History of Separate Electorate System in India, By Dr. Richa Sharma and Nikhil Varshney

The reservation system pervasive in India emanated out of separate electorate system which was brought for the first time through Indian Councils Act, 1909. A proper analysis of the separate electorate system manifests that separate electorate system was a result of ‘Divide and Rule’ policy which British followed.

Tracing the history of separate electorate system, it was brainchild of Prince Aga Khan, and his colleague Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk who spearheaded the organization of Muslims that safeguard their interests. The two presented demands of Muslim India to the then Viceroy, Lord Minto at Shimla. The Address read before the Viceroy by Prince Aga Khan inter alia demanded the obscure ‘separate electorates’ for the Muslims of India. This was the genesis of separate electorate system in India. The Muslims asked for their separate representations at all levels of Government working and called for elections for Muslims in these tiers should be held separately and exclusively by them thereby shrinking the chasm between Hindus and Muslims. It is noteworthy that to assert their stand and make known the correct view-point of Muslims, Prince Aga Khan thought that it was necessary to have a political platform and association for the Muslims of India and therefore, on 24th October, 1906 wrote a letter to Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk which went on to play a seminal role as with this document began the journey of Muslim League under whose flag the Muslims after getting freedom got a separate nation for themselves in the form of Pakistan.[1] British Empire played a role of stooge and maneuvered the situation which shored up the communal tensions in the nation. Going by the current situation which has its seeds in the past, it would be apt if India is referred as ‘unity in division’ instead of ‘unity in diversity’.

The passing of Indian Councils Act, 1909 was a watershed event in the history of Indian legislature. The drafting of the said legislation was largely affected by the clamour voiced by Aga Khan and Nawab Mohsin-ul-Malik, as mentioned before. The 1909 Act fell back on Minto-Morley Reforms. The Act apart from providing elected majority in the Provincial Legislatures provided for elective representation at the Centre. The Act did not lay down the elective method for the elected members. The method was left to be decided under the Regulations made under the Act by Governor General of India. This laid the foundation stone for ‘separate electorate’ in India. A policy decision was taken by the Secretary of State that there was no need to keep an official majority in the Provincial Councils though was required in Central Legislature and the Act provided for the same. Under the Regulations, the 25 members out of the 60 members in the Central Legislature were elected by non-official members of each of the Provincial Councils by the landholders of certain provinces, by the Mohammedan community in certain provinces, by Chamber of Commerce and others. The principle of communal election was accepted only in the case of Muslims and was implemented by the Regulations made under the 1909 Act. This was the outcome of unswerving and steadfast demands by Muslims who expressed serious concerns that a first past the post electoral system, like that of Britain, would leave them permanently subject to Hindu majority rule. The Act of 1909 stipulated, as demanded by the Muslim leadership that only Muslims should vote for candidates for the Muslim seats (‘separate electorates’).

In India’s pre-independence era, when the Muslims in India demanded fair representation in power-sharing with the British government along with the Hindus, the British government exacerbated the situation with their ‘Divide and Rule’ mindset and paved way for a separate electorate system for the Muslims. As a result, of the total 250 seats of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, 117 seats were kept reserved for the Muslims. Accordingly, the general elections of 1937 were held on the basis of the extended separate electorates, where only the Muslims voted for the 117 seats, in Bengal.

The principle of communal representation which was accepted under the Morley-Minto Reforms was retained and was pushed further in the Government of India Act, 1919. It thus so happened that in every Council, there were Mohammedan members in galore who were elected by Mohammedans. There were certain seats for Europeans in most of the Councils, while in the Punjab Council, there were some seats reserved for Sikh community. So far as Madras Council was concerned, there were seats reserved for non-Brahmans, Christians and Anglo-Indians. Similarly in Bombay Council, seats were reserved for Mahratta community and in Bengal, the seats were reserved for Anglo-Indians.[2]

The Government of India Act, 1935 which holds the distinction of introducing federalism in India continued communal representation with weightage in favour of the Muslims and Sikhs. The elective seats in the House were divided among General seats, Sikh seats and Mohammedan seats. Some seats were reserved also for Scheduled Castes and women.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar too borrowed an idea from the Muslim League and voiced for ‘separate electorate system’ for Dalits considering the growing disparity between Dalits and rest of Hindu community. This move was stoutly rebutted by Mahatma Gandhi as he saw an endless abyss in case if Ambedkar’s demand is accepted.[3] The report of the Simon Commission finally granted reserved seats to the Depressed Classes. However, Simon Commission Report remained a dead letter since Congress was involved in its making. To move out of the impasse, a Conference was held in London in 1930, and then a Second Round Table Conference in 1931 but petered out. The arbitration given by the British following the Second Round Table Conference regarding the status of various communities in the Constitution, called the Communal Award, was announced on August, 1932 which recognized the right of the untouchables to have a separate electorate. They were given the right to vote at the same moment within the framework of general constituencies and within 71 separate constituencies which could only be filled up by Dalit candidates. However this scheme was not palatable to Mahatma Gandhi which later led to “The Poona Pact” between Gandhi and Ambedkar introducing a system of reserved seats, in which 148 seats (instead of 71 as put forward by the Communal Award) were granted to the Untouchables in the Legislative Council. It ousted the principle of separate electorates; in those 148 constituencies where the Untouchables were the most numerous – the members of the Depressed Classes would designate by themselves the four Dalit Leaders who would be the candidates among whom all the voters of the constituency, mixed of all castes, would then have to elect their representative.[4]

The Indian history has been very grim for British blazed the communal tensions between Hindu-Muslims brethrens and in the garb of providing equal opportunities and adequate representation to Muslims were promoting their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. The current reservation system in India is a more nuanced form of ‘separate electorate’ system with certain variations. As is said that the present working system in India is marred by the reservations, it is manifest that it has a long history behind it which again was brainchild of British and Muslim brethren and Dalits were just pawns in this game.

[1]Sherali Alidina, ‘Role of the late aga khan as a leader of the muslims of the subcontinent in the political field’, available at http://www.ismaili.net/Source/0036.html as last accessed on April 1, 2014.

[2] Jain M.P., ‘Outlines of Indian legal & Constitutional History’, Lexis Nexis Butterworths, 6th edn., 2009, p.493-497

[3] “Evidence of Dr Ambedkar before the Indian Statutory Commission one 23rd October 1928”, The Servants of Somavamshiya Society, Bombay, July 9, 1928, in Private Papers of Ambedkar, reels 1/2. p.465

[4] R. Kumar, “Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Poona Pact, 1932”, Occasional Paper on Society and History, No. 20, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, p. 153-155.


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