The Constitution lays great value on adult franchise and places it as an essential element of a citizen’s fundamental right. While the Constitution denies a range of fundamental rights to a soldier, which are otherwise granted to every other citizen, it does not take away from a soldier his right to vote. But successive governments deliberately worked out a system, in contravention of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951, to deny the soldier his right to vote.
The denial of certain other rights, such as the right to form an association, otherwise granted to every government employee who could indulge in collective bargaining to obtain desired gains, places the soldier at a great disadvantage. It was hoped, in vain as it turned out to be, that the government of the day would look after the soldier’s interests, in line with those given to other employees, without his having to agitate for it.
The soldier was granted the right to vote through postal ballot, a system engineered to be inoperative in his case. Section 20-A of the Act makes a special provision for voting through postal ballot, only for those Indian citizens who are living abroad or are posted abroad. Section 60 (d) of the Act specifies persons subjected to prevention detention for postal voting. Section 60 (c) confers on the Election Commission (EC), in consultation with the government, the right to a citizen to vote by postal ballot, subject to fulfilment of such requirements as may be specified in those rules.
However, no such approval from the government in applying this provision of postal ballot to a soldier was ever obtained. Nor were the military authorities taken into confidence while applying this provision to a soldier. The pertinent issue is that the procedure for postal ballot made applicable to a soldier was designed to be so cumbersome that in essence it would be inoperative and very few votes of soldiers ever reach the electoral officer of the constituency of their place of permanent residence. This fact was all along known to the EC and the government.
This issue was raised with the EC and the government on a number of occasions. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did show interest and inclination to give this right through proxy voting, but the Congress and the Left parties opposed it. We took up the case for a soldier to vote at the place of posting with then chief election commissioner (Manohar Singh Gill), who in true bureaucratic form and in full knowledge of the fact that the system will be inoperative, mooted the idea of proxy voting. A committee of secretaries was formed, which took more than three years to recommend proxy voting by a soldier and the procedure therein.
This procedure was designed to be so convoluted that it could never be completed within the specified time frame. The whole game plan was to deny the soldier his right to vote.
Section 20 of the Representation of the People Act defines the meaning of ‘ordinary resident’ and Sub Section (3) of this section reads “any person having a service qualification shall be deemed to be ordinary resident in that constituency”. Sub Section 8 (a) of Section 20 of the Act classifies member of the armed forces as “ordinary resident,” and as per Section 20 (6), his wife, too, is considered ordinary resident of that place.
Therefore, the Act requires of him, and his wife, if residing with him, to vote at the place of posting. Under Section 27 (7) of the Act, only the central government, in consultation with the chief election commissioner, can determine as to where a person is ‘ordinary resident’ at any relevant time, but this had never been applied to a soldier to declare him as ‘non-ordinary resident’ at the place of his posting.
After repeated representations, it finally dawned on the central government that it had been doing great injustice to the soldier all these decades by devising devious and inoperative procedures to deny him his most fundamental right, and it finally relented on this issue.
Government and military authorities must ensure at the earliest that the soldier’s name and that of his wife, wherever residing with him, is included in the electoral rolls of the constituency in which the soldier is posted. Further, these rolls should be updated before every election. The military authorities should take action to have the names deleted, wherever applicable, of soldiers who are on the electoral rolls at their permanent place of residence.