How Indians Became Voters before Citizens

It is suggested that we should initiate the preparations of Electoral rolls as a separate operation. Let us prepare the plan for the whole nation’.

A month after Indian Independence in Sept 1947, the Constituent Assembly started working on the first draft of the constitution that was prepared by a set of senior bureaucrats of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) – the non-partisan, executive branch of the Assembly. The eminent jurist and bureaucrat B.N. Rau was leading the team.

But the CAS team had to surmount another massive challenge even as the draft constitution was getting debated. Universal adult franchise was adopted by the elected members of the Constituent Assembly in April 1947 – that every adult Indian had the right to vote, irrespective of their background. There were two issues with it – in 1947, there was no definition of who an Indian citizen was. Secondly, the practical process of turning all adult Indians into voters – a gigantic number already – seemed an impossible task.

‘You Indians have just empty dreams of universal adult franchise. 85% of your people are dumb and illiterate. 50% are women who don’t even treat themselves as individuals – they prefer being called ‘wife of ABC’ or ‘daughter of xyz’. The bloody partition has given you 18 million refugees to handle. Your 552 princely states and their subjects have to still identify themselves as Indian citizens’

It was not just the Colonial rulers saying this at that time. Even the Indian representatives thought it was not administratively feasible. The concept of universal adult franchise was just on paper and seemed like a pipe dream of an infant nation.  

The then prevalent Govt of India Act of 1935 had just three categories of voters: General, European and Mohameddan. Women who were divorced, widows or whose husbands lost property were deemed not fit to vote. Property ownership was the key criterion. To treat everyone as an equal was an anathema.

With overwhelming odds stacked against them, B.N Rau and the CAS team first reached out to all the premiers of the provinces and states with one request: ‘Imagine that your whole adult population are capable equal voters, each carrying the same weight. Let us know how you can get them all on rolls and the difficulties you might face‘. This spurred the country wide admin bureaucracy into action. Every province reverted with their plans and suggestions in 4 months. But Travancore showed the way.

In Feb 1948, the Govt of Travancore, was already preparing for its first elections on the basis of adult franchise for an electorate of 2.95 mn people. The 6 page document they shared with the CAS team detailed the systems, processes and their learnings that eventually became the All India Circular that B.N. Rao sent out to kickstart the world’s largest electoral enrollment on March 15th 1948.

Nothing was left ambigious. From details on how each form was to be filled and a process to ensure migrants and refugees names were not missed. From allowing womens’ names to be taken as ‘wife of abc’ or ‘daughter of xyz’ to specifying the number of rows of names on every foolscap page. It was a colossal, country wide effort by the officers of the Indian administrative system.

India won Independence on Aug 15th 1947. The elected members of the Constituent Assembly gave us our Constitution on Jan 26th, 1950.

But the real credit for making every Indian proud and deeply feel what it meant to exist and belong in indpendent India must go to the CAS team and their officers. When the local admin officer walked into the household, in an urban ward, or a remote village, and said:

‘Under the new Indian Constitution which is getting drafted, you have the right to vote and elect your leader. Your vote is equal to every other Indian. We are here to enroll you on the electoral rolls of India’

This was the first real moment of inclusion and equality for every adult Indian.

The CAS team created history by completing the electoral rolls and handed over the list of ~150 million people well before India became a Republic on 26th Jan 1950.

And that’s how Indians became Voters before Citizens.  

Best Wishes on the 72nd Republic Day!


Ornit Shani’s pathbreaking book on ‘How India Became Democratic’ – has been a rivetting read. This entire post is credited to what I could glean from this book.

There is a lot that is talked about the Constituent Assembly and the great leaders – especially Dr. B.R.Ambedkar who is rightfully hailed as the Father and Chief Architect of the Indian Constitution. What is less known are the stories of the unsung foot soldiers – the much maligned officers of Indian buearacracy who played the role in concretizing the ideas of these great leaders that were in the realms of imagination – at the best on paper.

Many countries tried to implement Universal Adult suffrage. Very few succeeded. Pakistan, which also got its independence at the same time, with the same ideals, could conduct its first elections with complete adult franchise only in 1970.

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