Waiting for US election results?

Time to speak up for Indian migrant voters' rights too

Image Courtesy:indiatoday.in

Some Indians, mostly those privileged enough to share their opinions on social media now seem to be on an overdrive ‘teasing’ voters in America that the Election Commission of India (ECI) would have done a better, and quicker job in announcing the next President of the US. 

Over 102 million Americans took advantage of postal ballots that are still being counted. This led Indians to express pride over our electronic voting machines and claim that our “Election Commission could handle it very efficiently and with much less stress”. Of course the opinion was revised and explained as ‘sarcasm’ etc  as soon as the critics began.


However there were many many more who were not joking at all. 





Most of the ‘we love ECI’ and let’s “outsource US elections to ECI” cheerleaders are forgetting that the final results of the American elections are still awaited because each single vote needs to be acknowledged. 

Almost all of the cheerleaders from India have also not realised, or still chose to ignore, that there is a major population of Indian citizens who have the right to vote, but cannot do so. The lakhs of migrants miss casting their vote each election, in their home states and cities because they work away in other places and cannot take leave to come back and vote wherever they are registered. Migrant workers, by definition, migrate to wherever they can find work, and often do not have a permanent address even in the cities they have moved to.

The migrant’s right to vote in India, came under the spotlight soon after the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent national lockdown forced lakhs of migrant workers to head back to their native villages. While many workers took long journeys to get back home after being rendered unemployed and homeless, many others just wanted to be in the relative safety of rural India with their families, as densely populated cities became hotspots of the disease.

This was just months before several State Assembly polls as well as Parliamentary by-elections were scheduled to take place. Many these migrants are possibly being left out of the electoral process due to their forced relocation. Taking action, and lending support to the migrant workers rights Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and like minded organisations such as Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Bangla Sanskriti Manch, All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and Bharatiya Nagrik Adhikar Suraksha Manch, had sent  a memorandum to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to make provisions for migrant workers to be able to vote via postal ballot.

The memorandum stated: “We are writing this letter on behalf of ‘migrant laborers’ requesting their inclusion as ‘notified electors’ under Section 60(c) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 read with Part IIIA of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961, thereby allowing such migrant laborers access to the postal ballot.”  The entire memorandum may be read, shared, and downloaded from here. 

The CJP campaign for migrant workers’ Right to Vote, explained how postal ballots help empower this overlooked group of citizens. The CJP memorandum states: “We believe that by giving migrant labourers the right to cast their vote through the postal ballot, the Election Commission of India would be taking a step towards a more inclusive democracy, ensuring that every segment of the adult and eligible Indian population gets to cast their vote and is not excluded for reasons of exigencies of their profession.” The petition may be accessed here.

The provision has long lasting and wide-ranging ramifications for the broader issues related to the lives and voices of millions of Indians who have as much of a say in the functioning of the country as do their more privileged fellow citizens. Here are two citizens, Ram Gopal Yadav, a migrant worker from Bihar, and Jay Prakash Saav, a migrant worker from Jharkhand, who appealed to the government to facilitate measures for migrant workers to vote from their city of work. 



Secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace, activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad, had also written a detailed article in Indian Express on the subject in July 2020. Setalvad wrote that the “Election Commission must ensure optimal conditions for exercise of this freedom.

While the US granted universal adult franchise incrementally, India moved from a restrictive 15 per cent of Indians having (limited) voting rights to universal adult franchise, driven by the transformative impetus of the national movement and the ideals of equality and non-discrimination that it threw up.”

She recalled B R Ambedkar’s clarity of vision that resulted in Article 326 of the Constitution, “which not only provided that elections be held on the basis of universal adult franchise, but ensured that elitist notions of qualifications — such as property ownership — did not exclude individuals from either voting or standing for elections” adding that Ambedkar had “emphasised that, ultimately, a democratic government was inseparable from the right to vote, and it was voting that would prove to be (one of) the harbinger(s) of political education.”

“India cannot look itself in the eye and explain how such a large section of its population — simply by virtue of its work definition, which is being away from home — is excluded from this basic constitutional right,” the article emphasised that “migrant labourers mostly hail from most poverty-driven rural areas and from among the most marginalised sections (SC/STs and OBCs, and other minorities, including Muslims). They are mostly uneducated, and lack assets including land.  Economic constraints disable a majority of them from voting as they cannot, in the midst of harsh work cycles, commute to their home states on the polling day. One survey shows that only 48 per cent of those surveyed voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the national average was 59.7 per cent. These patterns have stayed consistent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, major sender states such as Bihar and UP had among the lowest voter turnout rates at 57.33 per cent and 59.21 per cent respectively, while the national average was 67.4 per cent.” In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, more than 28 lakh votes were received via postal ballots, “the Indian migrant worker deserves the secured right to have access to vote through a similar system.”

Months later, as America counts each vote before announcing who it chose to be its next President, the point is driven home once again.




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