Many of the ’rights’ guaranteed to citizens and to government employees in the Constitution, are denied to defence personnel. Their right to cast a vote is an exception. Even so, in the last seventy years no more than 20 percent of serving defence personnel have been able to cast their vote - and even fewer came to be counted.

Though it is incumbent on the Election Commission to make every possible effort to ensure the largest possible electorate, in the case of serving defence personnel it has been doing quite the opposite.

Defence personnel cast their vote through the postal ballot, where the procedure is so convoluted and involved that few votes ever reach in time to be counted. First you must get registered at the your permanent place of residence - which means that during your leave you go from village to district headquarters and complete various formalities.

This is something most soldiers are unable to do. Then, the route this vote must traverse is such that in most cases it does not arrive in time. Thus only about 12 percent of defence personnel votes have come to be counted.

Section 60(d) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 spells out that any person subjected to preventive detention can only cast his vote by postal ballot and not in any other manner. In this regard the law clubs defence personnel with those under preventive detention!

Once it was pointed out to the Election Commission that the postal ballot system was inoperative it came up with the proposal of proxy voting, but here again one’s vote is counted at their permanent place of residence. This is yet another unworkable system, because it still involves getting registered with the electoral authority at the concerned district headquarters. As well as authentication of the voting proxy by a first-class magistrate.

The Act confers ‘service qualification’ on defence personnel, whereby they are to be considered ordinary residents of the place where they are posted (other than in field areas) and can thereby cast their vote there itself. Pressure was built to follow this straightforward, simple and laid down procedure for service personnel, but the Election Commission has simply been ignoring this provision.

Evidently the EC is wilfully following procedures to deny service personnel their right to vote. In line with this stance, even after retirement former Election Commissioner Naveen Chawla refused to recommend, at a public meeting, the simpler and straightforward system of voting at the place of posting as provided for in the Act. Instead he was recommending an unworkable system.

When compelled to accept the system of voting at the place of posting, through a Supreme Court order, the Election Commission’s attitude was laid bare when it brought in an additional condition: that defence personnel should have been serving at that station for a minimum of three years, knowing full well that rarely would this be the case. The Supreme Court stayed this precondition trotted out by the Election Commission.

It is spelt out in the Act that defence personnel and their spouses can be registered as voters at the place of their posting. So what is the rationale and compulsion underlying the complicated, convoluted and inoperative system of postal ballot or proxy voting systems?

Equally, the Election Commissioner may not be aware that there has been urbanisation on a mass scale, with families losing their earlier permanent place of residence. For the majority of soldiers the only place to stay at a fixed address is with their unit, where they are posted.

Once a soldier joins military service he is left with little connection to his once permanent place of residence: back in the village. If his family is with him they will spend his leave in the station, or in nearby family accommodation with their children in local schools. In the majority of cases they will seldom visit their ‘place of permanent residence’, while he is in service.

It appears that the Ministry of Defence has from time to time made Service Headquarters issue Special Army Orders related to voting, calling upon them to adopt the postal ballot system. This is exactly what the Election Commission has been advocating. In any case, such instruction runs contrary to what is laid down in the Representation of the Peoples Act, and as such is inappropriate.

All this points to the fact that all kinds of efforts are made to somehow keep the soldier out of the electorate, as far as possible.

In response to an RTI query in 2017, the Election Commission in its letter ko4/RTI/appeal/99/LET/ECI/FUNC/2017/612 dated 25.08.2017 accepted that service personnel have the option to get themselves enrolled as general electors at their place of posting, if it is a peace station.

It bears repeating that this is the simplest method by far, and is provided for in law.

It is incumbent on military authorities to ensure that personnel and their spouses are given the necessary facility to cast their vote at the place of posting, and to that end have them enrolled with the electoral authorities in the station. They must also lay down standard operating procedures for periodically updating electoral rolls.

These SOPs must also lay down instructions relating to the interaction of troops with political parties or candidates. For instance, it is important that no political rally is held within military premises. Those who wish to attend political rallies being held in civil areas should be allowed to do so, during non working hours, with an out-pass and in civil dress.

The bar on soldiers’ right to vote in field areas is a self-inflicted malady by the Indian state. The continuing alienation of people in these areas is due to political reasons, therefore the resolution of these issues lies in the political domain. In this the political leadership of centre and state comes into play. The emergence of the right political leadership in field areas is essential, in which defence personnel must have a say, that is, a vote.

The Indian military is deployed in large numbers in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern states, where they have been fighting insurgencies for decades and have suffered heavy casualties in the process. All with just one purpose: to uphold the Constitution and defend the territorial integrity of the country.

As such defence personnel are stakeholders in these regions, and must must be allowed to cast their vote there.

Moreover, defence personnel in these areas pay all local taxes etc. Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel have now been allowed to vote at their place of posting, and the same must apply to military personnel as well.

In the best interest of the democratic process, the maximum number of citizens who wish to do so must exercise their right to vote. The soldier is no less a citizen of this country, so do not take away his right to cast his vote by adopting devious and unworkable methods.