A Week in Lahore (2)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 21 May 1884


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 71

One of the main objects of Lord Ripon’s vice-regal administration was to encourage local self-government in Indian cities. The policy met with predictable suspicion and dislike among English administrators, fully shared by Kipling: they called the idea lokil sluff in derision of the native pronunciation of the phrase ‘local self-government’. Nevertheless, Lahore was one of the cities to elect natives to its municipal council. Here Kipling describes what the elections were like. The Tribune, referred to towards the end of the sketch, was a native weekly paper in Lahore. [T.P.]

The Article

Lahore Elections

Each ward (the City proper is divided into eight) is served with differently tinted voting papers, which must be brought up to the poll by the voters in person — a system which they wholly fail to understand. ‘If Ram Singh pere is sick,’ say they, ‘why on earth cannot Ram Singh fils, a fine growing lad of ten, bring up his Papa’s vote?’ In the beginning, all the various ward papers were white, but this led to so much queer dealing on the part of the candidates, and opened a way to so much quiet swindling, that coloured ones were substituted. Elections take place in the early morning, and, long before the hour of opening the poll, the ground is covered with a swaying many-voiced crowd, eagerly discussing each candidate’s chances, and impartially accusing everyone concerned in the matter of flagrant bribery and corruption. At one ward election I noticed that every circle of talkers had a gay-turbaned, deep-voiced centre man, and by this centre man the movements of the circle were regulated — a faint adumbration, hereafter to be made perfect, of the ‘boss’ system in ward politics. He looked after the wavering among his followers, as a mother hen might guard her brood from the machinations of a kite, and secured them good places in the crowd. The appearance of a white face on the ground was the signal for a volley of complaints from Young India — aghast at the audacity of a mob which had dared to disregard his claims, and clamourous in denunciation of So and So’s ‘base tricks’. ‘Let us,’ cried one gentleman, clad in robes as snowy as his principles, ‘let us lay aside our personal feelings and vote for an able man. But the mass of the people are not sufficiently educated for this.’ And they weren’t. They could understand voting for a man, be he Hindu, Mahomedan, or Sikh, who, in time of need, might sanction the enlargement of their tharrahs and wink at the blockade of the drain below. Also they could understand food and four-anna pieces, and, in place of these things, young India offered them principles and patriotism, and they heeded him not. They were not sufficiently educated.

