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Sukumar Sen, unsung hero of Indian democracy

7 April, 2022 11:20:04
Sukumar Sen, unsung hero of Indian democracy

“Nehru’s haste [in wanting India’s first general election] was understandable, but it was viewed with some alarm by the man who had to make the election possible, a man who is an unsung hero of Indian democracy. It is a pity we know so little about Sukumar Sen. He left no memoirs and, it appears, no papers either…”

Thus wrote author and historian Ramachandra Guha in The Hindu on January 27, 2002. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Independent India’s first general election, and Guha was talking about the civil servant who became India’s first Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), serving from March 21, 1950 to December 19, 1958, and supervising two general elections, in 1951-52 and 1957.

Nobody who does not know the context of those times can appreciate the enormity of Sen’s task. In an era of still primitive communication systems, appallingly low literacy, and a complete lack of awareness about the new animal called ‘democracy’, not only did Sen and his small team have to ensure that political parties participated in a fair campaign, but that the general populace of this huge country actually came out to vote for them in two sets of elections - to the Lok Sabha as well as various Vidhan Sabhas (state Assemblies).

Posted as Chief Secretary to the Bengal Government at the time of his appointment as CEC, Sen was a brilliant scholar who graduated from Presidency College, Calcutta with honours in Mathematics, and went to University of London for further studies, earning a gold medal for academic excellence there too. He cleared the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination in 1921 and joined the British-Indian bureaucracy. 

A picture from the Delhi elections,1952

A month after Sen’s appointment as CEC, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru summoned him and said it was time the country elected its first government, and the procedure must be completed by March 1951. This bland statement hides behind it a terrifying wealth of detail, best supplied by Guha once again: “No officer of State, certainly no Indian official, has ever had such a stupendous task placed in front of him. Consider, first of all, the size of the electorate: 176 million Indians aged 21 or more, of whom about 85 percent could not read or write. Each voter had to be identified, named and registered. This registration of voters was merely the first step. For how did one design party symbols, ballot papers and ballot boxes for a mostly unlettered electorate? Then, polling stations had to be built and properly spaced out, and honest and efficient polling officers recruited.” 

So Sen asked for a little more time, but not much. In a little under two years, he and his team, also comprised of former ICS (by now Indian Administrative Service or IAS) officers, had registered a total of 17,32,12,343 (roughly 17.32 crore) voters - excluding Jammu and Kashmir - out of a population of 36,10,88,090 (36.11 crore) according to the 1951 Census. In short, nearly half the country was eligible to vote. 

Owing to India’s varying climate and the extremely challenging logistics, voting was held in 68 phases, in a total of 1,96,084 polling booths. All states except Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir voted in February-March 1952, to elect 489 members to the Lok Sabha, across 401 constituencies in 25 states. While 314 constituencies elected one member, 86 elected two, one from the general category and one from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Multi-seat constituencies were, however, abolished in the 1960s.

In the buildup to the polls, the Election Commission (EC) assigned filmmakers to shoot nearly 3,000 films in all major Indian languages, with detailed visuals of how to cast votes. All India Radio was pressed into service for three consecutive months as voters were educated about the nitty-gritties of the voting procedure. Nearly 82,000 tonnes of iron went into the construction of ballet boxes, and an estimated 56,000 presiding officers were appointed along with 28,0000 assistants. The EC had roughly six months to print the electoral rolls, for which 1,65,000 workers were recruited on a temporary basis, and almost 3,80,000 reams (1 ream = 1,000 sheets) of paper were used. 

Sukumar Sen with P.S. Subramaniam,Secretary of the Election Commission

Of course, preparing the rolls was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the entire exercise. In those days, female members of rural families in particular did not feel comfortable giving their names to outsiders. The commonest way to refer to them was as ‘Ram’s mother’, or ‘Shyam’s wife’, or ‘Gopal’s sister’, for instance. Hapless election officials had no option but to follow this norm. 

When he received these strange lists of names, a furious Sen straightaway deleted 28,00,000 women voters from the rolls. Sociologists later praised this decision, because when the next election came around in 1957, women voters were ready to come out of their shells and provide their actual names, to vote freely for candidates of their choice. In yet another prescient move, Sen instructed EC officials to carefully preserve all ballot boxes bearing the insignia of different political parties, a decision that saved the exchequer massive expenses during the 1957 elections. 

Sen’s remarkable handling of such a huge mission, not once but twice, drew global attention, as a result of which the United Nations deputed him as an observer during elections in the newly independent nation of Sudan in 1953. So grateful were the Sudanese for Sen’s contribution that they named a road after him. 

Since Sen was also the first Vice-Chancellor of Burdwan University, inaugurated on June 15, 1960, the road leading from G.T. Road to the university’s Golapbag campus has been named in his memory. Sen died in 1963, so perhaps Kolkata could follow suit?

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