Millions of Voters Are Missing in India

Muslims, Dalits, women disproportionately cut from electoral rolls.

Indian women supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally ahead of the national elections in Hyderabad on April 9, 2019. (Noah Selam/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian women supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally ahead of the national elections in Hyderabad on April 9, 2019. (Noah Selam/AFP/Getty Images)

Zeeshan Salim Multani, 28, was born and raised in the Indian city of Mumbai, where he lives today with his wife and children. He paints walls and works as a housekeeper to earn a living.

On March 16, the Election Commission of India denied him a voter ID for a second time—on the grounds that he was under 18 years old. Multani, a Muslim born in 1991, is one among what may be millions of Indian citizens who will lose their vote in the upcoming elections on wrongful grounds.

Multani’s case was identified by Missing Voters, a phone application created in May 2018 to enumerate and enroll disenfranchised voters across the country. Since its inception, the Missing Voters app has recorded over 80,000 downloads on Android and 5,000 on iOS—and resulted in 40,000 people being registered to vote. Its creator, the 38-year-old software engineer Khalid Saifullah, estimates that nearly 120 million eligible voters could be missing from voter lists, nearly 70 million of whom could be Muslims and Dalits.

The mass disenfranchisement of minority and vulnerable groups is bound to raise doubts over the legitimacy of the upcoming gargantuan polls, in which nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking another term.

Voter suppression is commonly discussed in the United States, but in India the discourse has barely begun. In the United States, the tactics used range from creating minor voting hurdles to selectively purging entire categories of voters from the rolls.

“In today’s charged atmosphere of communal polarization and the fact that political parties use a lot of money, they can bribe election officials instead of seeking votes through a campaign,” said S.Y. Quraishi, the former chief election commissioner of India. “Anything is possible. You could simply delete a whole chunk of voters.”

In India, according to new studies, voter suppression appears to chiefly target Muslims, who make up around 13 percent of the population and are frequent targets of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Dalits, the lowest group in the caste system. In the Gujarat state elections of 2017, the BJP won by a margin of just 258 votes in Godhra—the site of riots in 2002 that left nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead. A simple analytics tool created by Saifullah found that thousands of Muslim voters were missing from the state’s voter lists.

Following the Gujarat elections, Saifullah and his team of 17 researchers conducted a mammoth voter enrollment drive during the 2018 state elections in Karnataka, a large, populous, and relatively rich state. Upon matching census data with voter lists, they found the names of nearly 1.5 million Muslim voters were missing.

Census figures indicate less than 5 percent of households nationally have just one registered voter, since most Indian households have several adults. Saifullah’s team tallied single-voter households from the census data against updated voter lists released by the Election Commission and found that the number stood at 10 percent nationally. By using common surnames, they discovered that the numbers were even higher among Muslims and Dalits—a whopping 17 percent of all such households had merely one voter each, suggesting that other voters in those households had either never been enrolled or have been deleted from the current records.

Saifullah matched his missing voters’ data with on-the-ground surveys conducted by partner nongovernmental organizations in 10 assembly constituencies spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttarakhand. Volunteers associated with the NGOs found numerous instances where people had valid voting cards and had cast their vote in the previous elections but whose names were deleted from this year’s rolls. Saifullah projects his findings across 800 assembly constituencies to claim that a total of 120 million voters could be missing nationally, with the problem concentrated most heavily in states with less political awareness and poorer literacy.

To help disenfranchised citizens apply for voter IDs and raise awareness, Saifullah has put together a team of 50 volunteers. “There is a lack of education and activism among these [Muslim and Dalit] communities. Nobody is bothered to see whether their names are on the electoral lists,” he said.

But Saifullah treats the charge of voter suppression carefully. “We have no proof nationally to say that it is a voter suppression issue,” he said.

Yet the disenfranchisement of voters is not a new phenomenon. During the 2014 general elections, which saw Modi seize power with a thumping majority, many political parties and individuals alleged voter suppression.

Earlier last year, the opposition Indian National Congress party asked its cadres to keep an eye on any large-scale deletion of names from the voter rolls in the run-up to the Karnataka state elections.

While missing voters tend to be religious and lower-caste minorities, women also appear to be targets.

A new book by the political scientists Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, suggests 21 million eligible women voters are presently disenfranchised in India, based on the ratio of women to men in the electoral rolls compared with the ratio in the census data.

This translates into nearly 40,000 missing female voters in every constituency in India on average, a number that has often been higher than the winning margin in many lower house electoral contests. Out of the 21 million, 6.8 million are missing in Uttar Pradesh—the most populous Indian state, which plays a central role in deciding who sits in power in New Delhi. The north of the country seems to suffer worse, while the female and male voter share is almost equal in the south—possibly due to literacy differences.

By phone, Roy noted that the causes remained unclear. India’s publicly available data remains poor, and Roy said huge amounts of work need to be done: “We need Ph.D.s, reams of research, and many more books to be written on the subject.”

Quraishi, the former electoral commissioner, argued that the disenfranchisement of women might well represent stigma more than suppression. “In many places, young women who turn 18 don’t register because they or their families do not want to reveal their age,” he said. “We can only persuade them but cannot force them to register.” Roy, meanwhile, pointed to compulsory photographs for ID cards as another reason. The stigma over being photographed could well be an extension of the idea of purdah, where women were dictated, often by men, to stay behind a veil, not exposing their faces to the world in order to protect their modesty.

As Quraishi noted, the missing voters may just be a combination of accident and intent. “Voter rolls are a fluid document at any time. Even the courts have held that they can never be foolproof—there will always be some problem or the other,” he said. But he noted that while his tenure had seen missing voters, minorities disappearing from the rolls in disproportionate numbers is a new phenomenon.

Regardless of whether the suppression of minority voters has been intentional, the ruling BJP is well aware of the ways in which it can benefit from it.

Booth-level officers are appointed by the election commission to conduct biennual visits to check on voters and delete, add, or update names and residential addresses. A document known as Form 7 can be filed by any volunteer to exclude anybody from the right to vote after the claim is accepted by the BLO upon cross-checking and field visits.

Saifullah said that these forms “could be used” by booth-level BJP volunteers or panna pramukhs, who are in charge of voters enlisted on a single page of electoral rolls, to conduct a micromanaged campaign in favor of the BJP to disenfranchise voters. “One group is very active to use the mechanisms of the voting the booths, while the other is totally unaware of what is happening,” he said, referring to the BJP and its opponents. This past March, the chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh accused his main rival Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party (a breakaway party from the Indian National Congress) of deleting over 900,000 voters from the state’s electoral rolls. In a disconcerting statement, the opposition leader admitted to using an app to profile voters and file scores of Form 7s to delete “bogus” names.

Even after corrective measures such as mass enrollment, not all voters who apply with valid documents have received their IDs. Saifullah said that over 1,800 application forms filed by his team have been rejected, with explanations varying from assertions that the citizens are under the age of 18, as in the case of Multani, to claims that the applicants are not Indian citizens at all.

Free and fair elections are a right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. With an unequal playing ground for scores of communities, can the upcoming general elections be termed free?

“An urgent investigation should be ordered into the matter,” Quraishi said. “Surely this puts a question mark on the fairness of the election. It will alter the result.”

Roy concurs: “If 21 million women are missing from the electoral rolls, I can say that these are not free and fair elections.”

Soumya Shankar reports on electoral politics and social movements with a South Asia focus. She teaches journalism at Stony Brook University in New York.

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