Soldier and his vote

Right to vote: discriminatory rules

Print edition : March 07, 2014

SOLDIERS have been unable to exercise the right to vote, granted to every citizen above the age of 18 years under the Constitution, despite a Supreme Court order . Over 23 lakh personnel of the armed forces and the paramilitary forces cannot vote because, unlike the civilian population, they are not allowed to register as voters at their places of posting. The other options available to them, such as postal ballot and proxy voting, do not really work on the ground.

This situation is the result of a Government of India rule which says that personnel of the armed forces can only register for voting at their places of posting if they have been residing there for at least three years with their families. This rule does not apply to civilians, who are only required to be residents for a minimum of six months in order to register themselves as voters in their places of posting. Anyone familiar with the posting patterns of armed forces personnel would know that it is almost impossible for them to fulfil this condition, with the result that they end up being denied their right to franchise.

It is not as if armed forces personnel were never allowed to vote. Until 1969, they could register as voters in their places of posting. In 1969, at Wokha in Nagaland, the losing candidate moved the Guwahati High Court, claiming that the election result had been impacted by the large number of Assam Rifles personnel who voted against him. He argued that the soldiers, who were not ordinarily residents of the area, could not be allowed to vote. The High Court, however, upheld the result, dismissing his plea. The matter reached the Supreme Court and, in 1971, the Supreme Court too dismissed the appeal, with costs. The Election Commission of India (ECI) had then, as respondents, stoutly defended the soldiers’ right to vote at their places of posting. But despite the verdict, the government came out with a special order in 1972 stating that soldiers were entitled to vote through postal ballots and proxy voting only and that in order to register as voters at their places of posting, they should have resided there for three years with their families.

Since the conditions imposed are next to impossible to fulfil and postal ballot and proxy voting are hardly functional, over 14 lakh armed forces personnel and nine lakh personnel of the paramilitary forces have been deprived of their right to vote. “I come from a defence background and I know. My parents could not vote for 30 years,” says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Rajya Sabha member, who has been raising issues concerning the armed forces in Parliament, without much result.

He raised a question in the Rajya Sabha on February 5, 2014, asking whether the government was aware that 23 lakh personnel of the armed forces and the paramilitary forces were being deprived of their right to vote and whether the government proposed to take any steps to correct the situation. Defence Minister A.K. Antony admitted that the government was aware of the problem and that the issue was being taken up with the Election Commission.

An open house on this issue was organised in New Delhi on January 20 by the Flags of Honour Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) run by Chandrashekhar. Another NGO, Citizens for Forces, also participated. The session was attended by Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma. The main demands that emerged out of the deliberations were:

• Armed forces personnel, their wives and eligible children should be allowed to vote wherever they are posted. In the event of the wives and the children staying away, they should be allowed to vote at their places of residence.

• There should be no stipulation of a minimum duration of posting for armed forces personnel to be eligible to vote.

• Polling booths should be set up at unit headquarters/ regimental centres.

• Proxy voting has proved to be unsuccessful, so it should be done away with.

• The Election Commission should start an enumeration drive to enrol armed forces personnel as voters. In the event of this not being completed, area commanders can certify the personnel serving in their units and that should serve as a voters’ list.

According to Chandrashekhar, the Election Commissioner assured them that he would look into the demands at the earliest. In fact, H.S. Brahma, true to his word, did write an internal note for circulation among other members of the Election Commission on January 29, 2014 ( Frontline has a copy of that letter). He wrote: “It is time the Election Commission of India, with the Ministry of Defence, resolve these long-pending issues as almost 1.5 million officers plus men are affected…. We should engage in discussion with Government of India, especially Ministry of Defence so that if not all, at least some issues can be redressed. We may discuss the issue in ECI and initiate further action as soon as possible.”

Following this note, the matter was indeed discussed with the Government of India and the Ministry of Defence on February 4, 2014, but the outcome of that meeting is not known yet. Official sources, however, told Frontline that the government had agreed to implement some points, like giving voting rights to armed forces personnel in their places of posting, barring some sensitive places like the north-eastern region, Jammu and Kashmir, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

There reportedly is also an agreement to allow the wives and children voting rights at their places of residence. Besides, the government was also in agreement with the Election Commission that postal ballot be made more effective and speedy so that those posted in sensitive places too can participate in the democratic process. The Ministry of Defence officials refused to divulge further details, saying the matter was still under consideration.

When contacted, H.S. Brahma, however, said: “Since I was not present at the meeting I do not know the details, but I believe some agreement has been reached on a few points. As for me personally, I am fully in agreement that soldiers must be given the right to vote at their places of posting, like other citizens.” He said the Election Commission’s position was clear from the beginning: armed forces personnel must be allowed to vote at their places of posting. “We will be very happy to make the arrangements for the 2014 Lok Sabha election too. We are only waiting to hear from the Ministry of Defence,” he said.

The ball is now squarely in the Ministry of Defence’s court because the Election Commission has already set an example by setting up a polling booth for a single individual in the Gir forest at Banej in Gujarat. In fact, Brahma, going a step further, said that the Election Commission would be only too happy to allow people to vote online so that the democratic process could be taken as far and wide as possible and all Indians, no matter in which part of the world they are posted, could vote.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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