THE RISE OF SEPARATE ELECTORATES IN INDIA
To understand the concept of separate electorates, we need to know the formation of the Muslim League in India. In 1906, Muslim leaders such as Khwaja Salimullah, Vikar-ul-Mulk, Syed Amir Ali, Syed Nabiullah, Khan Bahadur Ghulam and Mustafa Chowdhury formed the All-India Muslim League to promote education, social upliftment and political participation amongst the Muslim population in India. The first President of the League was Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah (Aga Khan III). At this time, Muslim citizens in India did not enjoy the same level of representation in the Legislature as the Hindus did. The Muslims felt that they were under-represented and they feared that the Hindu majority would soon overpower them entirely. Thus, they began to petition the British Government, both in India and in London, to grant them separate electorates in regions, where Muslim citizens majority.
So, what are separate electorates?
The leaders of the Muslim League wished to introduce a system of elections, where the representatives of regions in which the Muslims were in the majority, had to be elected from the Muslim population itself. To take a hypothetical situation, In a region with 10 people, if a majority of those people are Muslims, then nominations for elections would only be from among the Muslim population. That’s not all, only people identifying as Muslims would be allowed to vote, which would automatically exclude everyone else from participating in the election process. Thus, people belonging to other religions would not be represented in such regions. The demands of the Muslim League were to be extended to all levels of the Government. They wanted separate representation in the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi, the Provincial Legislative Councils, District Boards and Municipalities as well.
These demands were presented to the Viceroy of India, Lord Minto and the Secretary of State, John Morley. Initially, John Morley did not approve of such a division in the electorate, as he believed in complete democracy, where everyone should be allowed to vote. However, several advisors thought that the Muslim League could create disharmony by protesting and by mobilising the Muslim population in India and abroad, so they gave in to the demands. In 1909, the Indian Councils Act, which is also called the Minto-Morley reforms, was passed.
This Act increased the number of seats to which Indians could be elected, at all levels of Government. Indians could now be in the majority in the Provincial Legislatures; however the British still maintained control over the Central Legislature and the Executive in India. It also gave the Indian representatives more powers, as they could now discuss budgetary allocations and table resolutions in the Legislature. However, the most important point is that several seats were reserved for Muslim leaders, and thus, for the first time, separate electorates were introduced in India.
In subsequent years, other social minorities such as the Sikhs, Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans residing in India, also began to raise the demand for separate electorates. These groups were granted separate electorates in the Government of India Act of 1919, which is also known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.
Thus, separate electorates for different communities were used to increase minority representation in India. However, they were beginning to divide people on religious lines, and many critics believe that such demands lead to the partition of India in 1947.
The Government of India Act, 1919 was replaced by the Government of India Act, 1935, which formed the basis of the Indian Constitution. As for the Muslim League, it was virtually disbanded soon after partition, however, regional units of the League merged with each other to form the Indian Union Muslim League in 1951. Currently, they have a strong political presence in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and are also active in national politics, with three members in the Lok Sabha and one member in the Rajya Sabha as of 2020.
Sumanth Kumar (BBA LLb)