Franchise expansion and electoral mobilization: How caste and migration shaped India’s colonial politics

April 12, 2021 | Blog
Home > Franchise expansion and electoral mobilization: How caste and migration shaped India’s colonial politics

This blog is based on the authors’ presentation to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, 2021 (session NRIIF).


by Ashish Aggarwal (Warwick University), Ritam Chaurey (Johns Hopkins University), Pavithra Suryanarayan (Johns Hopkins University)


Indian Immigrants in the Mauritius. Available at

Slavery was abolished in the British Empire following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. This legislation  pressured sugar plantations in British colonies to secure alternative sources of labour. Imitating methods used in South America, the ‘Great Experiment’ began in Mauritius.  This initiative required Indian labour  to emigrate and become indentured on sugar plantations including  Mauritius, British Guyana, Natal, Trinidad, and Fiji.  Between the late 1830s and 1912, over a million Indians emigrated abroad under the indentured contracts.

Our research examines  the relationship between ethnic identity and electoral politics by focusing on the effects of indentured migration in late 19th century India. In particular, we explore the determinants of voting and electoral competition in the 1920 elections, when, for the very first time, a small section of Indian elites went to the polls in direct-rule British provinces to elect their representatives.

As in colonial India, contemporary Indian politics continues to be shaped by community and faction to a much greater degree than in any other Western country (Chiriyankandath, 1992). However, there is little work devoted exclusively to understanding the elections that occurred between 1920 and 1946.  Cassan et al. (2020) examined elections between 1920 and 1957, and report that when the franchise was expanded, the increase in turnout was substantially smaller than the increase in enfranchisement.  We add to these findings by assessing the role played by indentured migration in the colonial politics of India.  Specifically, we study whether the institution of indentured migration between 1860 and 1912, generated  political and economic consequences within India.

We find that districts with higher proportions of indentured migration were associated with higher voter turnout, a smaller margin of victory, and a lower probability of ‘running’ a candidate unopposed.  Moreover, these outcomes were stronger in districts with  higher caste fragmentation[1].  Essentially, given two districts with the same share of indentured migrants, the district with higher caste fragmentation had more competitive elections.  This finding suggests that indentured migration had political consequences

The 1920 franchise expansion differentially expanded the right to vote for the intermediate caste group[2] relative to both the advanced castes (already benefitting from British patronage), and the backward castes, who did not qualify for the vote.  If members of the intermediate castes became politically informed, then elections should become more competitive. Our research confirms this hypothesis: the experiences of indentured migrants in the colonies made them politically active and improved their education (Kumar, 2017; Carter, 1995). In addition, the higher proportionate  net-migration of intermediate castes was associated with greater political competition.  We find no similar findings for other major caste groups (advanced and backward).   Our findings are consonant with Gould (1974) who remarked,  ‘how spontaneously the ethnic dimensions of caste and religion came to the forefront once democratically constituted political arenas had been established’.

Migration can affect politics at origin via multiple channels.  Our research showed that districts receiving a greater share of return migrants witnessed a higher per capita expenditure on education and benefitted from  more equal provision of education.  Taken together, this implies a decline in the concentration of economic resources in districts receiving higher return migrants.  Furthermore, because indentured migrants sent remittances and brought home savings on their return (Roopnarine, 2009), wealth also became important in determining the competitiveness of elections.  Consequently, our findings suggest that the greater diffusion of education, financial wealth, and political knowledge, altered the  expectations of return migrants.


To contact the authors:

Ashish Aggarwal,, @aaggarwal

Ritam Chaurey,, @rchaurey

Pavithra Suryanarayan,,  @Pavithra_Suri



Carter, M. (1995). Servants, sirdars, and settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834-1874. (Oxford University Press, Delhi)

Cassan, G.,  Iyer, L., and Ali Mirza, R. (2020). ‘Enfranchisement, political participation and political competition: Evidence from colonial India’ Technical Report, IZA Discussion Paper.

Chiriyankandath, J. (1992). ‘Democracy’ under the Raj: Elections and separate representation in British India’. Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 30(1), 39–6.

Gould, H. A. (1974). ‘The emergence of modern Indian politics: Political development in Faizabad part I: 1884–1935’. Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 12(1), 20–41.

Kumar, A. (2017). Coolies of the Empire: Indentured Indians in the Sugar Colonies,1830–1920. (Cambridge University Press)

Roopnarine, L. (2009). ‘The repatriation, readjustment, and second-term migration of ex-indentured Indian laborers from British Guiana and Trinidad to India, 1838-1955.’ New West Indian Guide, 83(1-2), 71–97



[1] Caste fragmentation is defined as 1- (Herfindahl of Caste Groups) in a district. A higher caste fragmentation index implies more caste diversity in the district.

[2] Intermediate castes comprise of, in our definition, trader and warrior castes.