The case against a joint electorate

If India had taken the route of separate electorates after Partition, Muslims would have had three times as many representatives as they have today


Leader of the Indian Muslim League Muhammad Ali Jinnah (centre) arrives in London in 1946. Photo: Douglas Miller
Leader of the Indian Muslim League Muhammad Ali Jinnah (centre) arrives in London in 1946. Photo: Douglas Miller

Readers will know that India had separate electorates for Muslims from 1909 till independence. How did we make the switch to joint electorates (with reserved seats for Dalits and Adivasis)? It happened because India’s Muslims said after Partition that they wanted joint electorates.

I was part of a discussion on the constituent assembly debates a few days ago. One thing I wanted to say, but couldn’t because the discussion did not turn that way, was about what had happened since.

First, let’s look briefly at how it happened. Muslims long believed that separate electorates were a safeguard for them in an essentially polarized polity. The Congress party disagreed.

In a 1940 speech in Lahore, Pakistan’s founder M.A. Jinnah spoke about why he was insisting on Partition: “And this is now what Mr Gandhi said on the 20th of March, 1940. He says: ‘To me, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Harijans, are all alike. I cannot be frivolous’—but I think he is frivolous—‘I cannot be frivolous when I talk of Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. He is my brother.’ The only difference is this that brother Gandhi has three votes and I have only one vote.”

The Congress and Gandhi rejected Jinnah’s idea that Hindus would never cease to be Hindus in the political sense.

The Jinnah speech contains this barb: “Mr Rajagopalacharya, the ex-Prime Minister of Madras, says that the only panacea for Hindu-Muslim unity is the joint electorates. That is his prescription as one of the great doctors of the Congress organisation.” This line was followed by laughter.

Partition didn’t automatically mean joint electorates because, as noted, separate electorates had been in place for four decades till 1947.

In his book Sardar Patel And Indian Muslims (written as a defence of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel against his appropriation as a Hindutva icon), Rafiq Zakaria wrote: “At first, the Constituent Assembly had conceded that the minorities, including the Sikhs and the Muslims, along with the Scheduled Castes, be given reservation of seats under joint electorate; that was in July 1947, a month before Partition.

“Its aftermath changed the whole outlook of most members; they apprehended that even such reservations would strike at the root of secularism. A sub-committee was, therefore, constituted under the chairmanship of the Sardar to review the question; at this time the Sikhs more than the Muslims were vociferous in their demand for separate electorates for their people. They also asked for many more guarantees.

“Among the members of this committee was Begum Aizaz Rasul, the most prominent woman in the League hierarchy, who had chosen to remain in India; she was a Sunni Muslim. So was Maulana Hifzur Rehman, a confidant of (Maulana Abul Kalam) Azad. The other Muslim member was Tajammul Husain, a Shia.”

B.R. Ambedkar, who had been coldly objective about Partition, objected to reopening the issue of separate electorates but he was overruled by Patel, the chairman. The discussion produced no result (the Sikhs were insistent on separate electorates) and the meeting was adjourned.

At the next meeting, the Muslims themselves proposed a joint electorate. Begum Aizaz Rasul, the Muslim League leader, in fact seconded the proposal. The Sikhs, now alone, also acquiesced.

Zakaria, with whom I spent many afternoons discussing such things, saw this episode as an example of Patel’s generosity and sagacity. Patel understood that the Muslims, if left to themselves, would not insist on separate electorates, given Partition. He wanted Indian Muslims to come up with the proposal of joint electorates, absolving them forever of the charge of being divisive.

This was Zakaria’s opinion and he writes: “Consequently, the Sardar wound up the proceedings on a note of satisfaction; he was happy that there was a consensus on the abolition of separate electorate for minorities. So he put the seal of the Committee on it. Only for the Scheduled Castes, a ten-year period of grace was accepted.”

When the unanimous report was presented to the committee, Patel warned Hindus that “a discontented minority is a burden and a danger and that we must not do anything to injure the feelings of any minority so long as it is not unreasonable.”

“Nothing would be better,” he added, “for the minorities than to trust the good sense and sense of fairness of the majority and to place confidence in them,” and “it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel and imagine how we would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated.”

Endorsing the Indian Muslims’ act, Jawaharlal Nehru said: “This is an act of faith for all of us, an act of faith above all for the majority community because they have to show after this that they can behave towards others in a generous, fair and just way. Let us live up to that faith.”

How have we lived up to this faith then? On 24 December 2014, after the election in Jammu and Kashmir, The Hindu carried a report headlined “Just The Fourth Muslim MLA For BJP”. It said the Bharatiya Janata Party had more than 1,000 legislators in India and of them four were Muslim.

On 21 December 2012, The Indian Express ran a report headlined “Muslim MLAs Down From 7 To 2, After The Gujarat Assembly Elections Results Declared”. Gujarat has 182 seats. Maharashtra has 288 seats and nine Muslim MLAs. The Lok Sabha has 543 seats and 22 Muslims.

If there had been proportional representation (or separate electorates), Muslims would have had three times as many representatives. Scheduled Castes, who are 16% of the population, have 84 reserved seats. Scheduled Tribes, who are 8% of the population, have 47 reserved seats. Indian Muslims are about 15% of the population, nearing 200 million people—the largest under-represented minority in any democracy in the world.

They trusted Hindus to do all those things Patel, the great Hindutva hero, said Hindus should do. Not a few of them who read the background and history must be wondering if they should instead have just stuck to their guns on the issue of separate electorates.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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