Bengal Provincial Franchise Committee

Bengal Provincial Franchise Committee At the introduction of dyarchy, only 2.2% of the population of the province of Bengal constituted the electorate, the total population at that time being 5,09,13,972 of which 36,84,300 were urban as opposed to 4,64,29,672 rural. With the expectation of the increased association of the Indians in the working of the government, as propounded by the simon commission, and after the British Government announcement of 31 October 1929 that the natural objective of the Indian constitutional progress was the attainment of Dominion Status, the issue of extension of franchise was mooted at the Round Table Conference that started in London in 1930.

The British Prime Minister appointed the Indian Franchise Committee, also known as Lothian Committee, at the end of 1931 to examine the subject of franchise. The Committee toured India in the early months of 1932, and presented its report by the end of the year. The franchise qualification in the government of India Act 1935 was based on the recommendations of the Lothian Committee. The committee's mandate was to devise an electorate which could give the entitlement to vote to not less than 10% of the total population as recommended by the Simon Commission, and not more than 25% favoured by the Round Table Conference. Either figure meant a significant progress. From the small beginning in 1909, when the number of voters in Bengal was about 6,000, the Government of India Act, 1935 enfranchised 66,95,483 persons or approximately 13.4% of the adult population over the age of 20.

The Report of the Lothian Committee was a landmark in the history of franchise in India. A Bengal Provincial Franchise Committee, selected by the governor and the representatives of the Bengal Legislative Council, worked in collaboration with the Lothian Committee. Although adult suffrage was the goal of the Lothian Committee, it stopped short of recommending it only because they were convinced that enfranchisement of so many people would not be administratively feasible. The Government of Bengal, and the Bengal Provincial Franchise Committee also took the stand against extending the franchise beyond 15%, since recourse had to be taken to indirect election. However, in 1937, an actual large electorate was polled on the direct system without administrative difficulty.

The franchise qualification was laid down in such a way that every resident in the province over the age of 21 paying any tax, rate or fee or having certain educational qualification, or with certain other attainment in the military service was eligible. Some differential qualifications between the Hindus and Muslims were featured in order to secure reasonably even communal electorates. The introduction of new franchise qualification increased the number of women voters; from 42,000 in 1929 to 9,70,000 in 1936. The progress achieved by the Muslim women was phenomenal; approximately 500% increase. The size of the total Muslim electorate reflected closely their percentage of the total population of Bengal. [Enayetur Rahim]