Electoral rolls

Missing votes

Print edition :

A Muslim voter at a polling station in Bengaluru on May 12. Photo: Aijaz Rahi/AP

The exclusion of a huge number of Muslims from the electoral rolls in several States is a cause for concern.

If you are a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh with four voters in your family, chances are that only three will get to exercise their right to franchise granted by Article 326 of the Constitution. The fourth person’s name would either be missing or excluded from the electoral rolls.

In Tamil Nadu, too, every fourth Muslim person’s name is found missing from electoral rolls. The situation in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is not any better; nor in Gujarat and Karnataka, from where the first voices were heard about Muslim names missing from electoral rolls. Incidentally, the number of Muslim voters has declined over the years, giving rise to fears about discrimination, political exclusion, total elimination and so on. In Karnataka, the names of 6.6 million people were reportedly missing from the electoral list; later, about 1.2 million were re-enlisted. The names of members of other communities also go missing, but the figures are significantly higher for Muslims—15 per cent for other communities and 25 per cent for Muslims.

Abusaleh Shariff of the U.S.-India Policy Institute, Washington, who is also the founder of the Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy (CRDDP), New Delhi, says: “There is a huge exclusion of Indians at large from the electoral rolls, but the exclusion of Muslims is higher. It threatens to make a mockery of our democracy. It is estimated that there is exclusion of 150 to 180 million Indians from the electoral process. It is like excluding a whole country or even a hundred small nations. That in itself is a disgrace to India. For Muslims, I would say, in up to 50 per cent of the households in a State, there is at least one person who does not have a vote though he/she is otherwise eligible. Though we started with Karnataka, the pilot work is on in Gujarat, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The trend is similar in all States. It is a cause for concern.” The percentage of people left out of the electoral process, ranging between 15 and 25 per cent, becomes extremely significant when one sees that in any Assembly election, a third of the seats are decided by margins of less than 2,000 votes.

So how did the wheels turn in Karnataka, where millions of Muslims found their names missing from electoral rolls just before the recent Assembly elections? It was an exclusion that aroused fears of a deliberate denial of a community’s electoral rights in a crucial election. Shariff, who has also been a member of the Sachar Committee which studied the socio-economic and education conditions of Muslims, says, “In Karnataka, we did a one-day campaign in which those who were left out could get themselves enrolled. Since we were focussing on Muslims, we got in touch with local mosques. The mosques called people from their homes, and people got their cards made. After that, those still left out could enrol themselves online. We can follow a similar strategy in other States where maybe we can have a personal contact programme for a week followed by online registration.”

The CRDDP went about the issue in a meticulous manner in Karnataka. It was found that according to Census data, single-person households ranged between 4.3 and 4.9 per cent across the districts of Karnataka. However, upon studying the data of the electoral lists in the State, it was found that between 40 and 50 per cent of the households had only one registered voter. Clearly, a huge section of the population had been left out of the democratic process. Upon visiting the samples of households with only (or at least) one registered voter, it was found that the households did have other individuals above the age of 18 who were not listed in the electoral roll of that constituency. Therefore, as Shariff discovered, they had a situation “where actual people, with actual addresses, living in easy to reach households, were missing from the electoral rolls of the constituencies. In Karnataka there were 6.6 million such households; in other words, there were at least (but could be much higher) 6.6 million adults who were excluded from voters lists.”

Why is it that more Muslim names are left out than those from other communities? “There can be many reasons. One is not getting into the politics of it, but the exclusion could be because the people at the block level may not be doing their job well. There are cultural and linguistic differences. For instance, not many block level officers can spell a name like Zebunissa. There can be many spellings for names. Also, many Muslims give their ages in Urdu rather than English. Thus, discrepancies creep in age data at the time of enrolment itself,” says Shariff. He does agree that there is a strong possibility of a systemic bias against Muslims which, at times, even leads to the exclusion of the entire community or a locality from a constituency.

