Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India

By Anjum Altaf

I am reading Christophe Jaffrelot’s new (2015) book The Pakistan Paradox and in Chapter 2 (An Elite in Search of a State – and a Nation (1906-1947)) came across the following table on page 91.

Table 2.6: Main party scores within the Muslim electorate in the 1946 elections (%)

Party Muslim League Congress Muslim nationalists Unionists Other
Total Muslims 74.7 4.6 6.4 4.6 9.7
Urban Muslims 78.7 2.3 5.0 14.0
Rural Muslims 74.3 4.8 6.6 6.1 9.2
Muslim Women 51.7 27.9 20.4

Jaffrelot’s reference to the table is the following: “Despite the League’s relative setback in the NWFP, after the 1946 elections the party eventually managed to appear representative of Indian Muslims (see Table 2.6).”

The table has been adapted from The Sole Spokesman by Ayesha Jalal (page 172). I looked up the citation and the table is the same except that Jalal has also mentioned the total number of votes cast and their distribution across the various parties.

Jalal’s reference to the table is as follows: “More importantly, the League secured nearly seventy-five percent of the total Muslim vote cast in the elections to provincial assemblies throughout India – a remarkable improvement on the abysmal 4.4 percent it had registered in the 1936-37 elections.”

Contrary to Jalal and Jaffrelot, what jumped out to me from the table and literally knocked me out was something completely different. Just look at the huge difference between the pattern of the votes cast by Muslim men and Muslim women. One can calculate from the absolute numbers provided by Jalal that while three-fourths of the men voted for the Muslim League only half the women did so. And while only one in sixteen of the men voted for Muslim nationalists, over one in four of the women did so.

This comes across as a very significant difference and I would have thought someone would have ventured to offer an explanation. There could be some very rich hypotheses for a sociologist to explore.

The data on the absolute number of votes provided by Jalal do alert us to the fact that the 1946 elections were contested on a limited suffrage – the total number of female Muslim votes cast were 15,501. It is historical fact that the suffrage was restricted to 3 percent of the voting age population in the 1934 elections which were the first in which Indian women were allowed to vote in any but local elections. By 1937 the franchise had expanded to 14 percent of the total population (1). The franchise (based on ownership of property and literacy qualifications specified in the Sixth Schedule of the Government of India Act, 1935) was not extended for the 1946 elections, only the electoral rolls were updated (2).

Even so, the questions remain. Who were these Muslim women who voted and why were their votes so different from those of the men?

The one myth, persistent to the day, this data seems to put to rest is that women are subservient to men and do as they are told especially in something as critical as voting which involves issues outside the domestic sphere.

Further, the hypothesis suggests itself that Muslim women were much less enamored of the prospect of the creation of Pakistan compared to the men. The League by 1946 was clearly associated with the Two-Nation theory and the demand for partition. The Muslim nationalists, by contrast, were candidates who contested on the platform of keeping India united. The vote for the nationalists suggests that their platform appealed disproportionately to Muslim women.

Of course, it is tempting to associate the vote of Muslim women with the reluctance to leave home since for many partition would have implied a migration. This is a stereotypical premise that may or may not be true but the data warrants a more extended investigation which would also include looking at the pattern of votes by non-Muslim women.

One can also see from the table that the rural Muslim vote was less in favor of the Muslim League platform than the urban Muslim vote. This does support the contention of many, including Jaffrelot, that the driving force behind separation were urban Muslims initially predominantly from the Muslim minority provinces of British India. It took the “Islam in danger” hyperbole that made sufficient number of people in the Muslim majority provinces to fall in line between 1937 and 1946 to make partition possible.

The partition narrative has many stories of women who continued to carry the keys of their old homes in India for years after 1947 to convey how traumatic it must have been for them to move. All the more if the move was contrary to their desires. And surely these feelings must have been reciprocated by the Hindu and Sikh women on the other side of the border who ultimately did not even have the luxury to make a choice.

One wonders what the outcome of the elections would have been if the franchise had been unlimited and all the eligible women had voted – in 1946 women cast only 0.25 percent of the total Muslim vote.


1. “The 1937 election was the first in which large masses of Indians were eligible to participate. An estimated 30.1 million persons, including 4.25 million women, had acquired the right to vote (14% of the total population), and 15.5 million of these, including 917,000 women, actually did exercise their franchise.”

2. The total electorate in the 1946 Provincial Elections in India were 41,075,839 which was 14% of the total estimated population of 299,621,000. Adjusting for age, the electorate was 28% of the total population of voting age (over 20 years). The number of women voters was 6,620,589, i.e., only 16% of the total electorate.

For details, see Kuwajima, Sho, Muslims, Nationalism and the Partition: 1946 Provincial Elections in India, Manohar, New Delhi, 1998, p. 47.


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5 Responses to “Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India”

  1. Vikram Says:

    I saw a video on the Indian media channel TwoCircles youtube channel once, where some Muslim women in Uttar Pradesh were interviewed about participating in the work of an NGO. The interviewer asked them about who the Muslim women and girls they worked with looked up to as role models, and they mentioned Benazir Bhutto, Jhansi ki Rani, Sonia Gandhi and Mayawati.

    Perhaps there were more such female role models on the nationalist/Congress side (Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kriplani among others) than the League, where the female role models (Fatima Jinnah and Ra’aana Liaquat) were fewer in number ?

  2. Santanu Says:

    Great post. Wish I had seen it earlier. Who were the “Muslim Nationalists”?

  3. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Santanu: Muslim nationalists were those Muslims who were opposed to the division of India, i.e., those who opposed the demand for Pakistan. The most well-known name was that of Maulana Azad but there were many others.

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