Prisoners can contest - but not vote

Published on Apr 04, 2004 01:38 PM IST

The upcoming general election will be just another passing event for nearly 200,000 under-trial prisoners across India - unless, of course, they choose to contest.

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PTI | ByM. Karthikeyan (Indo-Asian News Service)

The upcoming general election will be just another passing event for nearly 200,000 under-trial prisoners across India - unless, of course, they choose to contest.

Thanks to an election law, prisoners awaiting trial are prohibited from casting their votes. Ironically though, the rule does not bar them to stand as candidates in the election.

Criminals contesting elections from behind the bars is not completely new to Indians, but the system amply exposes the inequality wherein prisoners with money and muscle power are able to participate in the polls in one way or another.

At least five people, ranging from the heads of private militia to mafia leaders, will be entering the election arena from the confines of prisons in the country's most politically volatile state of Bihar.

Thousands of petty criminals arraigned on minor charges would, however, sit it out during the polls.

According to the estimates of Hyderabad-based Nalsar University of Law, nearly six percent of the about 188,341 under-trial prisoners in the country are arrested on the charge of committing petty offences under laws like the Gambling Act or Excise Act.

Interestingly, the bar on voting by prisoners is not based on the grievous nature of the crime committed by an individual but on the simple ground that he or she ceases to be an "ordinary resident" of a constituency while serving time in prison.

Section 19(b) of the Representation of the People Act requires an individual to be an ordinary resident of a constituency to be registered as a voter. The rule, however, does not apply to under-trials aspiring to contest Lok Sabha elections as they are allowed to use proxies to file their nomination papers from anywhere in India.

Even the path-breaking law prohibiting people convicted for an offence liable to be punished with two years or more in prison does not apply to such under-trial election hopefuls.

Under-trials constitute 73 percent of the estimated total prison population of 257,235 in the country.

Andhra Pradesh-based writer Varavara Rao felt that under-trial prisoners in the country should at least be given the right to postal ballot.

Rao, who himself was imprisoned several times for expressing sympathy with the extremist movement in the state, said prisoners should enjoy all rights except the right to mobility.

"When postal ballot could be extended to military personnel and election staff, why can't it be granted to prisoners?" he asked.

Sources in the Election Commission, however, ruled out the possibility of prisoners being granted postal ballot, at least in the near future.

"There has been a similar demand to grant postal ballot to even truck drivers," said a source in the Commission.

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