Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Right to vote: discriminatory rules
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/
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
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.
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