Ensure every soldier gets to vote, an Army Officer’s wife writes to the Prime Minister

A PIL seeking efficient mechanism to ensure voting rights to the armed forces personnel and their families in their place of posting is likely to come up in the first week of February. Filed by a practicing Supreme Court advocate, who also happens to be the wife of a serving Army officer, the PIL is seen as a landmark application for ensuring voting rights to the soldiers, long denied mostly because of practical difficulties. 

The government has been internally discussing the tricky issue with Army HQ briefing at least four senior ministers on Wednesday about the practical difficulties in implementing what everyone agrees is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen.

Meantime, the Advocate, Neela Gokhale has written to the Prime Minister highlighting the need to give the soldier his due right. Read on: 

The Prime Minister of India
South Block
New Delhi

“ Be it the altitude or bitter cold, nothing deters our soldiers. They stand there, serving our nation, They make us really proud”

 Your words Mr. Prime Minister … a testament to the commitment of every citizen of this country, to the national  security and sovereignty and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the soldiers for the safety of its citizens. Your decision to spend Diwali with the soldiers on the glacier reveals a discernible patriotic undercurrent. This symbolism encourages me to write to you, sir and bring to your notice some fundamental deprivations faced by the armed forces and their families. 

The Constitution of India enjoins the elections to Parliament and legislative assemblies to be held on the basis of adult franchise. So this means that every citizen of India, who is not less than 18 years of age and not otherwise disqualified on the grounds of non residence, unsoundness of mind, crime, corruption or illegal practice is entitled to be registered as a voter at such election. So then, why is it that there is no efficient mechanism yet, to facilitate the soldier on the far flung glaciers to participate in the electoral democratic process of the country. Or he is just not significant enough in that respect?

Notwithstanding that the Election Commission did commendable work in undertaking processes to reach out to individuals in the most remote localities of the country, yet the process has once again eluded the armed forces personal and their families, posted in far flung areas of the country. The law, as it stands today, only permits the armed forces personnel to register as ‘service voter’ at the place of his ordinary residence, which is deemed to be that place which, but for his posting, would be his ordinary residence. Simply put, his ordinary residence means his native place. It is obvious that many have been away on their call of duty for a long time and thus are not aware of the nuances of their native constituency or the suitability of the candidates seeking to be elected. So they are expected to participate in the process blindfolded, without formation of their own opinion, which reduces the exercise of the right of franchise to an exercise in futility. Even the present postal ballot system has admittedly failed to ensure maximum encouragement to participate in the formation of a vibrant democracy. The factum of ordinary residence of a soldier is created by his posting order, issued by the government itself, purely on operational considerations and none other.  Yet he uncomplaining accepts his orders and performs his duties without demur. Mindful of the fact that permitting enrolment at the place of posting may affect the demographic equations of a constituency, especially in places such as J&K etc, where the army personnel may at times outnumber the general populace, yet the resolution lies somewhere in the middle of the devil and the deep sea.

Being an army officer’s wife myself and concerned with the issue, I have approached the Hon’ble Supreme Court by filing a writ petition and urging the court to address the issue and direct a suitable resolution. True to my faith in its invincible ability to deliver timely justice, as an interim measure, the Hon’ble Court permitted the  armed forces personnel posted in family stations, to enroll at their places of posting during the recent Lok Sabha Elections. That perhaps resulted in a greater than ever participation of the armed forces personnel in the recent elections.  The petition is yet pending determination by a larger bench.
It is a complex issue, but given the underlining theme of participatory governance adopted by your government and the reclamation of the grounds lost by the hereto before policy paralysis, it would be both, expeditious and consistent, that this imbroglio be addressed and resolved by means of your executive intervention than determination by the court. The letter of the law does seem to inculcate the principle of adult franchise vide cursory provisions for the ‘service voter’ in the RPI Act, but the spirit of the principle of franchise has been relegated to the intentions of the framers of the constitutions, which I feel sure, your government will correct at the earliest.

Neela Gokhale

Supreme Court of India