The Munsiff’s court house, where this election was taking place, was a small two-roomed bungalow, bare as the Mian Mir parade ground, if we except two green baize tables, two chairs and an indifferent punkah. Voters were to enter at one door of the frowsy little den, vote and pass out at another. Five candidates had presented themselves for election, and five iron files, each marked with a candidate’s name, were drawn up in line on one of the tables, ready to impale the voting papers as they were given in. At another table, the votes were registered on paper and, when the poll closed, file and register were compared for accuracy’s sake. Each voter was supposed to be identified at the door and had then to give up his name and voting paper to the Deputy Commissioner. As soon as this, official made his appearance, the crowd, now a thousand strong, closed up behind his steps, and the police, from the barrack hard by, linked themselves hand to hand, and, breasting the crowd as a swimmer might breast the sea, kept it, by main force, from overwhelming the verandah and spiking itself en masse on the voting files. Up and down the cleared space pranced a native Inspector Sahib, and, at his bidding, some twenty men at a time would be admitted into the verandah, formed into an orderly queue and sent, one by one, to vote. For two long hours the reeking policemen bore up against the pressure from without, and if at times, the blue and yellow line broke without the Inspector Sahib’s order, let us say that it was from sheer weariness of muscle, and not as Young India — ever at one’s elbow with grievances and objections — hinted, from the magic of any silver talisman. When the first queue was in position, a khaki-clad darogah threw open the doors of the court house, and the great machine that is to regenerate all Aryavarta began to work.
The darogah read out each man’s name as he entered, and handed up the voting paper to the Deputy Commissioner. Then came the question ‘kis ki wasti raz haiV [‘who do you vote for?] and the voter, having recorded his vote, was motioned onward by two police men, and passed through the opposite door almost as swiftly as the coloured slip of paper could be stuck to its proper iron. That, in effect, was all. A machine which combined the swiftness and despatch of a Chicago sausage maker (for the voters slid through that court house at a rate varying from six to fourteen to the minute) with the mechanical freedom from error of Babbage’s calulator. Its very simplicity, as it ground out the tale of votes in the bare evil-smelling little room, made it all the more impressive. The Deputy Commissioner, be it remarked, had to take the voting slips from each man and put them on their appropriate files, and his share of the proceedings seemed only second in point of unpleasantness to that of the straining, swaying policeman outside. Sometimes in the middle of a long ‘break’ of brown voters there would be a check — a minor had presented himself with his father’s voting paper, or an aged father had come in place of his son. This would cause an interruption just long enough to scribble a note on the back of the doubtful paper, and to cut short the long account of that fever fit which had prevented Mahomed Din or Gopal Dass from attending in person. The expostulator passed out like the pig in the grip of the sausage machine, impelled by the current behind, and, almost ere he had time to realize the situation, was shot once more into the crowd without. Then the monotonous labour would commence anew, till the recurring ‘kis ki wasti raz hais’, the crisp sound of the voting papers as they slid down the file, and the hum of the waiting crowd, wove themselves into a sleepy sort of song, broken at long periods by the detection of a ‘doubtful vote’, and its banishment to a distant corner of the green table. Some of the voters produced the white papers that had been originally issued, vowing that they had received no others; others who had voted for other wards turned up to try their luck a second time; were dropped on and swiftly dismissed. How on earth the lynx-eyed registrar of the votes could be sure of his men, will remain a mystery till the crack of doom, but the culprits owned up and passed on with a propitiatory smile, and seemed in no way disconcerted. Now and then too, the barrier of police outside would give way and had to be reconstructed with yells and evil language, for the crowd was helplessly jammed and had to be thrust back en masse, while the heads of the circles, mentioned before, waxed purple in the face in their efforts to keep their constituencies out of the reach of the evil communications that were corrupt-ing good voters on every side. Young India, still to the fore, and babbling of ‘appeals to Lord Ripon’, ‘telegraph to Viceroy’, &c., pointed out a gap in the row, where an Honorary Magistrate, he said, was ‘using his influence’ to get his men passed through by the police. How this would affect the result of the elections one whit, I was not told; it was sufficient that ‘influence’ had been used, and our Emprire in the East was tottering to its fall therefore.

The first two hundred voters seemed men of good education and position; after this, the quality deteriorated, and voters came in more and more scantily clothed and, in some cases, scarcely knowing for whom to decide. One aged Sikh, whose raiment would have scandalized a western constituency, ex-pressed his willingness to vote for any one the Sirkar might please, or, failing this, foi both ward candidates at once. His readiness to oblige was unappreciated. Another old gentleman, who seemed far too poor to have any stake in the ward, announced, with an angry glance at the assembly behind him, that he would vote for ‘ — Singh and no one else, so help him.’. Had any canvasser been bringing pressure to bear on him, I wonder? Episodes of this nature were, however, few; for the whole system seemed to be too thoroughly ‘understanded of the people’ to admit of them. Between the hours of seven and nixre nearly a thousand men had recorded their votes, and the atmosphere of the court house had risen about as many degrees. By nine every registered voter had been disposed of. Ten minutes later the Deputy Commissioner had counted the voting slips, compared them with the register and announced the result of the poll to the eager assembly without, and, amid the screeches of the winning side, and the rough banter of the losers, the ward election came to a close.
What impressed an on looker first, was the sublime distrust every one had for every one else at the polls that morning, and the lofty morality of the Baboos. It is wrong and wicked to hold meetings before the elections, it is sinful, they argue, to give feasts, and it is crime unspeakable to buy votes. Let the would be Municipal Commissioner stand or fall by his own merits, and move neither hand nor purse throughout the elections. The late lamented Mr Barlow would have protested that it was a vastly fine idea, and so says the Baboo; but it is an idea that a few hundred years electioneering at home have never worked out and that Lahore has yet to wait for.

