Before 1935, did India have or allow elected legislative assemblies for provinces or princely states?

By Sunil Kumar

The answer to your question can possibly be on two levels; firstly India as it existed in antiquity or the present-day republic that evolved out of partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947.

Ancient India that had a bigger landmass comprising the present-day states of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh etc had monarchies like the rest of the world at the time.

The Vedas have oblique mentions of sabhas and samitis(precursor to legislative assemblies). However even in the Buddha’s time, we hear of democratic city-states and an assembly of elders(noted people in the citizenry). At and after Alexander’s invasion in India, Chanakya is said to have urged these people to revolt and join his struggle to remove the barbarian(mleccha) from its soil.

Also, in the Atreya Brahmins(another Vedic text), Ashtadhyayi of Panini(largely grammar), inscriptions of Mahabharata(epic), Ashoka pillars, the historical writings of contemporary historians, Buddhist and Jain scholars, in the Manusmriti, various historical evidence of assemblies are found.

Since most of the world and academia operates from a Euro-centric perspective, we sometimes hear of Greece being the origin of democracy. Although the ancient Hellenic civilization was indeed remarkable, slavery and class segregation did not make this a real democratic setup.

From ancient Indian assemblies to present-day democracy in the U.S or elsewhere; this ‘so-called’ representative setup can be justifiably criticised as a sometimes vested-interest driven oligarchy, but the real antecedents of democratic ideals can be traced to those small city-states in ancient India.

This question probably stems from the Government of India Act 1935 passed by the British in 1935(resolutely opposed by India-baiter Churchill and a few backbench Conservatives), after the Indian Freedom Movement was gaining worldwide traction and pressure was mounting on London to meet some Indian demands. After this new provinces like Sindh were created, and Aden(Yemen) and Burma(Myanmar) were separated from India.

Dyarchy, introduced in 1919 after the Montague-Chelmsford report was repealed and provincial legislatures were established in 1937. From the inception of the Congress in 1885; most Indians had been stressing on more control over their own destinies- effectively thwarted and subverted by the British by different means. Dyarchy in 1919 was very limited, a largely ‘yes-man’ affair and most powers were effectively in British hands.

Princely states- most of who were encouraged and displayed unwavering loyalty to the Crown were kept out of the ambit of this piece-meal, moth-eaten democracy of legislative assemblies.

The first elections held after the Government of India Act 1935 saw elections in Madras, Central Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, United Provinces, Bombay Presidency, Assam, North West Frontier Provinces(currently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Bengal, Punjab and Sindh.

The Indian National Congress(Nehru as leader) with its then image as sole leader of the freedom struggle gained ground. Of the total of 1,585 seats, it won 707 (44.6%).

Among the 864 seats assigned “general” constituencies, it contested 739 and won 617. Of the 125 non-general constituencies contested by Congress, 59 were reserved for Muslims and in those the Congress won 25 seats, 15 of them in the entirely-Muslim North-West Frontier Province. The All India Muslim League(with Jinnah) won 106 seats (6.7% of the total), placing it as second-ranking party.

The only other party to win more than 5 percent of the assembly seats was the Unionist Party Punjab(Sikander Hayat), with 101 seats. This was the first semi-democratic experiment sanctioned under Imperial India’s flawed flirtation with legislative assemblies. Before that, from 1919 to 1935- the small number of elected representatives in councils can not be termed as legislative assemblies in the strict sense of the word.

Princely states were comfortable kowtowing to the Queen or King and content with their gun salutes(number indicating stature). Most of the kings were debauched potentates with ill-gotten wealth and among the richest men in the world. Apart from a few benevolent rulers who did something to alleviate some public concerns, there was no question of allowing a legislative assembly.

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