MAKING SPACE

How Bombay showed the way by giving domestic helps and street dwellers voting rights

Quartz india
Quartz india

On Nov. 20, 1948, as the Bombay administration worked on the preparation of the electoral rolls, the collector of Bombay wrote to the chief secretary to the government of Bombay:

With regard to the qualification as to residence, orders are requested whether the following categories of persons should be considered to be satisfying the qualification as to residence: (A) a domestic servant works in a household cleaning utensils on a piece work basis, during specified hours and goes to another household and works there. He thus works in more than half a dozen households every day but sleeps in the general passage or balcony or the staircase of same building. (B) a hotel servant works for the day in the hotel, takes his food there and sleeps inside the hotel on the left or outside the hotel in the rare passage. (C) [a person] who works in the mill, takes his food in Khanawal or eating house and sleeps on the foot path. At present there is an appreciable number of such persons in Bombay. (iv) [a person who] works in pedhi or shop, prepares his food somewhere in the pedhi or shop and sleeps therein at night. (v) a vagrant lives in a hut erected on municipal land without permission, pays no rent but lives with his family in the hut.

The chief secretary to the government of Bombay sought the opinion of the remembrancer of legal affairs on these questions. On the basis of various English legal precedents the remembrancer suggested that: “Persons sleeping in a pedhi or shop or servants sleeping in the loft of a hotel can be considered as residing therein. Vagrants living in huts erected on municipal land will also have to be considered as residing therein…The position of domestic servants who sleep in general or rear passages, balconies or staircases of buildings as also of persons who sleep on footpaths is rather doubtful.”

However, he explained that while dealing with a franchise based on adult suffrage, “residence is intended merely for the purpose of allotting the voter to a particular territorial unit, provided he is otherwise not disqualified. It is a well-known fact that, for lack of housing accommodation in Bombay, a number of persons, who work, earn their living and live in Bombay, are perforce obliged to sleep on pavements and on footpaths and similarly for lack of arrangements made for domestic servants, they have to sleep at all sorts of odd places such as passages, below the staircases, etc.” He, therefore, concluded that “if it be proved that such persons have uninterruptedly lived in Bombay for over six months in the sense of having worked and having taken the meals in Bombay, it would be unjust that they should be deprived of the valuable right of franchise merely on the ground that they have the misfortune of not having some assignable niche for themselves in the city to which they can return for sleeping.”

The chief secretary to the government of Bombay sent both the legal opinion and the Bombay collector’s letter to the constituent assembly secretariat (CAS) for their view. The matter also received some public attention. The Times of India reported on the collector of Bombay’s query, and stated that there is an estimate of 100,000 adults of Bombay city who are eligible to vote, “but cannot do so because they have no fixed ‘sleeping place’.”

 However, as in the case of those who slept on footpaths, there were also limits to inclusion. The CAS agreed in general with the opinion of the remembrancer of legal affairs of the Bombay government. The note prepared on the question stated: “As the fresh elections are to be conducted on adult franchise basis, such persons cannot be deprived of their franchise.” It was commented that although none of the other provinces addressed the CAS with this question thus far, “such cases are not likely to be few in almost all big cities.” The CAS ultimately decided that:

Persons sleeping in a pedhi or shop or servants sleeping in the loft of a hotel will be entitled to be included in the electoral roll for the areas in which the pedhi or the shop or the hotel as the case may be is situated. Similarly vagrants living in huts erected on municipal land will also be entitled to be registered as voters. Domestic servants who sleep in general or rear passages, balconies or staircases are also eligible for inclusion. But persons who sleep on foot paths cannot be included in the rolls since it is difficult to ascertain with any amount of accuracy whether such persons have actually reside in the area for the prescribed period.

The proactive steps of the collector of Bombay, and his concern over the voting rights of those at the very margins of the society—the vagrants, servants and footpath dwellers—expressed a commitment to procedural equality that was cultivated in the process of the preparation of the draft electoral roll on the basis of universal franchise.

However, as in the case of those who slept on footpaths, there were also limits to inclusion. By extension, excluding someone from the franchise was also a way to define who was not a full democratic citizen of the state. Although the constitutional provisions for eligibility to be a voter were universal, and stipulated very few limits, there were some notable exceptions.

The preparation of the electoral rolls was largely done in anticipation of the constitution, thus creating facts on the ground. At the same time some draft constitutional provisions, and the implications of constitution making delimited the universality of the franchise. Incidents of exclusions from the electoral roll…sometimes derived from administrative malpractices, local incompetence or from inadvertent omissions. But constitution makers also set some limits on the franchise. The enrolment of a large number of people, in particular the refugees, was pending on the constituent assembly’s decision. 

Moreover, the enrolment of a large number of people, in particular the refugees, was pending on the constituent assembly’s decision over the citizenship articles which would determine their citizenship status. Citizenship, furthermore, was not the only matter that awaited a final constitutional resolution that would effect changes in the electoral roll. The constituent assembly settled the question of reservation safeguards for caste and religious minorities only in May 1949.

By then the electoral rolls were prepared for printing in many places. The assembly’s decision on reservation of seats for minorities in the legislatures would be consequential to the future nature of electoral politics. Indeed, some breaches in the registration of voters emanated from the anticipation of electoral politics, resulting particularly from the political possibilities, which the new regime of the universal franchise opened up.

The institutionalisation of the universal franchise, as revolutionary and transformative as it was, could not necessarily subvert or replace the particularisms of society, locality or region. In some cases it even enabled these to take new forms and to gain in strength within a new broader framework.

Excerpted from Ornit Shani’s book How India became democratic with permission from Penguin. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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