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How Indians got the vote

The country’s first election was an ingeniously indigenous an inventive exercise, with unique challenges. The way bureaucracy rose to the task holds lessons for today.

Written by Ornit Shani | Updated: February 15, 2018 12:20 am
The numerous interactions between people and administrators about the preparation of the first draft electoral rolls on the basis of adult franchise were significant for the institutionalisation of India’s democracy. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

Studies of India’s electoral democracy have tended to see it as an inheritance of the British Raj or a product of an elite decision-making and institutional design. In this perspective, democracy and the Constitution were endowed from above. The people had little or no role in making democracy or the Constitution. New archival materials reveal a different, and hitherto unknown, story.

The origin of Indian democracy, in particular the establishment of its edifice through the implementation of universal adult franchise, was an ingeniously Indian enterprise. It was no legacy of colonial rule, and was largely driven by the Indians, often by people of modest means. The turning of all adults into voters was a staggering democratic state-building operation of inclusion and scale, which surpassed any previous experience in democratic world history. This work was undertaken by Indian bureaucrats between August 1947, when the country became independent, and January 1950, when it adopted the Constitution.

The numerous interactions between people and administrators about the preparation of the first draft electoral rolls on the basis of adult franchise were significant for the institutionalisation of India’s democracy. Making procedural equality central to government formation in a hierarchical and unequal society turned electoral democracy into a meaningful and credible story for citizens. Because people from the margins found meaning and a place for themselves in the new polity based on universal adult franchise, they also understood the potential new power of making group identity claims. The SCs and STs turned into voters and could now, under universal franchise, fully partake in the compulsions of electoral politics. The successful implementation of universal franchise by the time the Constitution came into force enabled the insertion of social identities into the design of political representation. Here lay the seeds of the dynamic caste and identity politics, which have both deepened and challenged electoral politics in India.

Through the preparation of electoral rolls, the abstract language, forms and principles of the democratic Constitution obtained a practical basis. The Draft Constitution provided for one election commission for elections to the central legislature and for separate election commissions for each of the states. The final provision, which was informed by the experience of the preparation of the electoral rolls, stipulated an election machinery that was vested in a single autonomous election commission at the Centre.

The principle of universal franchise was adopted at the beginning of the constitutional debates in April 1947. It was a significant departure from elections under colonial rule, which were based on a very limited franchise and a divided electorate. There was a large gap to bridge in turning this constitutional aspiration into reality at Independence, in the midst of the Partition that led to mass killings and the displacement of an estimated 18 million people, while 552 princely states had yet to be integrated into India. The vast majority of the future and largest electorate in history at the time of over 173 million people was poor and illiterate. Realising that the task would be colossal, a few bureaucrats at the secretariat of the Constituent Assembly initiated the preparation of the electoral rolls from November 1947.

The secretariat designed the instructions for the preparation of rolls in consultation with administrators from the provinces and the princely states. In effect, their task was to operationalise the notion of procedural equality for the purpose of electoral voting. They had to imagine a joint list of all adults in the land — women and men of all castes and classes — each carrying the same weight as equal voters. This task was, in essence, revolutionary. The commitment to procedural equality that was cultivated in the process of the preparation of the electoral rolls was strikingly demonstrated when the collector of Bombay, for example, took in November 1948 proactive steps to ensure the voting rights of vagrants, servants and footpath dwellers.

Unsurprisingly, once the actual registration of voters began, distinct forms of disenfranchisement, breaches in the instructions and difficulties surfaced on the ground. In Assam, for example, the reforms commissioner did not initially regard refugees and immigrants as prospective citizens-voters and he instructed district officers not to register “the floating and ‘non-resident’ population”.

In the face of exclusionary practices in the preparation of rolls, a wide range of burgeoning citizens’ organisations began struggling for their voting rights. They wrote numerous letters of complaints to the secretariat, indicating that the provisions and directions that they issued in the pursuit of universal franchise were being undermined on the ground in the preparation of the rolls. Citizens’ organisations also began to demand linking voter’s registration with the acquisition of citizenship. To do so they made their claims on the basis of the Draft Constitution’s citizenship and other provisions, using the Constitution’s language and aspirations, while it was still in the making. Thus, a complaint against the reforms commissioner of Assam suggested that his attitude “definitely engenders civic and political status of a very large number of residents in Assam who are very eager to have their status as citizens of Indian Dominion confirmed during the course of enrolments votes. Our association thinks that enrolment as voters, ipso facto, invests the person so enrolled with the status of a citizen”.

People understood that a “place on the roll” was the most concrete way at the time to secure membership in the new state. It was their title deed to democracy. The responsiveness of the civil service empowered them to do so. The bureaucrats of the secretariat replied to every letter that arrived at their desk. They took actions to redress the problems that arose. In this process, they mentored bureaucrats at all levels and ordinary citizens into the principles of electoral democracy and universal franchise.

