Policing Electoral Violence in India
How India's elections administration used “vulnerability mapping” to stop trouble before it happened.
Meeting in 2007, officials from India's elections administration, the Election Commission of India, sought a new approach to dampen conflict during campaign periods. At polling places throughout the country, thugs (known as "gundas" in local parlance) hired by campaigners often intimidated, harassed, threatened, or bribed citizens -- preventing them from casting their ballots. In one example, non-registered voters descended on polling stations to deliberately lengthen lines and frustrate legitimate voters into going home. Not only did such activities disenfranchise many voters, they also resulted in violence and sometimes death.
Meeting in 2007, officials from India’s elections administration, the Election Commission of India, sought a new approach to dampen conflict during campaign periods. At polling places throughout the country, thugs (known as "gundas" in local parlance) hired by campaigners often intimidated, harassed, threatened, or bribed citizens — preventing them from casting their ballots. In one example, non-registered voters descended on polling stations to deliberately lengthen lines and frustrate legitimate voters into going home. Not only did such activities disenfranchise many voters, they also resulted in violence and sometimes death.
S.K. Mendiratta, a longtime member of the commission, recalled: "We were thinking, ‘How can this situation [the fraud and violence] be controlled so that people are encouraged to come out and vote?’" Mendiratta said the public was increasingly aggrieved that "in an independent India, we are not free to vote."
The stakes were high. Roughly 714 million registered voters were eligible to cast ballots in the up-coming 2009 national parliamentary elections. Limited police resources intensified the problem; there were not enough uniformed personnel to guard every one of the country’s 828,000 polling places. The problem was further exacerbated by ruling parties that chose to send security to where it would suit their candidates, as opposed to where it was needed to help citizens. But chief electoral officers had legal authority over the heads of police in each state, and as a result, the commission decided to focus its efforts on those areas where violence was most likely.
The commission worked on a new technique: "vulnerability mapping," designed to help identify which polling places would be most prone to thuggery. Using their knowledge of sensitive areas, country-level officials developed vulnerability mapping to efficiently allocate police and paramilitary forces to states and polling districts that were more susceptible to fraud and violence.
The inspiration for "vulnerability mapping" originated from West Bengal’s 2006 state assembly elections. In 2006, Debashis Sen, the state’s chief electoral officer, had been in his post for only three months when he approached R. Balakrishna, the head of India’s election commission’s planning division. Sen explained to Balakrishna that the majority of West Bengal’s citizens had little faith in the national commission. In past elections, the state — India’s fourth most populous — encountered widespread fraud and political party violence, complicated by a 30-year-long Maoist insurgency. Maoists, more commonly referred to as Naxalites, often boycotted Indian elections, and targeted election officials and polling places with shootings and bombings. Meanwhile, a coalition of left-leaning parties had held power in the state for 30 years; that a coalition could hang on to power for so long provoked suspicion that the coalition parties were rigging the elections and that the commission was "merely applying its stamp of approval."
West Bengal’s state assembly elections, scheduled for May 2006, offered an opportunity for a new approach to election management that could sway public opinion about the fairness of the electoral process. Sen and Balakrishna began to brainstorm "how to make it so that on the day of elections everything would be absolutely fair and proper — [and also] appear to be fair and proper," The two men drew up a strategy paper that, among other things, proposed that members of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) be assigned to each of the 45,000 designated polling places. Typically, states never received enough CRPF personnel to cover every polling place because the agency needed to cover the whole country. But because states scheduled elections for their own legislatures at varying times, Sen was granted his full request.
As election day neared, and with CRPF police at each polling station, Sen and Balakrishna deployed the state police to detain people with existing arrest warrants. They also brought in observers from outside the state to monitor voting.
Sen described the 2006 experiment as a resounding success. "There was not a single serious complaint or even a substantiated non-serious complaint that said that any of the 45,000 polling stations were rigged." He shared the story with senior election officials in New Delhi. The officials were impressed. Sen’s presentation came at a time when the commission was seeking a way to limit fraud and violence. Balakrishna’s planning department began developing specific guidelines for limiting fraud and violence in preparation for the 2009 national parliamentary elections.
But there was a major problem: The national demand for police would greatly exceed the supply. Efforts to allocate security personnel would need to be greatly finessed. Balakrishna proposed distributing the CRPF to specific polling stations based on the area’s history of election-related violence.
In October 2007, the commission issued instructions for "vulnerability mapping" to the chief electoral officer in each state. The officers were to conduct the mapping in three stages.
In the first stage, elections officers compiled a list of all polling places in their states and ranked them by level of vulnerability relative to violence or suspicious activity in the last election. Based on those criteria, each polling place would be classified as normal, sensitive, or hypersensitive. The commission believed the criteria captured the telltale signs of voter intimidation, fraud, and incipient violence. Chief electoral officers would then allocate state police based on these rankings.
In the second stage of vulnerability mapping, chief electoral officers deployed the limited number of CRPF personnel at their disposal. Members of the CRPF were widely seen as politically neutral because they had no direct ties to the local state governments. Knowing how many polling places were vulnerable helped the chief electoral officers determine how many CRPF personnel to request.
