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(In this second essay in our Roundtable on Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic, political philosopher Professor Anupama Roy, author of Gendered Citizenship, examines some of the book’s central claims.)

It is not often that one comes across a book which is an outcome of meticulous spadework in the archives opening up for scholarly attention a lesser known aspect of the making of the Indian Republic and democracy. Ornit Shani’s book on the preparation of the electoral roll for the first general election in India, which followed for the first time, the principle of universal adult franchise, is remarkable – quite like the feat Shani has studied in the book – both in terms of the enormity of the task and fortitude in the face of the labour involved.

Through an examination of the bureaucratic processes of the preparation of the electoral roll, Shani seeks to establish two points, both of which are of significance to the way in which scholars have thought about citizenship in India. Shani argues that Indians became voters before they became citizens (p.5). Indeed, it was in the course of the preparation of the preliminary electoral rolls from November 1947, set in motion by the ‘the note’ sent from the Constituent Assembly Secretariat to the various provinces and states of India that the process of inserting ‘the people’ into the administrative structures of the state was initiated. Indeed, it was the quest for a ‘place in the roll’, argues Shani, which prepared the ground for ‘the conceptions and principles of democratic citizenship that were produced in the process of constitution making from above’ (p.7).

A second point that Shani makes is about the relationship between democracy and the political imagination of the people of India, arguing that it was the implementation of universal franchise that elicited ‘both a sense of Indianness and commitment to democratic nationhood…’ (p.2). Moreover, she argues that it was in the contestations and the language of interaction that was produced at the ground level, in the process of making the roll, that political imagination itself was democratised (p.6).

These points are made painstakingly through a study of archival sources drawn primarily from the Election Commission’s internal records, which Shani was fortunate to access for two years before they were shifted to the National Archives in Delhi, Constituent Assembly Debates, and other official sources along with newspaper archives and interviews with Election Commissioners. Each of the six chapters which comprise the book, work out an aspect of the preparation of the electoral roll, and together they cover roughly the period between 1947-48 and 1949-1950. This was broadly the period from the beginning of the preparation of the electoral roll to the time the Election Commission started functioning as an integrated institution, under Sukumar Sen, the first Chief Election Commissioner of India.

In my discussion of these points, I will tease out some of the broad arguments which emerge in the book to show their complexity, but also how in each case there could be space for another argument, or an argument different from the one Shani makes.

  1. Genealogy of the ‘people’:

The concept of the ‘people’ is central to the universalist imaginings of modernity. It is abstract but also historically specific and can be traced through many genealogies, in which it assumes diverse forms. If one were to trace a particular genealogy of the people, one has to work out its formation in specific historical contexts, the meanings that are attributed to it, and the manner in which it operationalises itself. In the postcolonial context in India, the people were constituted at a pan-Indian scale of anti-colonial struggles for self-determination, but also in, and through specific sites where struggles took place against local power formations. The people were also constituted as the repository of sovereign power when they gave themselves the constitution on 26th November 1949 – a Constitution that they had enacted (through the Constituent Assembly). That the people also held constituent power was stated emphatically in Article 395 of the Constitution, which repealed the Indian Independence Act, severed all relations with colonial authority, and rejected the chain of validation which required that the Indian Constitution be placed before the Crown-in-Parliament for validation. The electoral domain was another space where the people acquired meaning and form – the people were constituted through a collective act of voting ‘simultaneously’ in a manifestation of unfettered popular sovereignty, achieved through the deferral of political authority, which is concentrated in the apparatus of the state.

