ByÂ Rajeev Chandrasekhar:
In the coming months, many of India’s 880 million-eligible voters will start lining up at voting booths to elect the 16th Lok Sabha, a true celebration of democracy involving the largest electorate in the world. But shockingly, there are an estimated 3 million people that remain largely disconnected from this democratic right – the men, women and families of the Armed and Paramilitary forces. Would you believe that officers and other ranks, including some who were Mahavir Chakra (MVC) awardees — India’s second highest military decoration awarded for valour and self sacrifice in face of enemy — had not voted in some cases for 30 years during their serving life? It’s quite simple. The soldier who defends the Indian nation, and by extension, our democracy, by putting his life on the line, deserves every right to participate in democratic processes.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that service voters can register as general voters just like any citizen of the country and the EC had defended this right. But the EC instituted guidelines that specify that armed and paramilitary personnel should have three years tenureÂ 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.
Though the EC provides armed forces personnel with options of postal ballot system and proxy voting method, they have proved inadequate due to inefficienciesÂ like 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. Thus, sadly, most of the soldiers/sailors/airmen and officers remain out of the electoral process for virtually their entire youth and adulthood.
So why did I decide to fight for this cause? Actually, we all should be fighting for this. It gives me no pride to bring attention to a barrier that should never have existed in the first place. I have studied this issue, along with several others, facing the Indian Armed Forces, carefully. Serving officers and other ranks fall in a formal structure which may not allow them to make such demands as an influence group. Retired personnel have made some attempts but stopped short of galvanizing the nation’s voice. I am merely helping consolidate views on an extremely important issue
This is one of the easiest problems to fix by simply putting in place a process and seeking assistance of the Armed Forces infrastructure which will ensure an orderly and timely voting by vast majority. I have every reason to believe that this is easily doable. These include setting up polling stations in cantonments and unit and regimental headquarters, starting registration of troops in cooperation with the armed forces HQs, permitting family members of an officer/jawan who aren’t living with them to vote from where they stay, like any civilian etc.
Concerns that our armed forces should not vote lest they become “politicised” are misplaced. If they can be trusted to protect our nation, they can surely decide to exercise their constitutional right. Our armed forces personnel have shown over the decades that they are apolitical forces, highly disciplined and committed to our nation.
This situation fetters the fundamental right to vote. It is unacceptable. The EC must do the right thing by including these men and women in this great celebration of democracy. You can help the cause by supporting my petition to the Election Commissioner on Change.org here, or by simply giving a missed call to 022-6181 6370. It’s time we do something to give back to our heroes. Help them vote and make a difference to the country they protect every night.
Mr Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a two time Independent Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka. A strong votary for the causes of armed forces personnel, he has been one of the most vocal voices for the armed forces community in Parliament. His other interest areas include National Security, Governance Reforms and Internet Freedom.