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Were Ordinary Citizens From Rural Areas Behind The Birth Of Indian Democracy?

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One often-repeated remark about India is that it is a most unlikely setting for a thriving democracy. How did a poor country with incredible diversity and a population with low levels of education manage to celebrate 70 years of independence last year? While many social scientists have studied this question, Ornit Shani, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, is interested in a more fundamental question: not how democracy has persisted in India, but how it was born. Using extensive archival research, fresh historical insights, and proceeding through a largely convincing narrative, Shani’s pathbreaking book argues that the traditional top-down story of Indian democratization may have it backwards: “ordinary people had a significant role in establishing democracy in India at its inception” (5).

The impetus for this book, described in the Introduction, was a question that Shani had vainly posed several times over the years to Indian officials: how was the voter roll for India’s first election prepared, especially against the tumultuous backdrop of Partition? This electoral roll featured 173 million people – most of whom had no experience with voting or democracy – and was based on the principle of the universal adult franchise. The traditional story is that democracy in India was a “gift from above” – nurtured through British rule, with colonial officials slowly expanding the franchise, and India’s postcolonial leaders completing the task. Shani rejects this argument on the first page of her book: “This [preparing the first voter roll] was no legacy of colonial rule: Indians imagined the universal franchise for themselves, acted on this imaginary, and made it their political reality” (1). The British, after all, had only allowed limited suffrage and were opposed to the idea that the vote should be expanded to the entire adult population.

So how was the first voter roll actually prepared? Like many major historical undertakings, there was a considerable amount of chance involved. The main administrative organization in charge of the preparation of the voter roll was the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS). The CAS began by writing to the premiers of the provinces and the princely states (at this time, India was still integrating over 500 native states into the union) and asked them to “imagine” the voter roll (this term takes on a lot of significance in Shani’s book). The premiers wrote back with various ideas, and the most detailed plan – developed by the princely state of Travancore (another example of how we may have overstated British contributions to Indian democratization) – was chosen and then implemented on a nationwide scale.

The first voter roll was created with certain criteria in mind: voters had to be citizens (although the constitution was not yet adopted, so the citizenship provision was based on the draft constitution), over 21, of sound mind, residents of India, and they must have been living in their place of residence for a specified time. Determining all of this was, of course, an administrative nightmare. The nonpartisan officials at the CAS methodically dealt with thorny issue after thorny issue. In Chapter 2, Shani studies how the government resolved the issue of voting eligibility for Partition refugees, many of whom could not meet the domicile requirements. Chapter 4 describes the question of voters in the princely states, as well as legal debates about whether the costs of preparing the roll (e.g., printing reams and reams of paper) would be shared equally between princely governments and the Indian central government. Chapter 6 details the limits of the CAS’ otherwise inclusive model of the franchise: some groups were excluded, such as certain tribes, and those Indians who “slept on footpaths” and therefore had no clear domicile (210).

Shani produces this narrative by drawing on a rich set of primary source materials from a variety of archives: the record room of the Election Commission of India, National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial and Museum Library, Maharashtra State Archives, India Office Collections at the British Library, and collections from the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge. In taking us through the minutia of the CAS’ construction of the first voter roll, Shani’s goal is to provide a new bottom-up perspective on Indian democratization. In fact, it is remarkable how seldom a name like “Nehru” appears in the book.

Instead, we learn about other figures like B.N. Rau, the leader of the CAS and a largely overlooked character in the study of India’s democratization. We learn that Rau’s CAS created a number of “press notes” that explained the process of the development of the first voter roll to the Indian public, and that the CAS was in turn lobbied by a variety of citizens groups on behalf of voters from specific communities. When the CAS ran into difficulties, they sought multiple opinions, tried to create consensus, and rarely acted in an ad hoc fashion. We learn that the Indian press also reported on the development of the voter roll and that ordinary citizens wrote in to newspapers to comment on the process. All of this, Shani argues, was the very process of democratic state-building – how India became democratic was through the preparation of the first voter roll. This process helped in “forging a sense of national unity and national feeling, turned the notion of people’s belonging to something tangible. They [Indians] became the focus of the new state’s leap of faith, in which they now had a stake” (7).

Shani’s mass-led theory of Indian democratization is a welcome addition to counterbalance existing views that focus on elites, but it is not without weaknesses. The biggest question is whether Shani is correct about the role that the Indian people played in the creation of their own democracy. At times, this theory seems overstated. For example, Shani argues that ordinary Indians were attuned to the process of the creation of the first voter roll based on evidence from press notes, newspaper clippings, and op-eds. But the vast majority of Indians were illiterate. So how did all of this affect them? Shani only makes a brief reference to this by noting that in Indian culture, newspapers are often read aloud in public settings like tea shops (88). Considering the size of the claim she is making here, this scant evidence is not very convincing.

Relatedly, in Chapter 3, Shani discusses how the universal franchise became “personalised” – that is, how the universal franchise came to “attain meaning and enter the political imagination of Indians” (86). In describing this process, Shani uses the term “serialised epic” – drawing an analogy with the Hindu epics that are well known across India and are often recited in public settings. This analogy is tenuous: the Hindu epics are popular narratives, but press notes and op-eds are largely elite narratives. Did ordinary Indians – especially those in rural areas, far from newspaper headquarters and English radio – really help to imagine the birth of Indian democracy? Perhaps requiring an answer to this question is asking too much, as most scholars have not even seriously considered the possibility that Indians were actively involved in setting up their own democracy. Nevertheless, the views and actions of ordinary Indians still seem uncertain despite Shani’s arguments.

On the whole, How India Became Democratic is a major contribution to the study of Indian democracy, modern Indian history, and the study of democratization more broadly. It should be required reading for students of Indian democracy. Future scholars can profitably expand on Shani’s work, which is the first foray into the study of ordinary Indians and their contributions to a democracy that has now withstood the test of seven decades.

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests include Indian politics, ethnicity, political violence, historical legacies, and religion. His first book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016, and his articles are published or forthcoming in Modern Asian Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Journal of Development Studies. From 2017-18 he was a Fulbright-Nehru scholar in India doing research for a book on secularization in Hinduism. 

Purchase the book on Amazon here

Visit Ornit Shani’s website here

Visit Ajay Verghese’s website here

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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