India's first election: Pioneers blazed a trail for future generations
On June 16, 1949, Annie Mascarene rose from her seat in the cavernous Constitution hall — what is now the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament — and admitted to changing her mind about an article being debated by the Constituent Assembly. Article 289 in the draft constitution pertained to the formation of a commission that would be in charge of conducting free and fair elections in the country. To achieve this, the chief of the commission or the Election Commissioner would not report to the executive, and would also hold overview of the elections in the various provinces, a provision that Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, had argued for the day before.
Mascarene, then 47, was a representative from the Travancore-Cochin province and a sitting minister of health and power in the provincial legislative assembly. A formidable social activist who had earned her stripes fighting the British and being charged with the colonial-era law of sedition, Mascarene didn’t hold back.
“Mr. President, Sir, after hearing Dr. Ambedkar’s explanation two days back I thought I would abide by this Article [289 in the draft; 324 in the Constitution]. But after listening to Mr. Munshi’s speech this morning I am provoked to (...) resume my old position,” she said, referring to another member, KM Munshi.
“Sir, I am a believer in the right of the people of the Province to elect their representatives independent of any control, supervision and direction of any power on earth. I believe that to be democracy. If the Centre is to think that expediency demands that they should supervise and control the election, as one sitting in the Provincial Legislature I can see in the Centre as many delinquencies as they see in us.”
Mascarene was one among the 15 women who formed part of the 299-member constituent assembly and her debates helped shape newly-independent India. When the country held its first elections between October 1951 and February 1952, Mascarene was one of 24 women inducted in the first Lok Sabha (22 won the election; two more won by-elections), and one of 31 independent parliamentarians in the House.
Adult suffrage, but no reservation
The issue of women’s political reservation in Parliament and state legislatures first came up for discussion in the 11th Lok Sabha, in 1996, and saw support among women politicians across party lines. Since then, several bills proposing 33% reservation for women legislators have lapsed. The current Lok Sabha has the highest number of women MPs, but they account for only 14% of the House.
Back in the late 1940s, many prominent women nationalists opposed the reservation of seats for women; Amrit Kaur, who went on to win the general election from Mandi, Himachal Pradesh and Renuka Ray, who was appointed to the first Rajya Sabha vociferously opposed the reservation of seats for women even when the Government of India Act of 1935 was being debated (the Act nevertheless ensured reserved seats for women).
Ammu Swaminathan, who was later elected to the first House from Dindigul, Madras province, said during one of the constituent assembly debates: “People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their Constitution they have given rights to women equal with every other citizen of the country.”
Yet, it was reservation that ensured that the country’s northeastern region would find continuous representation at the Centre. The first person to be elected to the Parliament from a seat reserved for the Hill tribes of the Autonomous District in Assam was Bonily Khongmen, a school teacher and a headmistress from the Karbi community.
For the women who were elected to the first Lok Sabha — many fought the British and participated in the national struggle for Independence — their own small numbers did not detract from the work of nation-building that lay ahead of them.
In his seminal work, Women in Parliament, Joginder Kumar Chopra wrote that the bills introduced by these 24 parliamentarians “related mostly to issues such as dowry, children and women institutions, suppression of immoral traffic among women, marriage, divorce, food, health etc.”
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the country’s first health minister, was the driving force behind the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). It was set up following a bill tabled by Kaur, proposing the formation of an autonomous medical and educational institution, which was passed in 1956.