Is it not possible that in Karnataka the State government was well-disposed towards updating the list? This may not always be the case in other States. Shariff scotches such ideas: “There is nothing about revision of electoral rolls. If any politician had come, I would have told him, your job is to get votes, my job to enrol votes. It does not matter which party rules. U.P. also will do it. My constitution says everybody has the right to vote. And everybody shall have it.” He, however, agrees this exclusion of a community’s members is a social phenomenon that needs careful attention. Having said that, there are lacunae such as failure to update electoral rolls. People who passed away a few years ago continue to be on the rolls, as are individuals who may have moved to another part of the country, or even abroad. For instance, in Delhi, there are more than four lakh voters with more than one voter identity card. The Election Commission looks at the EP (electorate to population) ratio to ensure that maximum number of people have been enrolled. The duplication of names on the electoral list and the failure to remove people who have shifted to other areas, who have been missing for more than six months, and those who are dead from the list has resulted in names on voters lists that far exceed the actual eligible population of the respective areas at times. This results in the Election Commission not noticing that a lot of eligible voters might, in fact, be missing from the electoral list.

“Our election data are not the best. We have to improve our data. We have greater opportunity with new technology. Today, we cannot say it was like that in 1952, so it has to continue. It cannot be the same,” says Shariff. Incidentally, Shariff says the Election Commission “has time and again tried to reach out to every last voter to ensure an inclusive Indian democracy. However, there is a last mile disconnectivity, and a huge chunk of the eligible population is not listed in the electoral list, although some of them may have a voter’s ID card, which is not a sufficient condition to vote.”

Delimitation

While the media have only recently woken up to the significant exclusion of Muslims from the electoral process, there is a belief that what we are seeing today is only the apparent face of a process that started many decades ago with the delimitation of constituencies with either a Muslim majority, or a significant percentage of Muslim votes. Says Niaz Ahmad Farooqui, secretary, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, “It is true that Muslims are being excluded from the political process through denials of the right to cast their franchise. But this is only the latest stage. At the first stage, many Muslim-dominated constituencies have been reserved for Scheduled Castes through a process of delimitation. Thus, there could be a significant number of Muslims in a constituency but they cannot contest from it as the seat is reserved for Scheduled Castes.”

Farooqui points out that there has been a systematic division of Muslim-dominated constituencies where they even accounted for up to 55 per cent of the population. “But such seats now fall in the reserved category. It is being done at all levels, the block level, Assembly and parliamentary election level. So, what are Muslims supposed to do? Adopt a caste when there is no caste in Islam?” The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken this exclusion of Muslims to another level. If the delimitation process reduced the value of a Muslim vote, and the missing names from electoral rolls angered the community, the BJP denied the party ticket to Muslims to contest elections. Of course, the usual winnability factor has always been projected, but the underlying systematic political marginalisation of the community cannot be denied. It has even led to talk of making the Muslim vote redundant and left the community looking at political oblivion.

However, Farooqui does not lay all the blame on the BJP. “I will not blame only the BJP. It was done even during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure. Now it is being done in a more focussed manner to exclude Muslims. Even if some seats were delimited, or some names went missing under the UPA regime, the Congress at least gave the party ticket to Muslims. The current dispensation is not even giving them the ticket. It works both ways now. First reserve a constituency for the S.C.s, then stop giving the party ticket to Muslims. If you recall, the BJP did not give the ticket to a single Muslim in States like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and only a token few in the North-eastern States. The party ticket was not given according to the proportion of the population. In a democracy, everything is decided by numbers. So, if Muslims are denied the numbers at various stages, their ability to raise issues important for the community is shortchanged. The reality is that the political process is managed in such a manner that Muslims are excluded.”

‘Muslims must be proactive’

Farooqui advises the Muslim community to be on its guard. “Whoever finds his name missing from the voters’ list, should apply again. It is important that we get listed as voters again. It is not just a right, it is a duty. If my name is excluded from the list, it becomes my duty to get it back on. Being proactive is the way forward. Half measures will not do. I do not think any political party will come to their rescue. The present situation is the BJP’s doing alone. The party has capitalised on the work or the lack of it of those preceding it at the Centre.”

Shariff concurs: “The Muslim exclusion is a reality. Muslims themselves need to come forward, realise the value of their vote. This indifferent attitude of asking ‘What difference will one’s vote make to Modi has to be shed. The reality is that today we have political parties that are active in not seeking the Muslim vote. On the other side, Muslims themselves do not realise the worth of their vote. They need to step forward, participate in nation building. And casting a vote in an election is a contribution towards nation building.” He adds, “Given the stark socio-economic differential between various communities of India, which also reflect their relative position in the political economy, it is essential that women, Dalits, Muslims, the tribal communities and other marginalised groups are not denied their voting right.”

It is a tall order. Karnataka, though, has shown the way.

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