional changes do not have an adverse bearing on minorities and if they are effected, the majority needs to elicit popular approval for such measures. If communities are closed in on themselves, then the disadvantaged communities, particularly the untouchables, will scarcely find openings in the employment market. Therefore, the state may have to exercise a decisive say on a large part of the economy by bringing it under public control and accord constitutional status for the concerned provisions.



Such a community-centred scheme of arrangements and preferences should be further buttressed by a charter of fundamental/civil rights available to one and all which legislative majorities cannot override. These rights should include the specific claims of minorities including the removal of civic disabilities of certain communities such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Such a charter, he felt, should include the right to religious liberty; the right to establish and run religious and charitable institutions; adequate safeguards for the protection of religion, culture and personal law; provisions for the promotion of their education and languages and self-government; protection to the charitable institutions of minority communities and assurances to their due share in grants-in-aid by the state.

Ambedkar proposed a radically different approach towards preferential considerations, which I have termed liberal-nationalist, in situations when group identities are more open. In this case members of the groups participate across the board in shared values and interests irrespective of their group affiliations. There is greater trust and sense of belonging to a shared order among communities beyond their immediate identity concerns. Economic, political and cultural policies pursued in common further reinforce such bonds. Shared institutions and regulations are in place. Communities and identities may still come in but as secondary to a shared system of rules and regulations. There is an expressed or assumed conception of a unified nationalism upheld by such a dispensation.

Under such conditions Ambedkar favours individual rights, universal franchise and joint electorate with reservation for the disadvantaged. He is not inimical to a strong emphasis on a unitary state28 and an unqualified emphasis on joint responsibility of the cabinet29 under such conditions. He is prepared to go the whole hog with a unified conception of nationalism under such circumstances, envisaging the possibility of transcending communal cleavages.30



Under such circumstances he unequivocally stood for joint electorate with reservation for untouchables if the polity is based on universal franchise. In case of limited franchise, he demanded separate electorate for untouchables for obvious reasons. Detailed arrangements to constitute multi-member electoral constituencies to foster common identity, mechanisms to promote equal citizenship and a democratic temper were for him be important considerations under such circumstances.

Such a system is sustained on the basis of a guarantee of civil rights to all, alongside certain special considerations towards the disadvantaged. Besides fundamental rights, abolition of untouchability, legislation against social persecution, liability of officials for instances of persecution and right to appeal become important provisions under these conditions. The distinctive emphasis is on equal rights and deference to the disadvantaged. Emphasis remains on education, open recruitment to the army, special police protection, and so on, as sources and conditions of enablement.



Under such circumstances the particularisms of civil society are not allowed to intrude into the universal agency of the state. Under these conditions Ambedkar favoured a strong welfarist conception of the state. The target of criticism is not so much the communal majority but the existing state which falls short of its universalist mission.31

In this context Ambedkar underscored the difference between minorities and such disadvantaged groups as untouchables in India. Although there is the danger of discrimination to minorities, it is qualitatively minor as compared to what the untouchables have to suffer: The latter are not entitled to a range of civic rights available to minorities and are subject to social persecution unlike the former. On the other hand, in the community-based approach, the situation of minorities and Scheduled Castes is perceived as much more akin. The danger of boycott, instigation to boycott and threat of boycott is present for minorities as they are to Scheduled Castes against which they have to be insured.32



There are corrective mechanisms suggested against incursions of vested interests from the social arena or the partisanship of certain apparatuses of the state, as also effective and appropriate remedy. ‘What is important to an individual is not that his rights should be declared but he should have the remedy in order to enforce those rights.’33 Other mechanisms to guard over the deviation of the state are suggested such as public service commissions with provisions to safeguard the integrity and security of tenure of its members. Special departmental care is sought for depressed classes to watch over the interests of the depressed classes and promote their welfare.

Ambedkar’s considerations on preferential treatment assume a specific theory of representation drawing upon conceptions of the human person, value of sociability, equality and democracy. These considerations are acceptable to the extent one is in agreement with their theoretical presuppositions. For him a theory of representation needs to be socially sensitive and should not simply assume that representatives are committed to an unalloyed pursuit of common good. The disadvantaged have great stakes in who represents them and how.

A scheme of preference should afford greater public presence to the disadvantaged. This, in turn, will help checkmate the monopoly over public space by the dominant sections. A preferential regime creates conditions for the crafting of a confident self which in the case of the untouchables is trampled underfoot through exclusion, abuse and denigration. Preferential consideration is closely tied with the pursuit of equality and all that it implies in terms of the distribution of rights and liberties, opportunities and powers. It calls for effective public measures and interventions for the purpose. Preferential treatment can enormously strengthen democracy, not merely as a formal device of constituting public authority but as a way of life.



The specific schemes of preferential treatment are contextual and depend largely upon the nature of the political community, and may greatly vary within the same polity. While the disadvantaged need differential consideration in all societies, the specific measures – legislative, executive and developmental – needed for the purpose depend upon how diverse communities and identities relate themselves to public life.

Ambedkar formulated his preferential regime in the context of the rise of the welfare state.34 How would such a regime engage with a polity in the throes of liberalization? Though Ambedkar did not confront such a situation, his preferred response would be that a democratic polity committed to rights and pursing equality as underscored above would be the best judge in the context. Such a response may not satisfy many who are caught in the contested trajectories of such pursuits. Nevertheless Ambedkar’s moral and political stances are helpful in specifying issues without necessarily pre-empting the options before the polity.

