Indian representation in British India

Indian representation in British India

Izaaz Ahmed

(The writer can be reached at

With the Lok Sabha elections – the biggest show of democracy in the world - underway, scores of Indians are going gung-ho about exercising their most crucial political right. However, at the same time, there is also a number of citizens who are either quite apprehensive of the efficacy of voting, or seem to have taken the gift of democracy far too lightly. Democracy, or democratic freedom to them, is a mere asset bequeathed by the freedom fighters; one which has depreciated in value and significance over the years. Much worse, some are even of the impression that there is nothing special about India being democratic. “Many countries in the world are democracies today,” they exclaim in indifference. The reaction of such people can be attributed to their lack of knowledge of India’s struggle for Independence – one of the longest civil rights movements in the world.

Driven by the spirit of Renaissance, the Europeans began to discover new shipping routes to the Eastern world in the early centuries of the second millennium A.D. Such seafaring ambitions brought Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese trader to the coast of Calicut in 1498 C.E. His discovery of the sea route to India rounding the Cape of Good Hope set the stage for many other European powers to follow suit. Over the many years that followed, the Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and Danish landed on India’s shores, and tried their luck. However, the British East India Company proved to be the most successful. Their domination over the other powers was a result of force and diplomacy. Their force and warfare skills got reflected in their decisive victory over the French in the Battle of Wandiwash, 1760, and the way they pitted the regional powers of India – Hyderabad, Maratha kingdom and Mysore – against each other and sapped them of their finances and authority betrayed the notorious British policy of Divide and Rule. They had already emerged as the undisputed rulers of the prosperous Bengal Province – Bengal, Bihar and Odisha – by signing the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765. Such far-reaching successes infused unimaginable confidence into them, and they decided to extend their hegemony over India with all the more gusto. Therefore, from the 18th century itself, they pursued Oriental studies, that is, learning about India’s culture, traditions and history. The objective was not to appreciate the region’s richness and heritage, but to tap into a few societal and religious limitations in order to hit the confidence of the natives. Thus sprang up scholars like Max Mueller who tried every trick in the book to project Indians as inferior to the Britishers, and writers like Rudyard Kipling who propounded the highly preposterous but acerbic theory of the ‘White Man’s Burden’, which advocated the role of the Englishmen in civilizing the ‘unrefined’ Indians.

The biggest damage to India came in the form of drain of wealth. Treating the country as a colony in an utmost undemocratic way, the British East India Company, and later, all private traders, began to drain India of its resources to run the textile mills of Lancashire. A prominent British officer, John Sullivan barefacedly admitted, “Our system acts very much like sponge, squeezing everything from the banks of Ganges and depositing them on the banks of Thames.” This not only relegated India to an importer of textile goods from a global exporter, but also put much pressure on the already saturated agricultural sector, as the craftsmen and traders associated with cotton products couldn’t sustain in the face of cheap and duty-free industrial goods coming from British mills, and moved back to the periphery. Things would never change had economists like Dadabhai Naraoji and Romesh Chandra Dutt not exposed this insatiable hunger for imperialism and colonialism. Even after the British crown took over the affairs of India in 1858 to stave off a revolt of the magnitude of the Sepoy Mutiny in future, the thought of allowing representation of Indians in the legislative process didn’t cross its mind. In fact, it was only under the Indian Council Act, 1892 that a few Indians were indirectly elected for the first time to the Central Legislative Council. This again didn’t come without a stimulus , for it was only after the generation of widespread anger in response to reactionary measures like Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and the alarmingly insensitive response of the British government to the devastating Great Famine of the 1870s that such conciliatory measures were taken. Keeping up with its nefarious designs to keep the society divided, they started separate electorates for the Muslims in 1909, a move that fanned the flames of communalism and was to culminate only in India’s tragic and gory partition. Throughout their malevolent despotic rule, the franchise, on rare occasions when it was allowed, remained confined to a handful of Indians selected on certain parameters. In fact, till the Provincial Elections of 1937, the natives couldn’t even elect their regional leaders (known as Prime Minister then), let alone have a say on the choice of the Governor General or Viceroy.

It took a great deal of perseverance, fortitude and sacrifice to earn our democracy. From the rumblings of Swaraj in 1906 till becoming the decision-makers of our own fate was a journey fraught with all kinds of odds – be it the Partition of Bengal, the draconian Rowlatt Act or the cold-blooded carnage at Jallianwala Bagh. Therefore, the founding fathers of our Constitution decided to celebrate India’s democracy, republicanism and sovereignty by extending universal adult suffrage, and making it a constitutional right under Article 326. The naysayers of that time cast aspersions on the alleged ‘foolhardy’ move, only to be proved terribly wrong in the first General Elections of 1952 when voters all across the length and breadth of India came out in large numbers to exercise their most powerful political right.

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