The riveting story of how the rolls for the first general elections were created
Ornit Shani. How India Became Democratic: Citizenship And The Making Of The Universal Franchise. India Viking. 2017.
India is by far the most complex country in the world. No other country has as many societal fault lines — caste/community, religion, language, land/property holding, education level, and, of course, economic class. These fault lines are further exaggerated by the sheer size of its population. Even the smallest group, by any classification, is the size of a small country.
In 1947, this complexity presented itself in the form of an enormous question — in a democratic India, who should be allowed to vote? The answer — universal adult franchise — was a leap of faith. Independent India inherited a lot of colonial administrative legacy for reasons of continuity and convenience; but the idea of universal adult franchise was not one of them. This was independent India’s first dream. All previous elections in British India had limited, and separate, electorates. At best, less than 20 per cent of adults were deemed eligible to vote.
The prerequisite to achieve this audacious dream of universal adult franchise was the preparation of an electoral roll across the country. This couldn’t be fulfilled through incremental small steps. The entire electoral roll had to be ready before the elections.
Between 1947 and 1949, while India was still a dominion and yet to become a republic, this gigantic task of creating the electoral roll for the first general election, was embarked upon and completed. Indians became voters before they became citizens. How India Became Democratic, by Israeli scholar Ornit Shani, is the meticulously researched and rivetingly told story of how this was achieved and of the unsung heroes who did it.
The turmoil of Partition and the process of integration of the 552 princely states meant that the question “who is a citizen of India?” was a heavily contested one. While the Constituent Assembly debated this, a group, that would later morph into Election Commission of India, was set up under the Constituent Assembly secretariat to oversee the preparation of the electoral rolls.
The sheer scale of this exercise was unprecedented in human history. No one expected it to happen. But it did. And it did because of a tireless group of junior level bureaucrats fired by a missionary zeal. One of the biggest obstacles in their efforts was the machination by local officials to block certain groups of people to be recognised as voters on one pretext or the other. Such disenfranchised people wrote to the Constituent Assembly secretariat and the absolutely amazing thing was that every single letter was responded to.
The dominant school of thought in 1947, at least amongst the global cynics, was that India doesn’t have what it takes to be democratic. Not only was it too fragmented socially, the primary allegiance of the people was to caste/community/religion and not to the state. In addition, the average Indian was despairingly poor and uneducated. In such a scenario, one citizen, one vote was not only a foolish idea but also an idea that would find very few takers, because what would a poor, uneducated person care about the idea of a country over the idea of caste and community. The way the people responded, insisting on having their names on the rolls, and by extension, having a stake in their country, showed how misplaced this notion was, and laid the foundation for electoral democracy in India.
One of the side effects was that India ended up with a single, centralised Election Commission, instead of multiple state-level election commissions. Babasaheb Ambedkar realised that at the state level, people would be vulnerable to the whims and prejudices of the local officials.
Democracy certainly doesn’t end with, but it most definitely begins with, the right to vote. And the right to vote begins with your name on the electoral rolls. The heroic story of how India managed this in the traumatic aftermath of Partition and the consolidation of the world’s largest and most complex democracy is a story each one of us should be proud of. It’s what has given a voice to hundreds of millions of people from the social and economic underbelly of our country, and ensured that we don’t go the way of many other countries that came out of colonisation at the same time as us.
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