Although the evolving provisions for citizenship were still being drafted they were the basis for the preparation of the preliminary electoral roll. The instructions for enrolment set out that every citizen of or above 21 years of age who is not otherwise disqualified by reason of non-residence, unsoundness of mind, crime, or corrupt practice shall be entitled to register on the electoral roll.

A voter should have a place of residence in the electoral unit for a period of no less than 180 days in the year ending on 31 March 1948 (i.e. no later than 30 September 1947). As for citizenship, “For the present’, it was stated, “the definition of citizen in article 5 of the Draft Constitution may be adopted”.

The citizenship provisions, formulated and set in articles 5 and 6 of the draft constitution of February 1948, laid down birth, descent, and domicile as criteria for citizenship. Article 5(a) set citizenship at the date of the commencement of the constitution by birth and descent in the territory of the new state to everyone, barring those who left after 1 April 1947 to make their permanent abode in any foreign state.

Article 5(b) provided in very wide terms an Indian citizenship, by birth and descent (up to grandparents), to anyone who was born in the ‘Greater colonial India’ – India as defined in the Government of India Act, 1935 as long as they have their domicile in the newly constituted India.

The draft article made provisions for the needs of the large number of displaced persons from greater India, including Pakistan. It provided for them an “easy mode” of acquiring domicile, and thereby citizenship.

It was sufficient for a person to declare in the office of the District Magistrate that he desired such a domicile, provided that he has resided in the territory of India for at least one month before his declaration. Such declarations, however, could in practice only be made once the constitution came into force.

Soon after the detailed instructions for the preparation of the rolls were disseminated, in mid-March 1948, and provincial governments began issuing their instructions to local administrators, letters began arriving at the CAS, asking whether and how refugees should be enrolled.

Indeed, refugees’ citizenship and residential status – two key qualifying criteria for registration as voters – were unclear and soon became a contested matter. According to the prescribed residency qualification, a voter had to reside in the place where he would register from 30 September 1947 at the latest.

But a large number of the refugees migrated after 30 September 1947. Moreover, waves of returnees from Pakistan who left during the violence in late 1947 were now coming back to India.

The CAS acknowledged that “[t]he residential qualification of 180 days up to 31 March 1948, will cause hardship to refugees...for reason beyond their control...Some concession will have to be made for the refugees otherwise a large number of persons will be left out”. Seeking a solution to the question of refugees’ registration, the Secretariat decided at the beginning of their discussions on the subject that “the refu gee problem will have to be tackled on an all-India basis”.

The Under Secretary of the CAS commented that “there is also the question of their citizenship to be considered”. From May to July 1948 the Secretariat engaged, among other things, with the task of “finding a suitable formula regarding the residential qualifications of refugee voters”. The Under
Secretary directed the office “to go into this problem with the help, if possible, of any precedents of other countries and put up a note as early as possible.”

In the meantime, letters of complaint from a wide range of citizens’ organisations and ordinary people began arriving at the Secretariat, indicating that the provisions and directions that they issued in the pursuit of universal franchise were challenged by evolving distinct exclusionary practices on the ground in the preparation of the roll.

Many organisations raised questions and concerns over the refugees’ registration and citizenship status. There were also various queries from officials in the provinces about difficulties that surfaced.

The President of the East Bengal Minority Welfare Central Committee, Calcutta, wrote that “certain points mentioned in the Press reports regarding residence qualification and a few provisions in the Draft Constitution regarding citizenship, voting rights, etc. have created considerable apprehension among a large section of the people living in West Bengal and Assam but originally hailing from territories now in Pakistan.

The Committee pointed out that because no arrangements were made as yet by the Government of India or by any provincial government for receiving declarations for citizenship as set in article 5 (b) of the draft constitution, “any preparation of electoral rolls may be seriously prejudicial to the interests of the Immigrants”.

The Committee suggested that interim instructions for receiving declarations of domicile as envisaged in article 5 (b) of the draft constitution should be issued immediately. Additionally, they cautioned that unless new “definite” directions were given with respect to the residential qualification of 180 days “the immigrants from Pakistan are likely to be omitted from the Draft Electoral Rolls now to be prepared”.

The Committee suggested in this regard that the question of residence “should be very leniently applied at least in the preparation of the first electoral rolls. Mere declaration as to intention of residence should be accepted as residential qualification’. The committee also reported that in some parts of Assam attempts were being made to leave out the immigrants from the electoral rolls.

Indeed, several letters referred to a circular that the Reforms Commissioner of Assam issued on 28 May 1948 to all district officers, containing detailed instructions for them and their staff regarding the preparation of the electoral roll.

The Government desires to draw your personal attention with regard to the floating and “non-resident” population of the District. These people are not qualified to be registered as voters. They may be staying with friends, relatives or as refugees or labourers. Great caution will be necessary on the part of your staff to see that not a single individual of this class manages to creep into the electoral roll by any chance.

On his final note, the Reforms Commissioner asked that “officers of all grades who may be entrusted with this work of national importance will devote their whole attention and care in the performance of their duties in this affair with patriotic zeal”. In his following circular the Reforms Commissioner emphasised that the reference to “residence” in the instructions for the preparation of the roll “means residence of a citizen. Citizenship comes first and residence next... Citizenship will have to be first established before one can acquire franchise.”

Angry letters about the Reforms Commissioner and Assam Government asked the CAS to “appreciate it [this circular’s] inherent defects which will vitally vitiate preparation of Electoral Roll’, and demanded immediate rectification.

The letter added:

The Constituent Assembly entrusted to draft the constitution should take note of the above to realise how simple provisions under the constitution could be misconstrued and how persons holding responsible positions may fail to implement the provisions of the constitution in accordance to its spirit and may even defeat its purpose by issuing directions that will lead to a negation of the fundamental conceptions of adult suffrage.

“You will find”, stated another letter, “that attempts are being made to exclude all persons who were not born in Assam as constituted now.”

Some organisations complained that they “failed to have any definite form or direction either from the district authorities or provincial government in the matter of enrolment of voters under the new act”, and requested to receive “all papers and forms so that people ... may correctly move to enlist themselves as voters”

Excerpted with permission from How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, Ornit Shani, Penguin Random House India.