The inventive ways in which Indians made their democracy did not necessarily mean that India would become better than other democracies, nor immune from the problems that have beset democracies elsewhere. Indeed, India’s democracy fell short of its constitutional promises, for example, to promote social and economic equality. The rise of belligerent Hindu nationalism has beset its democratic public life and institutions. In these challenging times, when the values and institutions of democracy are under threat, learning about and gaining a new appreciation of how India became democratic might inspire fresh energy for the challenges of the present.

Shani is a senior lecturer at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Haifa. She is the author of ‘How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise’

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  1. Puneet Jain
    Feb 18, 2018 at 1:17 am
    The rise of bellige Hindu nationalism has beset its democratic public life and ins utions.?? THIS IS WHERE I LOST MANY TIMES WHEN THEY START TALKING LIKE POLITICIANS .. THERE ARE NO HINDU AND MUSLIM BELLIGE S . BELLIGE S AND EXTREMIST ARE EQUALLY SPREAD IN ALL RELIGION AND ARE EQUALLY OBNOXIOUS FOR COUNTRY AND SOCIETY . WHEN IN KASHMIR PANDITS WERE THROWN OUT BURNED RAPED DO YOU EVER HAD GUTS TO CALL IT ISLAMIC BELLIGE S . WHEN POLICE OFFICER NAMED AYUB PANDIT WHERE KILLED BY MUSLIM MOB IN KASHMIR DO YOU EVER HAD GUTS TO CALL ISLAMIC BELLIGE S . WHEN ANKIT WAS KIILED IN DELHI IN FRONT OF HER MOTHER CAUSE HE WANTED TO MARRY LADY OF HIS CHOICE DO YOU STILL SEE WORK OF HINDU BELLIGE S ? WHEN RSS MEMBERS WERE KILLED IN KERALA BY SO CALLED LEFT LIBERAL DO YOU STILL SEE IT HINDU BELLIGE S? IF WE WANT TO GET RID OF BELLIGE S OF ALL TYPES IN SOCIETY WE HAVE TO DENOUNCE EVERY ONE EQUALLY NOT MALIGNING ENTIRE COMMUNITY BY BANDING THEM HINDU AND MUSLIM BELLIGE
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    1. Ajat Sha
      Feb 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm
      Oh! Democracy is not under threat by Dynastic Politics but by Hindu nationalism. Every mature democracy in world have distinct right and left like 2 set of wheels in a car. Reason why Indian democracy has not been even more effective as till recently there was no right only extreme left and left.
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      1. Anish Cherian
        Feb 16, 2018 at 2:45 pm
        Do you even understand what right, left and centre. They are not merely positions on an hypothetical line to drew to denote political understanding. Right wing or facist, neither words would mean anything unless you understand what their ideology means to the people, and then the nation. But always the people first. What is happening in our country cur ly is a crackdown on all democratic ins utions and values, a crackdown on the basic rights that enable a pluralist nation like ours sustain so far. Please understand the consequences of right wing actions, perhaps even look for their intrinsic reason for such actions. And question the far-left too, look at the reasons behind agitations of people affiliated with these movements. Am sure you would sympathise more with people who have been stripped of their resources their basic right. Rather than fight for an ideology that believes in supremacy of one group over the other.
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        1. Anish Cherian
          Feb 16, 2018 at 2:47 pm
          apologies for the many typo'. The mistakes are an account of my sincere plea to see beyond mere need for agitation to attack an idea that you do not readily reckon.
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          1. K
            Kashyap
            Feb 19, 2018 at 8:53 am
            What makes you think Hindus need sermons from christians about Hindutva? I wouldn't care about Hindutva if these insects called missionaries are thrown out of the country
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        2. Narendra M. Apte
          Feb 15, 2018 at 12:24 pm
          1. I agree with author’s view that when values and ins utions of democracy are under threat, learning about and gaining a new appreciation of how India became democratic might inspire fresh energy for the challenges of the present. In another article which appeared in IE, author expressed a view that ancient policies did not create or sustain our post 1947 democracy. 2. Views of Ms Ornit Shani author of this article are to be considered in view of verification of voters’ registration in Assam where it is alleged that a large number of Bangladeshi Muslims have registered as voters in the past. People always migrate in search of s and if Bangladeshis have done it and settled in Assam, first thing to be done is to accept that indeed people have moved to Assam. Then we must find a democratic way to deal with the problem. Nothing much will be gained either by not accepting fact of migration or by efforts to de-franchise the migrants years after they migrated.
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          1. Z
            zameer
            Feb 15, 2018 at 3:33 pm
            Why specific Bangladeshi Muslims ? why not Bangladeshi Hindus and Pakistani Hindus ?
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            ashish
            Feb 15, 2018 at 12:16 pm
            Democracy, the luxury of doing nothing, is something that developing countries can ill-afford.
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            1. S
              Sanat
              Feb 15, 2018 at 9:34 am
              Lol the people who forcefully occupied Palestine by thumping up Jewish nationalism are giving us sermons about Hindu nationalism. Israel has killed thousands of Palestinians in a land which is rightfully theirs. The only place where Jews weren't cuted was India and that too because of a Hindu king. This is precisely why we need Hindu Nationalism to stay beware of treacherous people like you who can back stab whenever they like. First give the land of Palestinians back and then teach us about nationalism.
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