Awakenings: Freedom to Dream

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Ornit Shani in conversation with Puneeta Roy

 

Harish Alagappa, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger

 

One of the fundamental rights granted to all Indian citizens is Universal Franchise. Every Indian citizen above the age of 18, regardless of gender, caste, or income, has the right to vote for their democratic representatives at every level of government. The most recent Indian general election, held in 2014, saw nearly 800 million eligible voters. India is the largest democracy in the world, with an electorate that’s over two and a half times the total population of the next biggest democracy in the world, the United States. Yet, few people contemplate the monumental task that is preparing the electoral rolls for one-fifth of the world’s population.

The Origins of Indian Democracy: Making Universal Franchise and Citizenship in the World’s Largest Democracy, a forthcoming book by Ornit Shani, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, looks at the people who undertook the unimaginably massive task of creating the electoral rolls for India’s first general election in 1951. In a fascinating conversation with youth activist, playwright, and director, Puneeta Roy, Shani said the decision by India’s founding fathers to institute universal franchise was ‘a dream being put into writing. There is a huge difference between deciding on universal franchise and implementing it.’

According to Shani, the unsung heroes of this era were bureaucrats working with the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly. They embarked on this supposedly impossible mission by writing to the bureaucrats in the erstwhile 552 princely states, none of whom had yet decided to join the Indian union. The letters were sent in September 1947, a time when, in Shani’s words, ‘India was being torn apart from the inside.’ Within four months, they had received their responses, all of which were rather matter-of-fact declarations that the task would be done. It is this almost boring fastidiousness that was the key to the success of the operation. According to Shani, ‘I think that precisely because it was treated as a big bureaucratic task and not as an idealistic undertaking, the first elections, and democracy, was successful in India. They were only concerned about operationalizing democracy.’

The 1951 general elections were not the first elections for voters in India. The Government of India Act of 1935 had mandated provincial elections, which were held in 1936-37. However, ‘less than 12% of the Indian population had the right to vote in these elections,’ stated Shani. Furthermore, the electoral rolls were divided along communal lines, and women were only allowed to vote if they were married and their husband owned property. ‘Colonial bureaucrats in 1935 did not give universal franchise because it was impossible, administratively,’ stated Shani, ‘yet, ten years later, a handful of bureaucrats undertook that impossible task.’

Puneeta Roy highlighted that these bureaucrats would have experienced many difficulties, including ‘problems about birth records, topography, and traditional, conservative attitudes.’ Shani revealed that the problems faced were far more basic than that. ‘The logistical problems included a lack of paper for the electoral rolls, and not enough presses to make more paper, as most printing presses were in Lahore, now no longer in India.’

The session ended with questions from the audience, many of whom were surprised to realize that there was such an incredible story behind the first Indian general election. The session concluded, rather appropriately, with Ornit Shani answering a question regarding what the world can learn from India’s first elections. ‘No bureaucracy or administration in the world ever had to perform a task like that, and probably no one ever will,’ she said, ‘But looking at the current state of democracy in the world, where Europe and the USA are trying to deal with the question of how to have a multicultural democracy, India dealt with that problem in the 1940s.’

 

Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor

 

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