Taking the whole business of the elections all round, one thing certainly strikes us, and that is the fact that, in spite of the difficulties in their path, the local authorities have done wonders. The time allowed them was short, but an enormous amount of work must have been got through ere the arrangements for voting could have been turned out, like a famous sewing machine, so simple in form that a child of six could understand it. The Deputy Commissioner who took up his share of the work while the arrangements were still being made, has certainly done his very best by the scheme, which as you have said somewhere, was anything but a simple one in its first conception — a defect that the next elections may remedy. Mr Parker, who, besides being Judicial Assistant Commissioner, Registrar of the University, and Vice President of the Municipal Council, seems to do everything in Lahore except preaching in the Pro-cathedral, has, of course, been worked like a horse, and to the Secretary of the outgoing Municipality who will, no doubt, act on the next Committee, there must have fallen a large portion of the work, apart from the unenviable morning task of registering votes. The fact is that the local authorities had to do everything but tell the voters who to vote for. This they were even expected to do, and men would come to Mr Clarke and Mr Parker, loud in their professions of readiness to vote for any or every candidate His Lordship might be pleased to name. Intelligent burgesses of this kind were sent away with the intimation that, under the circumstances, they had best not vote at all.

There is a delightful simplicity and naivete in the forebodings of the organ of the educated natives as to the future of ‘Lokil sluff’ which is quite too good to be confined to its own narrow circle of readers. We are told that the new committee will be a fiasco. The old committee was kept straight by the ‘moral influence of the Deputy Commissioner which prevented petty jealousies and intrigues, and kept the shady side of the committee men’s characters from showing themselves’. But have we not often been assured by the incorruptible Tribune, that the influence of the official Briton was a sort of withering upas tree, and that a really popular system of representation was wanted? Such a system is provided, and, as I have shewn above, the people have taken to it as ducks to water. Only, the educated native is ‘not in it’. His claims to the chief seats have been ignored by a public which has a blind faith in such grocerly qualities as wealth, reputation and social influence. So he writes: — ‘This scheme is ultra radical. It refuses to give a proper recognition to education, merit and position. The people are ignorant and apathetic, wholly unaccustomed to act for themselves, and the whole thing is an egregious blunder.’ So it was not a popular system of representation that was wanted after all? Not in the least. The aspiration of those who have most clamorously hailed Lord Ripon’s ‘Boon’, was for a transfer of power from the white Hakim to the dusky Vakil and, since the people have shown that they prefer another class of persons to the eloquent and educated native, who has his brains merely for his patrimony, and his interest in litigation for his stake in the country, he cries out, ‘Oh! this isn’t my notion of local Self- Government at all! I was going to take the D.C’s place and have a company of argumentative educated natives to support me. If this is your boasted new jurisdiction I prefer the old arrangement with the D.C. as Deus ex machina as before.’ And he is indignant, in a loftily aristocratic manner, that poor electors should emerge from their ‘normal position in society’ to ‘strut in factitious importance’. Where in this wail of conceited snobbishness, helpless in its discomfiture, is there any trace of the notions of liberality of thought, equality of mankind and all the brand new gospels that were to usher in a new Era? There is food for reflection in all this, and especially for those who fondly fancied that a system of popular representation ‘broad based upon the people’s will’ was likely to content young India who, after all, has claims deserving of more notice than they are likely to meet with at the people’s hands. Make him Deputy Commissioner and the whole business of local self-government may go to Jericho. And why should he not be Deputy Com-missioner and all the rest of it? This is the real question to which he awaits an answer. When his time comes you may be quite sure that his aristocratic instincts will tolerate no fooling round with electioneering papers.