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Above: Voters showing inked fingers after casting vote at Ladakh/ Photo Courtesy @SveepL/twitter.com

In another example of the politicisation of the armed forces, a complaint was received by the Ladakh district electoral officer that senior officers of Army tried to influence the voting of lower ranks

By Pushp Saraf

If father Ashok Lavasa made waves as the only Election Commissioner striking dissent notes, his daughter and deputy commissioner of Leh district in J&K Avny Lavasa has rocked the political spectrum more than once as district electoral officer in the Ladakh parliamentary constituency. In her latest strike, she alerted the Army by issuing, in her own words, an “advisory” and making “a pre-emptive move” against the alleged inference of some officers to influence voting preferences of lower ranks. She thus brought to light yet another dimension of the raging controversy over the politicisation of the uniformed forces

However, in the manner of “all’s well” in Aamir Khan’s blockbuster “3 Idiots”, incidentally filmed in Leh, Avny expressed her satisfaction with the preliminary inquiry made by the Army. Though the inquiry found no substance in her allegation, Lavasa nevertheless made the point that the sanctity of the secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of voters must be honoured everywhere, including the armed forces. Her action came close on the heels of her facilitating the registration of an FIR against four top state BJP leaders in the infamous Leh media bribery scandal.

It was on May 10 that Lavasa dropped a bombshell. In a letter to the General Officer Commanding of 14 Corps headquartered in Leh, she referred to a complaint “received from a contesting candidate” in the constituency which went to the polls on May 6. The complaint stated that “there are malpractices on part of various commanders of the Indian Army in the electronic postal ballot system”. The complaint also alleged, according to her letter, that “commanding officers are telephonically asking jawans for their voting preference rather than supplying to them the ballot paper for casting his (sic) vote”. Her parting shot in the two-paragraph letter was: “This is a gross violation of secrecy of voting and a malpractice that has the potential to invite strict legal action. In this context it is requested that all the concerned officers may be sensitized about the issue and sanctity of electoral process maintained.”

Gradually, the number of complainants in this regard appeared to have gone up to three out of the total four candidates in the race: Rigzin Spalbar (Congress); Sajjad Hussain Kargili (independent backed by the Islamia Trust, a powerful socio-religious Shia organisation, National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party) and Asghar Karbalai (a Congress rebel and a senior leader supported by the Khomeini Trust, another formidable socio-religious Shia body). Only the BJP contestant, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, who is chairman and chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), an elected local self-governing body, differed. He decried “sheer propaganda” against “a disciplined force” by an opposition which “has sensed defeat”. This was in tune with his party’s favourite response to all critics on the burning topic of the use of the armed forces as a political tool.

In a letter on April 22 to the returning officer filed through his election agent Shahnawaz Ali Vakeel, Kargili referred to “complaints” received from army personnel “particularly Ladakh Scouts and para-militaries” that they never received postal ballot papers in the Lok Sabha elections “due to which their fundamental right to vote gets violated”. (Ladakh Scouts, a highly-decorated Army regiment known as the “Snow Warriors” or “Snow Tigers” primarily guards the border in Ladakh region and other high-altitude areas in J&K and recruits mainly from Ladakhi and Tibetan communities).

Kargili’s letter stated that, in accordance with the procedure, the ballot papers were sent in bulk directly to the unit head and “in most cases the superior officer due to limited time himself exercised the proxy votes on behalf of the individual personnel without their legal authority and the officer voted according to his choice or as per order of the superior authority towards the party of their choice and inclination”. He alleged that individuals could not question their seniors whose “arbitrary” actions were “very dangerous and suicidal to democracy”. It recalled that postal ballots were a game-changer in the 2014 polls with the BJP candidate winning the seat for the first time by 36 votes only. The letter pleaded for taking cognisance of “inadequacies and discrepancies” in the existing system. It did not mention any uniformed man by name.

Every responsible forum appears to have discussed at least three aspects of voting by the members of the armed forces to ensure their maximum participation: (a) direct voting in their own constituencies if they happen to be there; (b) voting through proxy in their own constituencies; (c) voting in their duty stations. On February 14, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna, observed that it would be open to the Election Commission to introduce “flexibility” in the eligibility conditions to enable the defence personnel to exercise their voting rights.

A detailed report of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, headed by Maj Gen BC Khanduri (retd.), a BJP veteran, on “Proxy and Postal Voting by Defence Services Personnel in General Elections – An Evaluation” submitted on December 8, 2016, revealed a shocking finding that “about 30 lakh defence service personnel and their family members are unable to exercise their right to vote because of complicated procedures involved in proxy and postal voting”.

The Khanduri Committee pointed out that the “details of the number of Armed Forces Personnel not having cast their vote in the elections; and the reasons therefore have not been maintained, either by the Election Commission of India or the Services” and desired that “a mechanism be devised so as to enable in knowing the number of Service Votes received, counted, invalidated and the reasons for the invalidation of votes. Such a measure would act as an aid in enabling the Services as well as the Election Commission of India to take remedial measures for ensuring maximum participation of the Forces in the electoral process”. It had recommended, among other steps, that in electronic voting, the unique service numbers should be granted to service voters to enable effective voting online and the size of e-postal ballot files be reduced to permit easy downloading even in areas with slow internet speeds.

The alleged incident in Ladakh raises an entirely different question of far more significance. It is about superior army officers transcending the prescribed limits to manipulate votes.

About a decade ago, a similar controversy erupted in Leh district. On November 1, 2010, Tsering Dorjay, presently a member of the state Legislative Council and the seniormost BJP leader of the district, had in a complaint to the Army alleged that in Phyang constituency of LAHDC where he had contested, there were forged signatures on the prescribed documents. Also, soldiers of the Ladakh Scouts who did not exercise their franchise said, on being contacted by him, that they had not cast their votes. Dorjay had mentioned in his complaint: “In Teger, Nubra constituency, the vote of the brother of our candidate who is serving soldier went to the Congress candidate. It is possible that his brother can vote against him but his brother said he didn’t cast his vote at all.”

On being contacted in Leh by India Legal, Dorjay, who was a cabinet minister in the last BJP-PDP government, recalled that in his case, the Army had stuck to its initial denial even after a so-called inquiry and there was no public scrutiny. “We have tremendous regard for the Army and we have always rallied behind it fighting China and Pakistan, both of which are adjoining Ladakh. But elections are all about the future of our democracy. A way must be found to ensure that the voting process involving army men and their families is manifestly transparent. Given the iron-clad hierarchical order of the Army, which is necessary from the point of view of discipline, it is too much to expect a junior to openly raise his voice against the denial of a democratic right as an electorate.”

In the present instance too, the Army has maintained in its reply (signed by Col US Mankotia, Colonel General Staff for GOC 14 Corps) to Avny Lavasa that the “preliminary inquiry was conducted and no violation has been reported”. This is in keeping with its immediate reaction following the district electoral officer’s May 10 communication that “no specific instances have been mentioned and preliminary investigations indicate that the complaints are unfounded and appear to have been made to tarnish the image of the Army… The Army remains apolitical and we hold this core value in letter and spirit”.

Why then is there so much smoke if there is no fire?

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