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Behind The Scenes: What It Took To Conduct The First Indian Election Ever

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Facebook logoEditor’s Note: With #JetSetVote, Youth Ki Awaaz and Facebook India have come together to create a community of millennials who are aware and informed about their voter rights and responsibilities, through a series of workshops organised in collaboration with PRIA across 50 campuses. If you're a student, teacher or admin member, register your college to organise a fun session!

Indian elections have always summed up the essence of our country. They have an infectious energy, are dramatic, festive, chaotic and loud, where people from all walks of life participate in the great Indian festival that’s democracy. More than anything, elections in India bring out a passion that drives its citizens to sit up and take note of where the country has reached.

Yet, despite 70 years of democracy, we hardly think about the struggle it took to conduct the kind of elections we do today. We fail to value the mind-boggling logistics that led to the organising of the country’s first ever election. Take a look at the photos and facts many of us don’t know about!

Getting People To Vote In The First Election Was No Easy Task

File photo of Sukumar Sen, the Chief Election Commission of India

In March 1950, with Sukumar Sen appointed Chief Election Commissioner, India had 176 million Indians aged 21 or above, 85% of whom lacked elementary education. To get the voting process going, the Election Commission was faced with the gargantuan task of identifying each adult voter and register him/her. Since the technology that we have today was not present – organisers had to go door to door to manually register each voter.

After the voters were registered, a coordinated series of activities had to be undertaken to design party symbols. About 1874 candidates and 53 parties contested for the elections to fight for 489 seats.

 The First Election Was Held In 68 Phases

Representatives of the parties contesting addressing a gathering. Many such gatherings took place to help people to understand the voting process and to enable campaigning.

The elections were held from Oct 15, 1951 – Feb 21, 1952, for an electorate of over 173 million (173,212,343). The first phase was held in the assembly constituencies of Chini and Pangi in Himachal Pradesh, before the onset of winter, while the final 68th phase was held in Uttar Pradesh.The last general election held in 2014 on the other hand, was carried out in 9 phases – a process deemed to be considered too long by most of the international media.

 The First General Elections Saw A 45.7% Voter Turnout!

Voters from all walks of life lined up in various parts of the country to vote.

The 2014 general election saw a voter turnout of 66%. Putting that in perspective, the 45% mark in what can now be considered the toughest election to organise in Indian history was a spectacular number and a very promising start indeed!

8,200 Tonnes Of Steel Were Used To Make Two Million Ballot Boxes

 

A set of bulletproof, tamper-proof ballot boxes designed for the elections

The first general election had a total number of 1,874 candidates, including 533 independents. Each candidate was allotted a separate ballot box at polling booths. Since a majority of the population was illiterate, the boxes were in different colours, on which each candidate’s name and election symbol was labelled. A voter had to simply insert the ballot paper given into the ballot box of the candidate of their choice in the voting compartment.

People Came To Vote Across 196,000 Polling Stations

People line up to cast their votes.

As many as 196,084 polling stations were set up throughout the length and breadth of the country, of which 27,527 were exclusively reserved for women. 

The Challenge Of Drawing Women Out To Vote

The 45% voter turnout wasn’t an easy number to achieve. One of the greatest challenges the Election Commissioner faced was getting women out to vote. Women in Northern India were reluctant to give their names to the officials preparing the electoral rolls. They were known as “Shyam’s mother” or “Ram’s wife”; so they had registered in that fashion.

Sen was outraged when he saw this and directed his officials to rectify the records. As a result, some 2.8 million women struck their names off of the list. Later, they were registered with their own names – a win not just for the Commission, but for equality and women’s rights too!

Women lined up to cast their votes in 1951

Since then, voter turnout among women has only increased. During India’s 2014 parliamentary general elections, 65.31% stepped out to vote. In 16 out of 29 states of India, more women voted than men. A total of 260.6 million women exercised their right to vote in April – May 2014 elections for India’s parliament!

People With Disabilities Also Stepped Out To Vote

Historically, India has always been a very patriotic community. People from far and wide have come to vote, irrespective of the challenges they faced, conquering age and various disabilities.

India is also a country that is inaccessible to people with disabilities. Despite this, as far back as 1951, people with disabilities were motivated to come and cast their vote. They used whatever means that were available to them, the most common being with the help of their relatives.

A man carries an older relative on his back to the polling booths.

Today, the EC has made voting an easier process for people with disabilities by creating special mobile apps, stressing on the infrastructure, training for personnel and feedback mechanisms. However, the implementation of these still is a big challenge that has to be addressed.

The First Person To Cast His Vote In India Has Taken Part In All 16 General Elections Till Date!

Shyam Saran Negi was the first person to cast his vote in Independent India. He also featured in a popular advertisement recounting his experience as the first Indian who voted in the 1951 general elections and sent the message of pride in exercising one’s franchise.

Negi is also now the oldest person to take part in an election, at 98 years old. He has voted in every general election that took place and continues to motivate those around him to do so.

Clearly, the world’s largest democracy boasts of a rich voting history. Debates, curiosity and widespread reportage have made Indian elections an even more impressive spectacle. While the first election was a mammoth task to carry out, with every election the numbers are getting even bigger, and India continues to take inspiration and comes out to vote each time.

What the youth needs to remember now is how much it took for us to achieve democracy. They need to remember the fight, the logistical problems and most importantly – the passion.

With an unparalleled demographic, the youth in India hold the key to making 2019 India’s most successful general election. We need to revisit our history, realise the importance and value of our voting rights and responsibilities and teach other people the same. Being India’s biggest asset, and it is time for the youth to step out and #JetSetVote!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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