The meaning of the people communicated through these diverse forms is identified with a specific ‘action’, which when expressed, constitutes the people as a collective body – emblematic as well as physical and corporeal. Ornit Shani makes a significant argument about the way in which ‘universal’ franchise inserted the principle of equality in the electoral roll and consequently a democratic disposition (p.18) among the people who were responsible for preparing the roll. On the other hand, in the process of acquiring a ‘place on the roll’, adult franchise played a role in connecting the people to a popular democratic imagination (p.19). I was curious how the big connection between a bureaucratic process and democratic imagination could be made. If one were to read the documents and communications among the administrators as accounts of how they managed to achieve the impossible task of registering Indians as voters, as a prelude to the next step of actually voting in an election (described by Sukumar Sen as ‘a massive act of faith’), it could appear to be a problem of administering an election efficiently, rather than making people feel equal, and make the leap to a horizontal camaraderie of equals.

In chapter 3 on the electoral roll as a ‘serialised epic’, Shani suggests that preparation of the electoral roll on the basis of universal adult franchise became part of the ‘popular narrative’. This narrative played a role in connecting people to a popular democratic imagination, ‘referring to manner in which it became not merely a system of rules that were to be observed but also part of the normative world of people and the stories, individuals make of it themselves’ (p.86). In the conclusion (p.253) Shani takes the argument further to say that through a process of consultation, the Constituent Assembly Secretariat engaged public officials, people and citizens association in the details of voter registration and citizenship, mentoring them into both the abstract principle and practices of electoral democracy. so much so that ‘people and administrators began using the draft constitution to pursue their citizenship and voting rights, and they linked its abstract text to their everyday lives’ (p. 252-53). Most of the material Shani discusses concerns the humungous ask of enrolling the entire adult population, in which ‘awkward’ categories – the refugees, displaced persons and women presented challenges of different kinds. This took place in an absence of an electoral law on the modalities of elections, without a precise legal-constitutional framework on citizenship, and the provinces were beset with specific problems pertaining to registration. In this literature it is difficult to find a corresponding ‘pervasive popular narrative’ on franchise, which according to Shani was of an order which ‘communicated substantially and therefore convincingly, India’s movement towards becoming a democracy’ (p.89). One would assume that such a narrative did exist, but a tangible and substantial expression of that is not present convincingly in what Shani calls the ‘serialised epic’.

  1. Chronosophy of ‘citizenship’:

Immanuel Wallerstein cautioned against a linear narrative of historical change, to argue that historical transformations do not take place sequentially in ascendant or descendant forms, but are uneven and undulating, punctuated by conscious decisions made along the way. When Shani makes the point about Indians becoming voters before they became citizens, she is perhaps referring to the fact that the legal affirmation of citizenship happened only with the commencement of the Constitution. While there was a legal vaccum on who were Indian citizens (there were in fact two periods of such vacuum between 1947 and 1949 and then again between 1949 and 1955, when the Citizenship Act of India was passed by the Parliament), it did not mean that questions of legal citizenship were not being addressed in ‘problem’ cases through instructions from the CAS. Indeed, the questions of legal citizenship were coming up and were being addressed primarily in the context of preparing the electoral roll, since only citizens could vote. Indeed, rather then a sequential development, one could perhaps see them as overlapping and simultaneous, taking shape through documentation practices of the state, and alongside the development of the institutions of the state and their functional differentiation. Indeed, over the years, (and controversially so) resolution of the contest over citizenship in the preparation of electoral roll has come within the purview of the ‘superintendence and control’ of elections function of the Election Commission of India (under Article 324).

An important point that Shani seems to be making is that in the process of finding a place on the electoral roll, a political community organised on the principle of horizontal camaraderie of equals could now be ‘imagined’. We may see the imagination of a community of equals marking the transcendental moment of independence, the emphatic rupture from the past, and the ‘triumphal’ democratic imaginary, which is a component of democratic citizenship. This imagination can, however, exist independent of the constitutional/legal frameworks of citizenship, as well as the statutory frameworks determining who can vote. Indeed, the peculiarity of the electoral roll and the legal and conceptual association/dissociation of the two – voter and citizen – is evident in the contests over the electoral roll in Assam. In the National Register of Citizens being prepared in Assam, a citizen-resident of Assam is required to trace his/her lineage to the electoral roll of 1971 in Assam, and then buttress it with the legacy data going back to the 1951 NRC of the state.

