In the next three months, many of India’s 880 million eligible voters will start lining up at voting booths to select members of the 16th Lok Sabha.
This will be a free and fair election and a celebration of democracy and voting involving the largest electorate in the world.This will be no mean achievement and the Election Commission of India has, over the years, worked hard to cover the length and breadth of India to allow voters to access and avail their constitutional right of voting - including creating a voting booth in Gir Forest for just one voter.
But, surprisingly and shockingly, there remains a large group, estimated to be almost 3 million, which remains largely disconnected from this democratic right: the men, women and families of the Armed and Paramilitary forces.
Currently, a majority of our men and women in uniform and their families are being denied their basic democratic right to vote, astonishingly most of them getting to vote only post-retirement.
Imagine that - a group of people amongst the most national service-minded citizens are the ones being denied their fundamental right to vote.
This despite the Supreme Court ruling in 1971 that service voters can register as general voters just like any citizen of the country and the Election Commission having defended this right.
But it seems the EC then came up with with guidelines that specify that “armed and paramilitary personnel should have three years’ tenure and the family should also be registered as voters’.” A restriction that makes it impossible for any uniformed person to be eligible given that most of them are transferred and move from post to post regularly and are in most cases unaccompanied by their families.
The reasons for the Election Commission’s guidelines remain shrouded in mystery.
This is unacceptable, because the right to vote under the Constitution equally applies to all citizens and cannot be fettered. No civilian voter has any restriction of 3 years or family accompanying them. This is therefore clearly an unacceptable situation and a blot on our democracy.
This issue hasn’t been spotlighted, and I too became aware of this only recently. Though the EC provides armed forces personnel with options of postal ballot system and proxy voting method, they have been non-starters due to several deficiencies.
The postal ballot system has proved inadequate and inefficient due to the long delays involved in sending out voting sheets to military personnel posted away and further due to the short time between last date of withdrawal of candidates and polling i.e. 10 days.
Imagine the plight of soldiers posted along the borders with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh; in jungles of North East and at Siachen Glacier, waiting to participate in the election process. They have to wait until they retire to actually enjoy the democratic right enshrined in the Constitution. Even During World War II, British soldiers voted through mobile polling stations. Over six decades later, the Indian armed forces seem disenfranchised.
A decade ago, EC observed that “only a miniscule number of service personnel are registered as voters and only a very small percentage of service voters are able to exercise their franchise on timely receipt of their postal ballots. With reduction of campaigning period to 14 days, the system of voting by postal ballots has become almost impractical for the service voters.”
It was then that the proxy voting system was introduced by enacting The Election Laws (Amendment) Act 2003.
The poll panel also observed in 2009 that military personnel “could be enrolled as general voters at the place of their posting” and called upon commanders to spread awareness of their rights and options available to them.
Sadly, the situation on ground has changed little. Most of the soldiers/sailors/airmen and officers remain out of the electoral process for virtually their entire youth and adulthood. Solution Let us not allow one more opportunity in the form of coming elections to be lost.
There are a few workable solutions that can be implemented to ensure and enable our armed forces to cast their vote in Lok Sabha elections.
1.The EC should rescind any restrictions on Armed and Paramilitary forces personnel and their families in terms of their voting rights.
They must be able to exercise their constitutional rights of voting at their place of posting without any fetter just like any other civilian voter.
2. If armed forces personnel in democracies like US, UK and Israel can vote in uniform in polling stations, why not India’s soldiers? Let polling booths be set up in cantonments, unit headquarters and regimental headquarters.
3. Wives and family members of an officer/jawan who aren’t living with their spouse must be permitted to vote from where they stay, like any civilian.
4. The EC should immediately start registration of troops in co-operation with Armed Forces headquarters and use local unit commanders list of serving men/women as electoral lists.
5. The Armed Forces HQs must instruct all units to start registration of voters.
6. Every Unit should designate one officer as Unit Regimental Officer whose job should be to ensure that fresh enumeration is carried out, and that there is enough awareness about the voting method.
Those arguing against enabling our armed forces to vote lest they become “politicised” are doing a great disservice to our brave soldiers.
If they can be trusted to protect our nation, they can surely decide to exercise their Constitutional right like any citizen. India is a mature democracy and our armed forces personnel have shown over the decades that they are an apolitical force, and highly disciplined and committed to our nation.
This current situation is impacting the fundamental right to vote of these men and women in uniform. It is neither acceptable nor tolerable.
Let the EC then do the right thing by these men and women, and bring them into this great celebration of democracy.
This Article appeared in Mail Today on February 04, 2013