Women in India are voting today, thanks to a Jewish MP’s initiative 100 years ago | columns | Hindustan Times
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Women in India are voting today, thanks to a Jewish MP’s initiative 100 years ago

Today, women voting and contesting elections in India are taken for granted. One must not forget the contribution made by a very young, radical and little-remembered Edwin Samuel Montagu

columns Updated: Mar 10, 2017 18:15 IST
Women at a polling booth, Jaipur (File Photo).
Women at a polling booth, Jaipur (File Photo).(Himanshu Vyas/HT)

Edwin Samuel Montagu is not a name that will resonate with Indians today. Born in 1879 and dying in 1924, he belongs to a bygone era — the Jewish MP who opposed the Balfour Declaration.

The name Edwin Samuel Montagu means little if anything to contemporary India. And yet, a hundred years ago, in 1917, the 38-year-old Montagu was perhaps the most discussed, the most important Englishman for our country.

Montagu had been appointed secretary of state for India that year. The position made him virtually in charge of “the brightest gem on the British Crown”, India’s remote controller. A liberal in every sense of the term, Montagu was a radical if not quite a “free-thinking” politician who could not be stereotypical. Responding to the growing demand for self-government in India, for Swaraj, Montagu proposed to his Cabinet “the gradual development of free institutions in India with a view to ultimate self-government”.

In 1917 this was a huge leap forward, which consternated conservative opinion in London. Curzon, then the Lord Privy Seal, predictably opposed this colleague’s formulation as being too liberal, too radical, and suggested an alternative formulation that suggested the government would work towards “increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” Montagu’s formulation was dropped and Curzon’s accepted, leading to the Government of India Act of 1919. Crucial was the dropping of Montagu’s “self-government” by “government”.

A bicameral central legislature came into being, presaging our Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, provincial legislatures with partially “responsible” governments comprising some Indian ministers as well; and a Public Services Commission. These were foundational developments. They cannot all be ascribed to Montagu who, in any case, shared his credit with Chelmsford. But to the extent that any major edifice, physical or ideational, has a principal architect, Montagu was the principal architect of the Montford Reforms of 1917 and of the Government of India Act of 1919.

As India gets to know the outcome on Saturday of the elections held to the assemblies of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa, it can reflect on the fact that the seeds of “self-government”, propagated by Indian hands and Indian agitation, were sown on the constitutional seed-bed by a young English liberal.

Prior to making his recommendations in the report that came to be known as the Montford Reforms, after the first four letters of his surname and those of India’s then Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, Montagu toured India, triggering a new zeal for political reform, for franchise and for representation. The Theosophists Annie Besant and Margaret Cousins catalysed an all-India demand for women’s voting rights equal to those of men. This was not granted instantly. Reform is reform, not revolution; but the process had begun.

And once the Act became operational, giving only limited franchise, based on property, educational and titular norms, it was only a question of time before women got the vote. A joint parliamentary committee, while not conceding female suffrage, enabled it by leaving it to provincial legislatures to consider it. Some of these legislatures which had come up, thanks in great measure to Montagu, got into action mode swiftly, and gave women voting and contesting rights. The highly perspicacious princely state of Travancore-Cochin showed the way which Madras and Bombay took eagerly.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay has written in her autobiography about how difficult it was for a woman even to get a Congress ticket in the elections held in 1926 under the Montford Act of 1919. She was defeated but the fact that she stood was in itself historic and inspirational. The pioneering reformer Muthulakshmi Reddi stood and won in 1927, becoming India’s first woman legislator in 1927. No Muthulakshmi, no Devadasi abolition; no Montford, no Muthulakshmi.

Today, when women voting and contesting elections is taken for granted, one cannot afford to forget the contribution made towards that fundamental force in India’s democracy by a very young, a very radical and a very little-remembered Edwin Montagu.

Montagu’s independent spirit showed itself in another theatre as well. On August 23, 1917, the House of Commons discussed Palestine in what has become famous as the Balfour Declaration. As the only Jew in the Cabinet at the time, Montagu could have been expected to support the idea of Palestine for the Jews. But Montagu being Montagu, he did the opposite. He passionately opposed the motion and submitted a memorandum to the Cabinet in which he said : “Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen…I assert that there is not a Jewish nation…When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country…

It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history…I would say… that the Government will be prepared to do everything in their power to obtain for Jews in Palestine complete liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the inhabitants of that country who profess other religious beliefs. I would ask that the Government should go no further.”

Montagu died prematurely, aged 45. His life was not happy. His marriage to Venetia Stanley was devoid of joy, it is said, because he was homosexual. If so, that was one matter about which he was not frank.

In Flagstaff House, Barrackpore, the riverside residence of the governor of West Bengal, stands a statue of Edwin Samuel Montagu, brooding over some matter, problem or dilemma. The inscription on its pedestal says, simply, of its tenant: “…amidst great events greatly served the Empire and the people of India…”

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed by the author are personal