In the third and final stage of vulnerability mapping, chief electoral officers and the director general of the state police carefully created a roster of potential troublemakers likely to commit acts of fraud or violence during the elections, based on past experience and current intelligence. They then tracked those people who were potential threats. Targeted individuals were asked to pay bonds of guarantee, reimbursed after the election upon good behavior. In extreme cases, suspicious persons were subject to arrest. Individuals with pending arrests were rounded up prior to the election. Mendiratta justified these measures under Indian law. (Sections 107 and 110 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allowed district magistrates — the head civil servant in a given district — to require persons whom they suspected might stir up trouble during the election period to pay a bond. Section 151 gave the police the authority to make a preemptive arrest if they believed that a person was about to commit a crime.)
Back in West Bengal, where more than 52 million voters were expected to cast ballots at 48,900 polling places, officials began the mapping exercise five months before the 2009 national parliamentary elections. (Voters in the state would go to the polls on one of three days between April 30 and May 13, depending on what district they lived in.) To rank the vulnerability of polling places, the commission dispatched election officers to cover about a dozen polling places each in their respective constituencies. The officers met with party cand
idates, voters who lived near the polling places, and local election staff, and then classified a polling place’s vulnerability level. The officers deemed a polling place sensitive if a high percentage of voters’ names appeared on the electoral roll without accompanying photographs — indicating a higher risk of voter fraud; if more than 75 percent of votes cast in the past election were for one candidate; if a violent act had been committed there in the previous election; if a revote had been ordered there in the most recent parliamentary contest; or if conversations with local villagers revealed perceptions of threats or intimidation. District magistrates forwarded the list of vulnerability rankings to Sen, who submitted a formal request to the state government for CRPF support and developed a detailed plan for deploying security personnel.
Observers drawn from the Indian civil service began monitoring the areas around polling places two to three weeks before the elections. Cognizant of India’s strong state-based ethnic ties, the commission required that observers could not work in the states where they were born, where they were married, where their spouse was from, or where they were currently working or living in order to promote neutrality. Meeting with the district magistrate and superintendent of police, the observers were able to familiarize themselves with the issues in their constituencies. Observers were required to revisit all of the polling places labeled as hypersensitive or sensitive, host public discussions, and find out more about the local problems. District magistrates and police superintendents were also supposed to make similar visits to bolster voter confidence in safety at the polls.
With a formal roster of potential troublemakers, the district magistrate sat with the chief of police and decided which individuals to monitor, which individuals to require a bond from, and which individuals to arrest preemptively. Preemptive arrests were considered an act of last resort. Individuals targeted for monitoring were subject to video surveillance in accordance with relevant laws regarding privacy and freedom of expression. A committee of local government officials reviewed the footage. If they saw a possible electoral offense, they forwarded the footage to the chief electoral officer for another committee inspection, and then to commission headquarters in New Delhi if action was necessary. The national commission made a final ruling on whether to arrest or fine the person who committed the offense. Nationwide, state election commissions had designated 86,782 villages and hamlets as either sensitive or hypersensitive; the police and the election commission monitored, bonded, or arrested 373,861 people in accordance with existing laws.
The CRPF personnel arrived in West Bengal a day or two before the polling places opened, bringing their own tents and food. The CRPF operated under the command of the director general of police, who took orders from the chief electoral officer. Sen addressed the CRPF staff when they first arrived in West Bengal and used the opportunity to assert his authority. "You report to me, not to the state police," he recalled telling the security personnel. Sen also briefed the CRPF on the specific security concerns in the state and offered advice on how to avoid being viewed as partisan, such as "never accept the offer of a cup of tea or a sweet from a civilian." Most polling places received just one officer from the state police; those classified as sensitive or hypersensitive received as many as a dozen state police officers.
On election day, junior government officers visited polling places and reviewed lists showing how many voters had cast ballots. If voting was unexpectedly slow, the officers informed district magistrates, who would then call upon the CRPF reserve teams to visit the specific villages and check for anything that would hinder voter movements or hamper voter participation. Central observers were also critical to ensuring that vulnerability mapping promoted openness and transparency: Observers’ telephone numbers and assigned polling places were published in newspapers, and voters were able to call in anonymous complaints. If illegal activities were suspected, the commission directed the local police and election officials to take whatever action was needed. Without any complaints however, the CRPF was required to stay at least 200 meters from the building where voting took place.
The election commission declared that the 2009 balloting was one of the most peaceful in the country’s history. West Bengal experienced its highest voter turnout ever, with 81.4 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Because no one maintained a count of violent incidents surrounding Indian elections, it was hard to know the exact magnitude of the change. The new tactic did not eliminate all violence. For example, three election officials stepped on a lethal landmine in a Naxalite area of West Bengal during the first phase of elections, while two voters were killed during the second phase of elections. Voters who had cast ballots despite threats and intimidation may have faced retribution days or weeks later.
Although the 2009 elections were largely peaceful, the experience also highlighted limitations in the design, implementation, and transferability of vulnerability mapping. The compatibility of the procedures with civil rights norms was a potentially sensitive matter. Another limitation was that unexpected violence could change the vulnerability ranking of a polling place at a moment’s notice, and because security personnel were limited in number, beefing up security at one location required weakening security at another. Finally, the mapping did not address the issue of dependence on the central police force, the CRPF, and public lack of trust in the local state police. Thus future vulnerability mapping would continue to rely on the CRPF, which was already thinly stretched across the country. Regardless of such obstacles, Debashis Sen reflected: "I deeply and sincerely believe that this mapping exercise was a key to peaceful free and fair elections in 2009."
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.