Ambedkar primarily emphasized the role of the state in attending to issues of disadvantage and for upholding the concerns of the disadvantaged as citizens. The state is the voice of the citizen-collective and it cannot shirk this responsibility. If a polity opts for liberalization, it cannot be market-driven but needs to uphold the will of the citizen-collective. A state approaches concerns of preferential consideration, not merely programmatically, that is, by adopting a set of policies and programmes, but by striving towards an ideological consensus across society through a number of apparatuses and interventions open to it.



While the state plays such a role, Ambedkar felt that it is the disadvantaged themselves, and in the Indian context they are the dalits, adivasis and similar social groups, who should decide what is good for them while respecting the rights of the others. Ambedkar would definitely have suggested representative fora of these social groups to devise what they consider as reasonable policies to be pursued in this context. Deliberation of this kind and the specific proposals flowing from them requires that the polity remains open and transactional. In its absence, there would not be anything wrong if the disadvantaged groups were to mount unilateral pressures, including pressure to retract from liberalization or any of its specific expressions.

For Ambedkar equality is a moral value that foregrounds pursuit of rights including rights to property. Those who are not deferential towards equality cannot claim respect towards their rights including their rights to property, contract and transactions. Promotion of equal consideration is as much a responsibility of civil society as it is of the state.

The devices available to a society to pursue equality may be diverse although all of them cannot be invoked or invoked to an equal measure and even if we do such measures may not be effective. Reservation in employment in the private sector or affirmative policy of the kind in vogue in the United States could be such options but a reasonable presumption needs to be made in favour of them – whether they indeed are the best options to promote equality or should they be pursued alongside other measures. Ambedkar himself would have favoured such options as they can partially extend palpable benefits and heighten the presence of disadvantaged groups in civil society, much as the preferential policies pursued by the state have done in India.



But the benefits that can accrue from employment in the private sector or even from affirmative action policies would be confined to a few and leave out the vast majority from the ambit of their reach. Ambedkar would, therefore, in addition, favour a massive intervention by the state to institute empowering and enabling measures of a positive kind in the social, economic and cultural arenas among which education, health, food security, housing and a minimum threshold of guaranteed employment would be basic.

This is definitely not the case today and the kind of benefits that are made available are despicable in quality. Instead of empowerment they reproduce hierarchical relations by distinguishing their beneficiaries from those who pay for these benefits in the marketplace. Besides, steps need to be taken to ensure security of possessions of the disadvantaged such as land, resources, traditional knowledges, respect and honour. Further, there are other interventions of a negative kind needed to prevent atrocities and violations of those respects which Ambedkar said ‘a man owes to another man.’


1. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Evidence Before the Southborough Committee’, Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (BAWS), Vol. I, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, pp. 243-278.

2. Ibid., p. 247.

3. Ibid., p. 255.

4. Ibid.

5. BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 262.

6. BAWS, Vol. 1, p .2 66.

7. Ibid.

8. BAWS, Vol.2, p. 362.

9. BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 363.

10. This distinction evoked huge controversy in the Indian national struggle particularly around the conjuncture of the Poona Pact. For the Poona Pact, see, Pyarelal, The Epic Fast, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, 1958 and Ravindra Kumar, ‘Gandhi, Ambekdar and the Poona Pact, 1932’, in Jim Masselos (ed.), Struggling and Ruling, Sterling, New Delhi, 1987.

11. BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 374. Ambedkar, however, favoured joint electorate only during certain phases – in his deputation before the Simon Commission, during the Poona Pact and in its immediate aftermath, and during the phase of constitution-making of free India. During other periods he demanded separate electorate in an emphatic way. In the former instances he saw greater openness between communities to come out of their ghettoes and to reach out to others.

12. For Ambedkar a policy measure is justified by its social bearing and not religious implications.

13. Ibid., p. 247.

14. Ibid., p. 251.

15. Ibid.

16. BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 256.

17. BAWS, Vol. 2, p.

18. BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 55.

19. Ibid.

20. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Annhilation of Caste’, in Valerian Rodrigues (ed.), The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, p. 276. These arguments are repeated by Ambedkar later on, almost verbatim, See, B.R. Ambedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma, Siddharth, Bombay, 1974 (second ed., first pub., 1957), p. 221.

21. B.R. Ambekdar, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (BAWS), Vol. 1-16, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, Vol.1, p. 58.

22. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Annhilation of Caste’, op. cit., p. 277.

23. Ibid. For similar arguments discounting natural assets and talents from desert, See, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973, p. 12 & 507-511, and Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002, pp. 85-92.

24. B.R. Ambedkar, The Budha and His Dhamma, op. cit.

25. Ibid.

26. BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 58.

27. BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 379.

28. BAWS, Vol.2, p. 507.

29. BAWS, Vol. 2, pp. 514-515.

30. See, BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 517.

31. Interestingly, Gandhi challenges Ambedkar and refuses to concede special representation to untouchables on the overt plea of bringing about a fissure in Hinduism when Ambedkar is making demands for equal liberties and special consideration to the diadvantaged. At this stage Ambedkar was far from making any overtures to create fissures within Hinduism from the point of view of the analysis that he put across.

32. BAWS, Vol. 1, pp. 398-400.

33. BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 539.

34. It is to be noted that Ambedkar studied at the London School of Economics securing an M.A. and D.Sc. in Economics. He attended several lectures of Sydney Webb at the School and was close to many intellectuals and politicians inclined towards labour politics and Fabian persuasions.