Hundreds of voters, particularly Muslims and Dalits, in Bengaluru’s Shivajinagar constituency could lose their spot on the voters’ list with the Election Commission initiating action against them on the basis of a contentious complaint by activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The complaint, which the opposition has described as malicious and communally motivated, was filed in October last year and alleged that 26,000 fake voters had been identified as either shifted out or dead in the constituency. Election authorities sprang to action in January this year even as the final voters’ list was being prepared, and started issuing notices to 9,159 voters. The move is being seen as a violation of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the Election Commission of India on September 13 2021, which said that suo motu deletions cannot be made in the six months prior to the term of an Assembly ending. (Karnataka assembly term ends in the last week of May).
The SOP is prescribed in order to avoid last minute chaos in the lead up to voting, as such confusion could erode voters’ faith in the legitimacy of the exercise. But in the case of Shivajinagar, the ECI has sought to justify its actions by invoking a clause which said that deletions can be done under ‘special circumstances’. “How is a complaint filed by a political party, that too with enmasse names, a special circumstance?” asked M.G. Devasahayam, retired IAS officer and chairman of the NGO, People-First.
Shivajinagar, which is in the heart of Bengaluru, has around 1.91 lakh voters, 40% of whom are Muslims. The constituency has been represented by a Congress MLA since 2008. The controversy started with a private complaint filed by BJP sympathisers in October 2022 listing out 26,000 voters. How a private group came into possession of this list is still a mystery.
A month after the complaint was filed, on November 16, 2022, TNM published an investigation that a private agency named Chilume, with links to the BJP, had been collecting voter data illegally from many constituencies including Shivajinagar. Following TNM’s expose, which created a major political storm, the ECI ordered a 100% check of all deletions and additions to the electoral rolls in Shivajinagar by December 24, 2022. The findings of our investigation have also led observers to suspect that the list of 26,000 names forwarded to the ECI was compiled by Chilume.
The final electoral roll for the Shivajinagar constituency was published on January 15, 2023. This is when the BJP directly got into the Shivajinagar slugfest. Eight days after the electoral roll was published, the BJP went to the Election Commission demanding that the 26,000 names mentioned in the private complaint should be removed. The party followed it up with a writ petition in the Karnataka high court on February 1. The Congress immediately accused the party of trying to vitiate the atmosphere by choosing to take these actions well after the final electoral rolls were published.
Chief electoral officer of Karnataka Manoj Kumar Meena told TNM that election officials cross-checked all 26,000 names and found that 9,159 had either shifted out of their old homes or died. Accordingly, two notices were issued to hundreds of people between January 10 and February 15 asking them to appear before the election authorities. The notices said that if they don’t appear before the Electoral Registration Office on the given date and time, their names will be deleted from the electoral list.
The timeline of this exercise throws up several questions, including whether a complaint filed at the last minute by any party can vitiate an election process.
“Why were these notices sent after the final rolls were published? The complaint was filed in October 2022; if the CEO wanted to take action, why was it not done before? Rules mandate that Form 7 has to be filled if anyone wants to raise an objection and delete a name in the existing electoral roll. Did the BJP fill 26,000 Form 7s? If they didn’t, why did the CEO’s office accept their complaint? Anyone can raise a complaint like this,” M.G. Devasahayam, retired IAS officer told TNM. Incidentally, he is a co-petitioner in the Supreme Court in a PIL challenging the rule that allows the deletion of voters without intimation.
The Electoral Registration Office confirmed that the BJP did not fill any Form 7. Despite this, both the CEO and elections officials at the BBMP maintain that the complaint by the BJP makes out a ‘special circumstance’. “We cannot ignore the complaint,” said Meena.
A ground visit by TNM revealed gaping holes in the Election Commission’s narrative that all 9,159 names were verified by Booth Level Officers.
S. Rajan, a Dalit resident of the Makaan compound in Shivajinagar, received a call from ERO’s office asking him to establish his residency, to which he confirmed that he still lived at the same address. “I have lived here in this house all my life but now they are saying that I have shifted somewhere else. My family has been living at the same address for the past 80 years and suddenly the BBMP’s list states that I along with two other members of my family have shifted to another address,” he said.
Another resident told TNM that despite living in the same house since birth, she received a notice asking her to verify her address, or her name would be deleted. “I went to the ERO’s office to reverify but I don’t understand why only I received the notice from my family and have to verify my address despite living here all my life,” said Rabbiya Fathima.
Anwar Basha and his wife recently acquired their voter IDs after the tedious application process but were disappointed when Congress volunteers told them that they had been marked on ‘address shifted’. The couple said they have neither got any notices from the Election Commission in their old or new address, nor received any calls. “I got the voter ID just six months ago. After following the process of applying for the voter ID, my wife and I got the voter ID and now we found out that we may not be included in the voters’ list,” said Basha.
“Voters are getting harassed. Many people replied to the first notice, despite that they have been issued a second notice asking to appear. This process is to tire people out. I don’t know why Shivajinagar was chosen for this experiment. Maybe because this is a safe seat for the Congress, the BJP wants to see if deletion will help them win,” said Congress MLA Rizwan Arshad.
CEO Manoj Kumar Meena insisted that even if people don’t respond to the two notices, they may still not be deleted from the electoral rolls. “We have not suggested any action. Media reports that said names were deleted were wrong, this is an ongoing process. Once our report is ready, the ECI can decide. We can suggest any course of action including deletion or moving to the Absentees Shifted Deleted (ASD) list,” he said.