Soldiers: Who Will They Vote For?
Now what happens after the landmark Supreme Court judgment? It is obvious that the mafia that does not want the soldiers to vote will try every possible trick to continue denying this right
With the landmark Supreme Court judgment removing ‘mischievous’ stipulations to not let soldiers vote in elections at their place of posting and directions that with effect from 1st January 2014, all soldiers can vote wherever they are posted, at last the soldiers have got the right that had been denied to them for the last 67 years; a right they had been fighting for as warranted under the Constitution, and more importantly a right that had been enjoyed by every citizen of India other than soldiers. Full marks to Independent Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar (who also heads the Flags of Honour Foundation) in taking up the issue with the Election Commission and most importantly executing the coup de grâce in securing the milestone judgment from the Supreme Court before the forthcoming elections. What many may also not know is that the original petitioner of this cause is Ms Neela Gokhale, an accomplished Supreme Court advocate and wife of a serving officer (Lt Col Kedar Gokhale of the Bombay Sappers).
Why I term the changing stipulations on voting by serving soldiers at place of posting as “mischievous” is because such changes were designed to make voting by soldiers at place of posting difficult and eventually well neigh impossible. Apparently institutional integrity of the Election Commission too had been violated through political pressure akin to other so called autonomous bodies. Why else would the stipulations be at such variance, by what logic and due to what deliberations? For example in 2007, a serving soldier had to have minimum six months service in a station to vote. This left out individuals and whole battalions and regiments that moved into a station in the less than six months from election day. But then the rule was changed saying that the soldier had to have served minimum three years in a station and should also have his family staying with him, which virtually cut out the whole of army for the simple reason that given the tenure of individuals and units, you will hardly find anyone in a station serving beyond three years. This second change was obviously done because under the minimum six month service in said station, the Army got to vote albeit sporadically, which perhaps upset political calculations; playing on perpetuating divisions on caste, creed and reservation lines, something which the military does not believe in. So, another ‘Constitutional Scam’ was silently executed in denying voting by soldiers by enforcing the minimum three year rule. And lo and behold, this Constitutional Scam could be blatantly termed ‘notional’ (like many other scams) because the rules never said that the soldier could ‘not’ vote. In fact, investigation into what led to the implementation of the three year rule and what were the compulsions of the then CEC is highly warranted, for is this not Contempt of the Constitution to deny voting rights to the 1.3 million military as well as other security forces? The guilty actually need to not only be punished but divested of their voting rights for life, if considered appropriate by the lawful authority.
Now what happens after this landmark Supreme Court judgment? It is obvious that the mafia that does not want the soldiers to vote will try every possible trick to continue denying this right. For example, problems can be created in registration and re-registration of voters, no doubt a herculean task considering the numbers, on-line registration and issue of ‘correct’ voter cards and most importantly inclusion of name in the voter list. A dispensation that stands in Contempt of Supreme Court on a simple issue as implementation of rank pay and pensions can be expected to go to any length to continue playing foul. I mention ‘correct’ voting card because having hung up my boots, I had to get my voter card changed twice over because every time a voter card was issued with some mistake including faulty residential address, albeit the voter registration office is in the same city where I live. Not issuing voter cards in time, issue of voter cards with wrong details and not including names in voting list can cut out very large chunks of soldier voters. Then there could be other hurdles like projecting lack of adequate election commission parties at such short notice etc especially to cover soldiers posted in field or at difficult areas. Incidentally, the Election Commission has been proudly declaring that they have been sending a special team deep inside the Gir Forest to a village which has just one single voter. So why teams cannot be sent to unit, if not sub-unit level, of all security forces in field / difficult areas?
What is also surprising is that despite the Supreme Court judgment, there are numerous queries on social media as to who will the soldier vote for? Surprisingly, the same question is not asked from the civilian citizen who votes where he is posted irrespective of which state he hails from and is resident of. How come an Election Commissioner hailing from Assam votes in Delhi and he is not asked the same question? To stymie the voting right of soldiers, it was being argued that they should only vote in the State they belong to. Using this excuse, measures like postal ballot and even proxy voting was introduced knowing full well they were unworkable. Another argument given was that soldiers should not vote at the place of posting because even if they get some developmental help in cantonments, it does not help them in their native place. Again the same question is not asked from the soldier’s civilian counterpart who votes at his place of posting and not at his native place. Those who seek answers to such questions from soldiers fail to appreciate that the military or for that matter security forces are far more organized and the argument that why soldiers should only vote at their native place and they would not know whom to vote for at the place of posting does not hold ground. Today’s soldier is socially aware and knows about candidates as much as in his native place as in his place of posting, given his leave pattern. One has written about this extensively, including in these columns of the Indian Defence Review, however, the example in the succeeding paragraphs should clarify matters.