  1. Constitutionalism, State Formation and ‘Anticipatory Citizens’:

The period 1947 to 1950 is replete with polyrhythms of the democratic imaginary, one of which Shani writes about, i.e., the preparation of the electoral roll. The framing of the Constitution was another rhythm of democracy being produced at the time. As a deliberative body which was entrusted with the task of making the higher order rules from which all future governments would draw their authority and legitimacy, the debates in the Constituent Assembly enacted a space for the public, where questions concerning the future polity were debated and resolved. Baxi sees this process as following the imperative of locating the legal sovereign amidst ‘prior [and continuing] histories of power and struggle’. These struggles shaped the project of writing the constitution, the ‘specific modes of governance and production of juridical norms’, and also the relationship between the constitution, law and the ongoing state formative practices (Baxi, 2008, 93). The process of enrolling electors broke free from the colonial practice of what Shani calls the ‘guided democracy’ disposition of the colonial bureaucracy (p.34) to instill a new set of bureaucratic attitude in the bureaucracy based on the ‘procedural equality of voting’. While agreeing that the enrollment practices marked a rupture from the colonial past, is it possible to see the registration of electors as part of another tendency, which has to do with state formation? Indeed, as a body framing the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly also alternated as the Legislature and the government, taking decisions, which were percolating down to officials at the local levels. The various flows of communication between the government functionaries, across Ministries and Departments, the Constituent Assembly and the Legislative Assembly, give an insight into the ‘innards’ of the state, the manner in which the separation of powers among institutions, their own understanding of these powers, the problem of drawing boundaries between and among institutions, and more generally the emergence of broad patterns of settling in of institutions and institutional practices, and the governmentalisation of the state was taking place through deliberations.

The governmental regime of enrolling voters, for example, involved working with a new principle of registration (procedural equality) but at the same time it was also a task of sifting and sorting, of devising administrative and legal categories e.g., displaced persons, refugees, evacuees, abandoned women, classifying and categorizing those occupying the liminal spaces of citizenship, to include them in different ways. The excision of ‘descriptive’ women from the universal roll is one example. The other example is how displaced persons continued to pose a problem for the Election Commission when the electoral roll was being finalised before the first general election, after the Representation of the People Acts came into existence. As Shani has mentioned, the Constituent Assembly had decided that the names of all displaced person be included in the voter’s list on the strength of their oral declaration. According to the narrative report of the Election Commission of India on the first general election, the states were instructed to enroll all such persons in the electoral rolls and a distinguishing mark be placed against their names, so that their citizenship status may be confirmed later after the Constitution came into force. In finalizing the electoral roll, the marked voters presented and also experienced problems. In Delhi, for example, which had a large number of displaced persons who resided in temporary shelters when the electoral rolls started being prepared, had by September 1951, when the rolls were published and publicized, shifted to colonies and townships set up for their rehabilitation. These voters were then not entitled to vote in the polling stations, which were set up in the localities in which they came to finally reside. The localities in which they were originally resident and had enrolled to vote, now formed a part of another constituency. The displaced persons experienced their enrollment as voters differently, therefore, and aspired for ‘natural constituencies’ based on shared interests, rather than constituencies following a territorial grid. On page 129 Shani does argue that ‘the preparation of the electoral roll was a state building project of the largest possible scale in terms of its population and territorial reach’. This argument would then indicate a logic of state building in terms of reaching to its population spread over a definitive territory (embracing and encompassing functions of the modern state, as John Torpey would say) pointing towards an imperative different from that of a democratic imaginary. Read with the earlier argument on enrollment practices contributing towards making a democratic imaginary of a people, this argument presents a paradox, which inheres in all democracies.

I learnt a lot from Shani’s work and I’m looking forward to her next work on the first general elections in independent India.