Enfranchising internally displaced persons

By K.N. Pandita

On May 30 lost a sizeable group of JKNM, an organization of displaced persons from the valley, staged a peaceful demonstration at some distance away from the polling booth in the premises of the Director of School Education in Muthi. They were protesting against hurdles created in the way of IDPs desirous of exercising their right to actively participate in country’s democratic process.

The police led by the SHO Domana and the SSP concerned, unleashed repression on these unarmed and peaceful demonstrators, beat them brutally, burnt and trampled their banners and picked up five demonstrators who were locked up in Domana police station for the whole day.

The demonstrators had, in fact, symbolically burnt an effigy without anybody’s name far away from the polling booth. Effigies of national political leaders, Indian Constitution and the symbolic national flag are set on fire in public demonstrations in the valley day in and day out, particularly at the time of elections to the State Assembly or the Parliament. The police usually stand a silent spectator to such acts of vandalism and national disrespect.,

Internally displaced persons from the valley think they have a case, which the Election Commission of India should take cognisance of.  A joint representative group of various Kashmir IDP organizations had met with the State Election Commission in latter’s office at Jammu two months ahead of parliamentary elections, and presented to it a memorandum enlisting the problems and grievances of the IDPs in smooth exercise of their right to vote.  The delegation explained in person to the State Election Commissioner how the obstacles created more by red-tape method than by design could be overcome.

Perceiving that the State Election Commission was in no mood of owning its duty of removing the obstacles, a joint delegation of the JK Nationalist Movement (JKNM) and All India Kashmiri Samaj (AIKS) interacted with the EC in New Delhi more than a month before the parliamentary elections would begin. It was a successful meeting and the EC had no difficulty in understanding the case presented by their representative delegation of the IDPs, related to their voting problems. The Election Commission agreed with them that M-Form was a hurdle in the smooth exercise of vote by the IDPs and agreed that ID cards for all IDP would be a viable solution.  The EC also agreed that it would appoint two coordinators (actual designation to be decided by it) one for Jammu and one for Delhi to coordinate all matters pertaining to casting of votes by the IDPs.

However, the EC gave an indication that parliamentary elections being round the corner, time with it was very short to implement reforms in a manner these become effective for the impending parliamentary elections, The IDP delegation hoped that the EC and its subsidiary bodies would take up the matter to be resolved in due course of time. Nothing has happened so far.

Exercising their voting right is faced with more than one difficulty for the IDPs. In the first place, the constitution of India nowhere touches on the practicality of ensuring franchise rights of internally displaced persons in any part of the country where a situation arises. The situation did arise and on a full scale in the Valley of Kashmir in 1990. It is painful to record that neither the Election Commission of India nor the State or Union governments thought of addressing this serious situation in which the right of franchise for three hundred thousand IDPs was at stake. The question is not which party’s constituency the IDPs are; the question is of investing the citizens of India with their fundamental right of voting to form an elected government in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. One can say that their democratic rights are subverted.

The crucial aspect of the issue is proper enlistment of all eligible voters of the IDPs from the valley whose major concentration is in Jammu and Delhi but is also dispersed over the entire country. It was the joint responsibility of the government and the Election Commission to evolve a mechanism that would ensure enlistment of these voters. Lackadaisical attitude of responsible state institutions has deprived a vast chunk of eligible voters of exercising their vote at assembly and parliamentary elections. Owing to the fact that the IDPs are entirely the members of a religious minority from the valley, the irresponsible attitude of the government gives rise to many doubts and insinuations that do not bode well for a secular democratic dispensation. This is why all groups of IDPs have been insisting on proper enlistment of all eligible voters.

According to post-ballot official statistics of previous assembly elections, total district-wise number of voters was as this: Bandipora 1377, Ganderbal 1320, Kupwara 7648, Baramulla 7689, Budgam 2925, Pulwama 4864, Shopian 2984, Kulgam 6195, Anantnag 13995 and Srinagar 23796.

Now an overall voting picture of 2008 Assembly polls in respect of valley IDPs is as this: total electors 71473, total number of M-Forms received 10954, total no. of M-Forms found eligible 10215, total no. of electors opting to vote 29099, No. of electors who actually voted 14954, No. of electors who applied for 12C(postal ba;;pt) 109, No. of electors to whom postal ballots were issued 82.

The question that should invite the attention of the Election Commission is that out of a total number of 71,473 electors actually only 14934 cast their vote, which is just 21 %. It will be seen that only about 11000 voters out of a total number of nearly 72000 filled M-Forms (out of which about 800 were rejected). The questions that arise are (a) When the M-Form procedure discourages 86 % of voters from casting their vote, is it not the manipulation of quarters with vested interest to keep the IDPs intentionally away from exercising their vote? Does it not negate the large-scale media advertisement of the Election Commission exhorting all Indian citizens to exercise their right to franchise? (b) If the M-Form system is damaging to the IDPs and the Indian polity to this extent, why have not concerned authorities take a decision to scrap it forthwith? By not doing so, obviously they are serving the vested interest. (c) Nearly 700 M-Forms were rejected. What is the rationale for rejecting the M-Form?  M-Form, as we are told, is meant to identify the voter. If the voter fills the M-Form incorrectly, it is the duty of the officer in charge to correct the inaccuracies on spot and accept the M-Form. It is not to be made a ploy for rejecting a voter’s identity and then depriving them  of his or her voting right.

It has to be noted that IDP families stand registered with the State Relief Commissioner. They are issued “Migrant Card” which carries full details of the family along with the photograph of the head of the family and in most cases both the male and the female heads. This is a valid official document duly signed and stamped by the Relief Commissioner. It is on the basis of this card that an internally displaced family receives relief from the Relief Commissioner. Is not a valid and more than adequate proof of a displaced family’s identity? By not trusting its own document and asking the IDPs to produce M-Form duly signed by a gazetted officer is contradiction in terms. The solution we had suggested to the EC was either to accept the ration card as the proof of an IDP voter’s identity or issue him an identity card for the purpose.

Another obstacle in the way is that of asking a voter in advance to declare the booth where he goes to cast his vote. The IDP voter should not be asked to adopt a procedure of voting differently from other normal voters. However, if this is a must, the way out is to set up special booths for the IDPs and provide copies of voter lists of IDPs to these booths so that a voter knows to which booth he goes for voting. The finger mark in indelible ink is precisely meant for this purpose.

All this apart, the most crucial question which the IDP organizations have been raising time and again, and which is being meticulously avoided by authorities, is that how come the total number of voters of IDP have come down from nearly 1,20000 in 2002 elections to 71,473 in 2008 when the overall population growth in the country has been recorded at 2.5 per cent? By no stretch of imagination can we accept that the community lost 48000 voters within a period of five years. It is nothing short of connivance at numbers to minimise the vote bank strength of the IDPs. In a sense it is a human rights issue and the NCHR would do well to take it up with proper agencies.

It is important that the government addresses this issue with all seriousness. The IDPs had made several suggestions in the past including formation of constituency in exile and reserved constituency. These suggestions did not go well with the political class which has vested interests. On its own the ruling structure did not propose any mechanism that would make sure that voting rights of the IDPs are protected. There is still time for the law makers of our country to gain some experience from the exodus of the minority community from its original habitats and how, in the process, they are close to losing their identity. The EC could constituent a committee comprised of official representatives including its own and the representatives of the IDP to hammer out a lasting and viable solution to the problem. If batons, lathi charges, tear gassing, arresting, intimidating and charge sheeting the protestors is a solution then all that remains to do is to shed tears on the fate of Indian democracy.

(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University … and this letter was published in The Washington Post on July 3, 2009.

Comments are closed.