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Sukumar Sen: The unsung hero of Indian democracy

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As dates for 2019 general elections are announced to constitute the 17th Loksabha, India is preparing itself for the world’s largest democratic exercise. Indian electoral exercise is truly gigantic – with over 800 million voters including 15 million newly eligible voters. But one man’s contribution was instrumental in setting up this workable electoral system is lesser known today.

Early Life and appointment as CEC
Sukumar Sen- Born in 1898 in a Bengali Brahmin family to a civil servant father. A brilliant student, Sen, studied at Presidency college Kolkata and later at University of London, where he bagged a gold medal in Mathematics. At the young age of 22, he cracked Indian Civil Service (Now IAS) examination. By 1947, he reached the top most rank any ICS officer can reach in a state – Chief Secretary of West Bengal.

After the adoption of the constitution in 26 November 1949, the Election Commission of India was established on 25th January 1950 with an objective of supervising all elections to the Parliament of India, state legislatures and to the office of the President of India and the Vice-President of India. Jawaharlal Nehru handpicked Sukumar Sen the then Chief Secretary of West Bengal to post of first Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of Independent India.

Independent India’s first general elections were scheduled on Oct 1951 to Feb 1952. The task before Sen was herculean. In little less than 2 years he had to setup a electoral system to conduct free and fair elections for country’s first Loksabha and state legislatures. Let us look at the numbers to understand the magnitude of task that was before Sen. He was confronted with 176 million Indians aged 21 or above, of whom more than 85 percent could not read or write. The widespread illiteracy posed a challenge to commission in organizing the election.

The parties/candidates were fighting for 4500 seats in Loksabha and state assemblies. Due to the harsh climate and challenging logistics, the election was held in 68 phases. 2,24,000 polling stations were supervised by 56,000 presiding officers. 16500 clerks were appointed on a 6 months contract to collate and type electoral rolls. 3,89,816 phials of indelible ink was used to mark voters to prevent mulitiple voting. 3,80,000 reams of paper was used to print ballot paper. 8200 tonnes of steel was used to make ballot boxes. 2,80,000 volunteers and 2,28,000 security personnel were deployed. 3000 films were shown across country to educate people about election.

The challenges before Sen were not just administrative and logistical, but also social. For instance women those days were not used to giving their own name. They identified themselves with names of one of their family member in electoral registration. Like Ramu’s wife or Rahim’s mother. When Sen saw this in electoral list, he directed the officials to go back to the field again and convince the women to enroll with their own name. As a result 2.8 million women chose to struck off their names from the list. Though these women couldn’t vote, it was a good move towards giving women their own identity and a crucial step towards gender equality and women empowerment in India.

Since the large part of 360 million population was illiterate. The voters could not read the names of candidate or party or write it down on ballot paper. It is here the mathematician in Sen came up with a brilliant solution. The problem was overcome by allotting each candidate a differently coloured ballot box at the polling both, on which each candidate’s name and symbol were written. This system enabled even a illiterate voter to cast his vote.. An electoral participation of 44.87 per cent was reported from across India.

Later, Sukumar Sen’s services were sought by Government of Sudan to oversee it’s first general election, which gave him international recognition. The Sudanese Election Commission formed in 1950, drew heavily on Indian election norms and laws.

Govt. of India honoured him with Padma Bhushana for his extraordinary contribution to Indian democracy. He was one of the first recipient of the civilian honour. But the man who laid foundation for our present for our present day electoral system is hardly known to most of us voters. Author Ramachandra Guha aptly remembers Sen as the ‘the man who had to make the election possible, a man who is an unsung hero of Indian democracy. It is a pity we know so little about Sukumar Sen. He left no memoirs and, it appears, no papers either’.

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