Ink that protects the sanctity of elections - Hindustan Times

Ink that protects the sanctity of elections

Apr 13, 2024 10:00 PM IST

How Salimuzzaman Siddiqui developed “Siddiquink” that protects against impersonation in the voting process

On the eve of elections to the Lok Sabha, it is natural — and desirable — to think of the first general elections that took place in India, between October 1951 and February 1952. That election year for the country’s 360 million people was the first such in independent India professing no single religion, no single doctrine whether political or ideological. The only qualification for an Indian citizen to vote was age — the person, man or woman, of any or no religious denomination, of any or no caste, educated or not, propertied or not, should be above 21 years of age.

Workers pack indelible ink vials that are used during elections to prevent duplication of voting, at the government-run Mysore Paints and Varnish company in Mysuru, India, March 12, 2024. REUTERS/Rakesh Nair(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Workers pack indelible ink vials that are used during elections to prevent duplication of voting, at the government-run Mysore Paints and Varnish company in Mysuru, India, March 12, 2024. REUTERS/Rakesh Nair(REUTERS)

By this calculation, 173 million Indian men and women became entitled to vote and elect their governments and their Opposition. A bigger election had not been held anywhere in the world. India could, and did, take pride in — a global pride — the fact that its suffrage was going to be universal, free and fair.

The year 1951 needs to be remembered by and for, and as many things as one can in the context of that election but also very specially, as the year of an ink — the indelible ink used to mark voters’ left forefingers to prevent multiple voting by impersonation. We have moved now from the paper ballot to the EVM but the inking of fingers remains in place. Because the risk of impersonation remains in place!

The inking had to be done before being given the ballot paper. This column today is about the making of that ink, which is a story in itself. It is wrapped around the younger of two brothers from Mirzapur, Khaliquzzaman (1889-1973) and Salimuzzaman Siddiqui (1897-1994). The first of them was a politician, a leading light of the Muslim League who knew well India’s political leadership, in both the Congress and Muslim League, and the second, in a very different field — chemistry and chemistry research. Salimuzzaman, who, unlike his brother, kept his family name of Siddiqui, is indelibly linked to the evolution of a feat in chemistry and Indian public life – indelible election ink.

Siddiqui, as a chemist working in the Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in the mid-1940s was contacted by its director general Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894-1955), who asked him to help with the formulation of an indelible ink, which could be used in the elections that were due to the new Constituent Assembly. Bhatnagar, a distinguished chemist himself, sent to Siddiqui a solution of silver chloride to see if that could be developed into the required ink for use by the Election Commission of India (ECI). I am no chemist and am using these names mechanically, without understanding their chemical properties, only their salience to our elections.

Siddiqui found the silver chloride did not stain well. So, he added silver bromide to it and, I am told, there was an immediate improvement in the staining power. Working on that combination, Siddiqui was able to start the manufacture of the indelible ink for use in the 1951-52 elections.

An unsubstantiated story has it that Quink, the famous Parker pen ink owes its name to a Filipino, Francisco Quisumbing, who had made and was propagating an ink called Quisumbing Ink which became Quink. Be that as it may, the ink that Siddiqui developed should really have been unofficially called Siddiquink. The ink was introduced for the 1951-1952 elections and irrespective of who won and who lost in that election, Siddiqui’s indelible ink was a winner in what it was seeking to win — indelibility and impersonation stalling.

I was six years old at the time and the memory I have of that election — and it is indelible — is of my parents coming back from the polling station and chatting about the new experience of having their fingers marked by voters’ indelible ink. We, their children at home, crowded around them to examine this new curiosity, when an old friend of the family walked in just then, also having just voted. He said to my father that he had heard — typical of our sceptical minds — that the ink was not all that indelible and that impersonation could take place by people removing it with a moistened matchstick tip. What, really! And pronto, a matchbox was obtained from the kitchen, two matchstick-tips dipped in water, followed by both gentlemen trying with great seriousness to do the little cosmetic act. But — kudos to Siddiqui and the Election Commission the ink-stain would not go. It became fainter, yes, but disappear it would not. Their fingertip skins smarting under the “attack”, the two gentlemen complimented ECI and started talking about other things which did not interest me.

There is a sequel to this that is of interest.

The Partition of India was only four years old and the newly born country was setting up its political and institutional systems. The first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, is believed to have contacted Salimuzzaman Siddiqui and invited him to migrate to Pakistan and help its chemical enterprises. The story is that Salimuzzaman, the younger brother of the Muslim League politician Chaudhuri Khaliquzzaman, was known to Nehru, and went to him for advice. Contrary to what one may imagine, Nehru said to him he could go. And he did rise to some status as a pharmacological chemist, becoming the founder and chairman of the National Science Council of Pakistan. But his ink remained in India, indelibly, on millions of forefingers, resurrecting itself, in election after election, safeguarding the peoples’ mandates.

I would like to end this column by saying our elections are, above everything else, a great equaliser, a great leveller. From the President of India down to the most humble voter, all vote equally and are inked by the same ink, exactly like each other.

Could anyone have dared impersonate the President of India?

Of course not.

But President KR Narayanan, in the 1999 elections, exercised his franchise. He was what he liked to think himself to be, a citizen President and gladly had his forefinger inked exactly like the voter who went just before him and the one who went just after him, did.

And his vote joined the millions of other votes in the great churn of ballots that make India’s electoral democracy what it is — a matter of pride, if also of concern about its “bio-chemistry” that requires great vigilance against subversions of which voter-impersonation is but one.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former administrator and diplomat, is a student of modern Indian history. The views expressed are personal

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