Book Review: How India became Democratic by Ornit Shani

Ornit Shani writes well and she understands India. I had read her first book “Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat” and had really enjoyed it. In fact I had read it when I was posted to Gujarat and the book really helped me in understanding the dynamics and the nuances of Gujarati society and polity.

This is her second book and is an equally fascinating account of the history of the administrative processes which let to the preparation of India’s first ever electoral roll. This was an unique exercise, conducted in anticipation of the laws to be passed for citizenship as well as promulgation of the constitution. The process began in 1947 (so that the rolls could be made ready by the time the constitution was promulgated and that the first elections were not delayed, but held in time) under the stewardship of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) and was a unique exercise as the electoral rolls prepared so far were severely restricted (as franchise itself was limited to certain classes of people) during the British rule. On top of it, the migration (both inbound and outbound) of refugees created complications in the enrollment of voters in an area. Further, princely states were still being integrated and were therefore governed by a different governance structure and laws.

This deeply researched book also highlights the participation by the press and ordinary citizens in preparation of this roll. This in turn made the ordinary citizenry of the country an active participant in the democratic process thereby helping in furthering a political imagination based on political equality and democracy.

For bureaucrats like us it is doubly inspiring for it shows what can be achieved with a leadership and organisation that is imbued with clear vision and dedication. Since much of the book is drawn from the normal notes/drafts from the files (archived in the EC) any bureaucrat reading the book could easily relate to the language of the book too. I however wish today’s bureaucrats like us could write draft/notes with as much felicity as our seniors of the 50’s did.

A lovely read.

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