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The mathematician from Bengal who was India’s first Election Commissioner

26 June, 2020 02:23:02
The mathematician from Bengal who was India’s first Election Commissioner

The British Imperialists left India in 1947. The Election Commission was established in accordance with the Constitution on 25th January 1950. Now the big question was: who would head this autonomous body? After elaborate deliberations, it was decided that the Chief Secretary of West Bengal was the right person to head the organisation.

Sukumar Sen, the then-Chief Secretary was appointed as the country’s first Chief Election Commissioner (CEC).  Sen was a brilliant scholar who graduated from Presidency College with honours in Mathematics and then went to London University for higher studies. He received a gold medal for topping his institution in Mathematics. He passed the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination in 1921 and joined Indian bureaucracy, then under British rule. 
A month after his appointment as EC Chief, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru summoned him and said it was high time for the country to elect its first government and the procedure needed to be completed by March the following year. He instructed Sen to prepare for the nationwide election – a gargantuan task indeed.

A picture from the Delhi elections,1952

Holding the first election in a country where 85 percent of the population was illiterate, there was no infrastructure nor was there any electoral roll. But the super-efficient ICS officer remained cool and unruffled by the challenge. The first election was held for both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha and 45,000 seats were contested. Twenty lakh ballot boxes were used and 2,24,000 polling booths were created for the polls. The EC commissioned filmmakers to shoot 3,000 films in all the major languages of the country with detailed visual on how to cast votes.  All India Radio was put into service and for three consecutive months preceding the polls, voters were familiarized about the nitty-gritty of the voting procedure. To construct the iron ballot boxes, 82,000 tonnes of iron was required. To conduct the polls, 56,000 presiding officers were appointed along with 28,0000 assistants to help them. The voters’ list had to be prepared in six months’ time and for this purpose, 1,65,000 workers were recruited on a temporary basis. A total amount of 3,80,000 reams of paper was used to print the voters’ list. The Central Force had not come into existence then so to maintain law and order during polls, a huge police force of two-lakh plus personnel had to be mobilized.  However, the biggest challenge that stared at Sen was to educate the masses about the concept of ‘Election.’ 

Preparing the voters’ list was a truly difficult task. In those days, the female members of a family in the rural areas did not feel comfortable to say their names to outsiders. So, the common way used for referring  to them was to call them as ‘Ram’s mother’ or ‘Shyam’s wife.’ The list was prepared according to the prevalent norm. When the list was sent to Sen, he was furious. So much so that he straightaway deleted the names of 28,00000 women voters! Sociologists later praised this decision taken by Sen because in the next election, the women voters finally came out of their shells and provided their actual names and stood their ground to vote freely for the candidate of their own choice. 

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

In the first election, Sen had commissioned a ballot box each for all the political parties contesting the polls. The symbol of the party was stuck on top of the ballot box.  After election was over, Sen ordered his men to preserve the boxes carefully – a decision that saved the exchequer from incurring massive expenses during the polls held in 1957. This was Sen’s second consecutive term as Chief Election Commissioner. Sen’s commendable handling of such a big mission twice was noticed globally and the United Nations sent him as an observer during elections in Sudan. 

Sen was born in Burdwan in 1898 and spent his childhood and formative years in Burdwan. He studied at the Burdwan Municipal High School. His father Aukshay Chandra Sen was also an ICS officer.  Sukumar Sen’s two ther siblings were also equally talented and qualified in their  own spheres – Ashok Kumar Sen was Union Law Minister and  Dr Amiya Kumar Sen was a doctor who was part of the medical team that treated Rabindranath Tagore during his last illness. He was also the first Chancellor of Burdwan University after it was established. 

Story Tag:
  • Famous Bengali, Sukumar Sen

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