The government has finally woken up to one of the most absurd laws that allows undertrials to contest elections and become honourable members of Parliament or legislative assemblies, but bars them from voting.
The restriction on prisoners voting comes from the Representation of People Act 1951 that bars those confined in jails or in lawful custody of the police.
As he nudges state ministers responsible for prison administration to undertake jail reforms at a conference on Friday, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil will also draw their attention to this provision that has remained on the statute for over five decades and try to build consensus to strike it out.
Patil does not need the concurrence of the states to amend the election law but wants them to gear up for handling polling inside jail premises. It would, for instance, imply that prison authorities would have to set up polling booths in jail premises.
A home ministry official said it was surprising that the provision continued to be enforced without anyone noticing the inherent contradiction.
“The entire debate over electoral reforms vis-à-vis criminalisation of politics has centered around the fact that a person charged with an offence cannot be debarred from contesting unless proven guilty. And yet this continued,” the official said.
India has over 1,300 jails that can hold 2.5 lakh prisoners. But overcrowding is a major problem — there are nearly 3.58 lakh people. Nearly 70 per cent of them are undertrials. With conviction rate being 44 per cent, most of them would eventually be let off.
Reforms pursued by Patil are aimed not just at resolving overcrowding but also giving laws governing delinquents a human face and bringing them in line with official policy.