It was a particularly warm day, marking the onset of February in Bengaluru. For Javeed, his early morning routine stayed the same. The newspaper slid through the curtain of his house in Shivajinagar’s Makaan Compound. As he flipped through its pages, his hands paused on a large advertisement.
What is usually filled with notices for jobs was, on that day, replaced by a list of names of over 9,000 people who were identified by the Election Commission (EC) as either shifted out or dead in the constituency, following a complaint by BJP activists in October last year, alleging that they were inconsistencies in the electoral rolls of the Shivajinagar assembly constituency. Javeed’s name was highlighted in bright fluorescent yellow, along with the names of his family members.
In a house that has been lived in for 150 years, Javeed and his family were being served a notice by election officials for apparently shifting out of the constituency. “I am right here. I have been here for the last 44 years. My whole family is here,” he says, pointing to his niece who was heating up the chulha (wood fire) for making lunch.
“See, she is right here so is my uncle,” says Javeed, pointing to him as he enters their dimly-lit house, and then to his name in the list. He keeps pointing to the members of his family, as if he will not be believed that this has been their home.
Javeed is one among hundreds of voters from minority communities in the constituency whose names were on the list of voters who had apparently shifted out of the constituency or were dead. He had voted in 2018 as well. “Why do they want to remove our names?” the oldest woman in the house asks Javeed. “Ye sab government ka kaam hai (this is all the work of the government)” he responds. This is mainly happening to the Muslim community, adds Javeed while he walks through the narrow lanes of Makaan Compound. “Everyone knows I live and work here. Why snatch our right to vote just because we are from one community?”
A Fractured Timeline
The issue came to the fore in October 2022 after a complaint was filed with the EC by BJP activists alleging that they had identified, through their own survey, a total of 26,000 voters who were either dead or had shifted from the constituency.
Last November, The News Minute (TNM) investigated allegations raised by residents of Makaan Compound, of unknown people claiming to be booth-level officers (BLO) having turned up at their homes and collecting sensitive information on the pretext of updating the electoral rolls. This development came at a time when TNM was already investigating a case of a private NGO, by the name of ‘Chilume Trust’ that was authorised by the BBMP to ‘create awareness’ about voter rights and revise electoral rolls.
TNM reported that, in an act of illegality, Chilume had sub-contracted the exercise and employed hundreds of field agents who were issued fake ID cards as BLOs, allegedly at the behest of high-ranking BBMP officials. These field agents then made residents across Bengaluru share their Aadhaar number, voter ID number, phone number, address, caste and religion, and were also made to “answer subjective questions about the performance of their elected representatives.” The data was then uploaded to a privately-run app called ‘Digital Sameeksha’ instead of onto the government-run Garuda app or the Voter Helpline. While the direct involvement of Chilume remains unclear in the particular case of Shivajinagar, what must be noted are the complaints of its residents who were told by the BLOs that their names will be deleted from the rolls even though they were alive or living in their homes.
The final electoral rolls were published in January 2023. But the BJP demanded, once again, that the 26,000 names named in their initial complaint be removed. The party then filed a writ petition in the High Court (HC) on 1 February. Soon, Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka Manoj Kumar Meena reportedly told TNM that election officials had cross-checked all 26,000 names and found 9,159 of them to have either shifted to other addresses or had passed away. Thus began the issuing of notices to voters asking them to appear before the election authorities by a given date and time, or else, their names could be erased from the electoral list. But 50-year-old Kauser, whose name was also highlighted in bright fluorescent yellow and has been living in the area since she was born, was not given a notice. She, too, like Javeed, had voted in the state elections in 2018.
“She has trapped me also into her decades-old house now by marrying me,” her husband interrupts her, mid-conversation. Both of them laugh. “But they have also removed me from the list,” he says, his expression changing.
The extended family of 42 members did not imagine that they might not be able to vote. “We didn’t even know. Our neighbour came and told us after they saw the list,” she says, referring to Javeed. Those who are listed as dead are Muslims and those who are alive but still termed dead are also Muslims. “It’s like they want to kill living Muslims on their papers,” she says, chuckling.
Despite the final electoral roll for the constituency being published on 15 January, an exercise to determine whether or not the over 9,000 people from the Shivajinagar area will be allowed to vote was underway until March. Officials from the state election commission confirmed to Outlook that the process of issuing notices was completed in March.
Questions of Legality
The issuing of notices to the 9,159 voters has been seen as a violation of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the Election Commission of India on September 13 2021, according to which suo motu deletions cannot be made in the six months prior to the term of an Assembly ending. In the case of Shivajinagar, however, the ECI has justified its actions by citing the ‘special circumstances’ clause. M.G. Devasahayam, retired IAS officer and a co-petitioner in the Supreme Court said, in a PIL challenging the rule that allowed the deletion of voters without prior intimation, that the rules mandate that anyone/party wanting to file an objection with names in the existing electoral roll must submit a Form 7. However, this wasn’t done in the case of the complaint filed by the BJP, he said.
Shivajinagar has been the Congress party’s stronghold since 2008. In light of this issue, MLA Rizwan Arshad had moved the Karnataka High Court claiming that names of voters cannot be deleted suo motu six months before an election. “But the process was initiated under BJP’s pressure,” he claimed. “Authorities have said 22 names won’t be deleted. What about the remaining 9,000? Should all of them go to court?” he had asked at a news conference in February.
However, on April 6, the HC rejected Arshad’s petition against the action of the ECI in taking up further revision of the voters’ list even after the publication of the ‘final’ list. “Section 23 of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 itself permits any correction in the entry till the last date of filing the nomination. If the section provides so, the procedure stipulated for implementation under the Rules cannot mean that the electoral roll cannot be tinkered with after it is finally published,” the court said. So far, around thousand voters have responded to the notices, making visits to the election commission office and getting their documents verified. “The rest are underprivileged and come from poor backgrounds. They are still listed for deletion,” the MLA claimed.
Voter Deletions – Not a First
This is not the first time this has happened. A study conducted by Abusaleh Shariff, an economist and a demographer in 2018 showed that nearly one quarter of Muslim adults in Karnataka were out of the electoral rolls that year. “Surely, over 1.2 million Muslim adults in Karnataka would not have been able to vote during the assembly elections which recently concluded in May 2018. About 12% of all other adults in Karnataka would not have been able to vote as well,” the study concluded.
“While preparing the list, election officials would write ‘D’ for citizens who they were doubtful about. They would write on the side that they were not Indian citizens. It was worse than it is now,” Shariff said.
During the BBMP elections of 2010 and 2015 and the general elections of 2014 too, many complaints were registered about missing names, according to reports.
A Muslim woman who used to work at the Indira Canteen in Shivajinagar says that she was denied rations despite having a voter ID. “My husband passed away recently so we only have one voter ID in our house which is mine. I was denied ration because my name was also on that list,” she recalls, on the condition of anonymity.
Activists say that the anti-Muslim sentiment continues to echo with the state government scrapping 4 per cent reservation for Muslims and splitting it between the Vokkaligas and Lingayats. “The government is only behind our cards. We have all the proof and we are hopeful that we will get our right to vote back,” the residents say.
(This appeared in the print as "Vanishing Voters")