Nothing gives the historian greater joy than to discover an individual significant in his time but forgotten in our own. I was thus very pleased to have brought to the attention of the present generation the achievements of a Bengali mathematician-turned-civil servant named Sukumar Sen. He is one of the heroes of my book, India after Gandhi, for having designed and supervised this country’s first ever general elections. The Election Commission has since been a stable and very impressive feature of the Indian political landscape, and later commissioners such as T N Seshan and J M Lyngdoh have been widely praised for their conduct of free and fair elections. But the man who began it all, the Bengali who laid the foundations of one of the core institutions of Indian democracy, had not, before I wrote about him, got his due.

So I believed, until in a bookshop in Bangalore last month I came across some old issues of Shankar’s Weekly. This periodical, now defunct, was edited out of Delhi by the cartoonist, Shankar Pillai, and was once very popular among the English-speaking middle class. Anyway, in its issue of February 17, 1957, the magazine chose Sukumar Sen as ‘The Man of the Week’ for having successfully conducted his, and India’s, second general election. Shankar’s Weekly described the man and his work in these four paragraphs of orotund prose:

Pic source: The Telegraph.

“Sukumar Sen could easily have been a bit of the Steel Frame that rusted, for he was a District and Sessions Judge for 19 years. That he brought to August 1947 the resilience that made him Chief Secretary to the very difficult Government of Bengal was due undoubtedly to the fact that he had much more than steel in his frame. Bengal in the war years was almost a lost province and when division rent it, what seemed to be wholly ripped off was the morale of the administration. While the White scooted, many a Brown Saheb collapsed in a din of scandal.”

“Sukumar Sen’s Chief Secretaryship for three years, on the other hand, seemed to prepare him for the most unconventional job that ever came to an I.C.S. man. He was chosen to play obstetrician and to deliver Indian democracy’s first crop of nearly three thousand elected representatives. Realizing with surprising un-I.C.S. humility that democracy likes its mechanics to be as self-effacing as possible, the Chief Election Commissioner became an unseen, undogmatic influence patiently judicial in his attitude to parties but insistent in regard to the machine he wielded.”

“Where nearly two hundred million people, for the most part unlettered but politically conscious none the less, are set on choosing between one phenomenally big party and a clutter of many small and new ones, where words have come to be replaced by symbols, where a corps of workers recruited ad hoc from a thousand offices with no experience of applied democracy have to face an army of agents both suspicious and persistent, the actual process of election can be very wearing.”

“But largely due to Sukumar Sen it can be said that apart from Panch Shila the most impressive gift we have given to Asia in the first decade of our freedom is the system of elections that has been perfected in this country. His success was recognised internationally when he was asked to organise the first Sudan elections. As the voters get ready to clutch at the voting papers for the second Indian general elections, every Political party has reason to remember Sukumar Sen with gratitude for doing a very difficult job very well indeed.”

Let me now juxtapose to this tribute by Shankar’s Weekly some material I recently found at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. It so happened that after the first Indian general elections, our chief election commissioner was asked to supervise elections in the newly independent country of Sudan. He spent nine months in that country, setting up the infrastructure for polling and making sure it worked. It was Sukumar Sen who had devised the system of identifying parties by different symbols and colours — this method was now adapted to the Sudanese voter, who, like his Indian counterpart, was mostly illiterate.

No one believes in Panchsheel anymore, but electoral democracy has endured. It is, as it were, India’s greatest gift to itself. For while politicians in India are now anything but wise or patriotic, their misdeeds are kept somewhat in check by the mighty machine forged and welded by Sukumar Sen.

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On December 14, 1953, after the elections were completed, Sen spoke on Sudanese radio of this “very happy chapter of my life”. He exhorted the people to trust their politicians, who, he said, were all “wise and patriotic”; in government or in the opposition, “you will find them all working for the ultimate good of the country”. But he warned that in view of Sudan’s underdevelopment, they would “have to work very very hard for many long years” to nurture the plant they, and he, had sown. Still, he hoped that their experiment in free elections would be “an example and a source of inspiration to the Arab and the African world”.

Sen’s work in Sudan was the subject of a stirring tribute in the Egyptian newspaper, Al Misri. In its issue of December 18, 1953, it called the Indian “one of those men who were born to lead the pitched battles for Democracy”. It condemned the cynicism of British officials and the British press, which had a priori dismissed the elections as a farce. For under Sen’s supervision the Sudanese polls had been “free in every sense of the word”. Indeed, the singular lesson of their success was that “the age in which the politicians of the British Empire used to think that they are issuing orders, is finished”.

Like his Egyptian admirers, Sen was also to question whether democracy was a Western invention at all. In his final report on the Indian elections, he argued that in fact “republican forms of government existed in many parts of ancient India”. In “some of these republics, every adult male member had the right to vote and to be present in the general assembly which decided all public affairs”. The “genius of India”, said Sen, had fashioned “autonomous and almost self-sufficient village communities” which had “lasted through the ages”, and were “run on truly democratic lines without, of course, the outward trappings of the vote and the ballot box”. From this point of view, the elections of 1952 were “like the rejoining of a historic thread that had been snapped by alien rule”.

As it happened, Sudan did not hold another general election. But India did, and this, like the previous one, was supervised by Sukumar Sen himself. By and through his work in the 1952 and 1957 elections, this decent Bengali had done enough to count as one of the builders of the Indian nation. This was recognized by Shankar’s Weekly at the time, but apparently not by very many others. For his name then slipped from public memory, and Indians who voted in elections in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, as well as journalists and political scientists who commented on the electoral process, knew not the name of the man who had made it all possible.

Back in 1957, Shankar’s Weekly had argued that along with the philosophy of Panchsheel, free elections were India’s greatest gift to Asia. No one believes in Panchsheel anymore, but electoral democracy has endured. It is, as it were, India’s greatest gift to itself. For while politicians in India are now anything but wise or patriotic, their misdeeds are kept somewhat in check by the mighty machine forged and welded by Sukumar Sen. Perhaps it is time that his fellow Bengalis properly honoured him. They might wish to name a major street in Calcutta after him. Or they might press the government of India to confer on Sukumar Sen a posthumous Bharat Ratna, to which his claims are far stronger than of some previous recipients of that award.