While commanding the Strike Corps at Mathura, I received a letter from Brig (Retd) GS Ghuman from Punjab along with extracts of the Election Commission notification mentioning that any soldier having completed six months in the place of posting can vote in the same station. The letter was just in time as the UP State elections were approaching in 2007. So, with blessings of the South Western Army Commander (Lt Gen PK Singh) the state authorities were officially informed that the soldiers serving at Mathura, Allahabad and Kanpur would participate in the UP Sate Elections, also attaching the list of eligible soldiers who had completed six months service in the station. Aside from the pan India network of Zila Sainik Welfare Officers, the Army also has a network of Station Headquarters. The Latter has complete details of veterans, martyrs, next of kin (NOK) and families of serving soldiers hailing from the area under the said jurisdiction of the concerned Station Headquarters. Now, some veterans in the station sent RTI’s to the sitting MP and the MLA asking them: what exactly had they done for the welfare / grievances of veterans, martyrs, next of kin (NOK), families of serving soldiers from their jurisdiction during their tenure; and, what assistance had they provided to improve the infrastructure of the cantonment in their jurisdiction from the Area Development Grant at their command? Readers should appreciate that the native place of the serving soldiers too would be looked after similarly by another Station Headquarters besides the concerned Zila Sainik Welfare Office. To cut the story short, the UP State authorities having consulted the Election Commission, intimated that voter cards in such large numbers cannot be provided. So the official arrangement was that the Army provided proof of the listed soldiers having completed six months service in station, Election Commission established polling booths inside the cantonment and most importantly serving soldiers as per the list were permitted to vote showing their Service Identity Cards to representatives of the Election Commission manning the polling booth, which effectively cut out the possibility of issue of wrong voter cards, non-issue of voter cards due paucity of time or names being missed out from voting lists. Since the elections this time are commencing 10th April 2014, this method could well be considered due to paucity of time.
Post the 2007 UP State elections, a cell was opened in office of DC Mathura (over and above the Zila Sainik Welfare Office) to look after the welfare / grievances of veterans, martyrs, next of kin (NOK), families of serving soldiers from the District. The elected incumbents visited the Station Headquarters asking how they could help the cantonment by way of roads, lighting, sewage etc over the next five years. An amusing incident happened at Allahabad where the decision against an illegal encroachment in Allahabad Military Cantonment was given in favour of the Army by the Civil Court. When the Army removed the encroachment the local leader of political party (same as ruling at the Centre) created a major shindy. She rang up Delhi and Anthony wanted an inquiry by the Army and what not. Not that anything came out of the inquiry but this incident happened just before the UP State authorities were informed that military will participate in elections. Moment that information was passed, the lady in question went totally utterly-butterly and wanted to know when the GOC commanding the Division at Allahabad would find it convenient to have a meal with her. Incidentally, couple of years down the line her house in Allahabad was set on fire by miscreants which she blamed on political vendetta by the party then ruling the UP State.
On balance, the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court is a victory but it will be complete only if the Election Commission (ignoring political pressure) makes sure that every soldier does get to vote. Additionally, the Service Chiefs and Director Generals of respective security forces would need to ensure this happens, disregarding unwillingness of the ruling dispensation. Put simply, they owe it to their soldiers and their command. Ideally, there should be a system of monitoring and a feedback as to how many soldiers actually got to vote and how many were denied, for what reason. But to expect this in the prevailing system is utopian. Perhaps MP Rajeev Chandersekhar and his Flags of Honour Foundation could take the gauntlet to take this up with the Election Commission and the next government could then institutionalize it to take the matter to its logical conclusion. The media could act ombudsman as well. That would be a complete victory.
(Indian Defence Review)
By Lt Gen (Retd) Prakash Katoch
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