Earlier, soldiers (which includes sailors and airmen too) were required to cast their vote by a postal ballot. The procedure devised for this was so convoluted that it was simply inoperative. Less than 10% votes ever reached in time to be taken into account. Thus a citizen's (soldier's) most fundamental right in a democracy was, by design, denied to him.
The Representation of The People's Act, 1950, and the Representation of People's Act, 1951, make a special provision for voting by postal ballot for those Indians who are living or posted abroad. The Act states, "Any person having 'service qualification' shall be deemed to be ordinary resident on any date in the constituency in which, but for his having such service qualification, he would have been ordinary resident on that date." It defines 'service qualification' means being member of the armed forces of the Union. The wife of a soldier residing with him too will be considered 'ordinary resident'. A change to this provision can be made by the government in consultation with the Election Commission (and not by the Election Commission on its own).
Therefore, the Election Commission's recent ruling that a soldier should have served in a constituency for three years to qualify to cast his vote is arbitrary and has no legal backing. The commission would be aware that less than 1% of soldiers remain posted in a given station for three years. This is yet another device to deny him his fundamental right.
The issue was raised with the commission (Manohar Singh Gill), who simply ignored the basic point and instead mooted the idea of proxy voting. He had either not read the Representation of People's Act or believed in denying the soldier his right to vote. So he mooted the idea of proxy voting which, according to the Act, is not applicable to a soldier.
However, on this suggestion, a committee of secretaries was formed to consider proxy voting by a soldier. The committee took three years to approve the proposal and came up with a system and procedure that was inoperative thus placing the soldier back to square one.
The moot question is as to why the government and the defence services supreme commander have been a party to the denial of the basic right of a soldier in a democracy. The Indian soldier has defended the Constitution not through debate but with his blood. Yet all manner of tricks have been devised these 65 years to deny him the right granted to him by the very Constitution in whose defence he has been laying down his life.
Soldiers stay away from their permanent place of residence for as long as 17 to 40 years with brief visits to places of permanent residence. A soldier may not be staying in a given military station (constituency) for more than two to two and a half years but soldiers as such are, for all practical purposes, permanent residents at such locations. So their interest in such constituencies is an essential feature and that is why they are considered 'ordinary residents' of such locations.
Though the Election Commission had realised the inappropriateness of its policy and accepted that soldiers can vote at the place of posting, as a second thought, perhaps not on its own, came up with the argument that presence of a large body of soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir and North East will influence the results in some of the constituencies in those areas. Soldiers are in these areas not of their own volition. They have been there for a long time, with no prospect of their being pulled out any time soon, and as such have a stake at those places as any other citizen.
The supreme commander of the armed forces needs to intervene and see that his troops are not denied their basic democratic right.
(The writer, a former deputy chief of the army staff, is a commentator on security and defence matters. Views expressed are personal)