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Election Commission does it again

Wednesday 13 July 2005

When in doubt omit, could well be the new mantra of the Election Commission of India. The Commission has clearly overreached itself in directing the States and Union Territories to delete the names from the electoral rolls of all those against whom non-bailable warrants have been pending for more than six months. The move, which will result in the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of people — as many as 23,000 will be struck off the voters’ list in Bihar alone — is based on a logic that is deeply flawed. The EC’s justification for it goes somewhat like this. Those against whom NBWs were not executed for more than six months are `absconding’ from the law and could not be "ordinarily resident" at their stated addresses. As one of the conditions for registering a person in an electoral roll is that he or she must be "ordinarily resident in a constituency" (Section 19 of the Representation of the People Act, 1950), the names of such `absconders’ may be struck off the electoral rolls. This is unacceptable reasoning. The fact is NBWs are issued all too easily by courts, particularly in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and to disenfranchise people on the basis of this is a gross overreaction. Moreover, it is common knowledge that in some cases, non-execution is a result of police apathy in tracing the person against whom the warrant is issued. Also, questions about where a person is ordinarily resident should be determined, as Section 20(7) of the RPA, 1950 states, "with reference to all the [particular] facts about the case." The EC’s move amounts to making sweeping assumptions about the residency status of an entire class of people without even going into the particulars of any case.

The declared purpose of this move is to prevent "proclaimed offenders/absconders" from contesting elections and thereby act as a check on the growing criminalisation of politics. But the purge affects many thousands of citizens who have no interest in contesting elections. The issuance of a NBW by a court is not a presumption of guilt and therefore cannot be a ground for barring people from contesting elections. Sections 8 to 10(A) of the RPA, 1951, lay down the various grounds on which a person can be disqualified for being chosen as a Member of Parliament or Legislative Assembly. As for the question of exercising one’s franchise, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, holds that "the right and the opportunity ... to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections" is an inherent one. The world over, conflict has sharpened between governments moving to abridge the rights of citizens on the one side and, on the other, rights activists intent on safeguarding citizens from encroachment by the executive. In the United States, prison rights activists have long campaigned for voting rights for felons. The Election Commission has no doubt acted on the proposition that criminalisation of politics is a negation of democracy, and therefore, of free and fair elections. However, its remedy, which has no basis in law, is far worse than the disease.

See online : The Hindu

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