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Jammu U-turn on voter registration order: What is the controversy, what BJP, other parties are saying

The order was scrapped a day after it was issued. All major political parties in Jammu & Kashmir, apart from the BJP, had criticised it, terming it an attempt to include “outsiders” on the UT's voting lists.

jammu pollsTuesday's order stoked anxieties already simmering in the state over the inclusion of “outsiders” as voters. (Express file photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

The Jammu administration on October 12 scrapped the move to issue certificate of residence to people residing in the district for more than a year, which would have enabled them to register as voters. The order had been issued a day earlier and had caused an uproar, with all major political parties apart from the BJP criticising it.

What was the order?

On Tuesday, Jammu Deputy Commissioner/District Election Officer Avny Lavasa issued an order authorising all tehsildars in the district to issue residence certificates to people who have been living in an area for more than a year but lack documentary proof of residence, so they could register as voters in the ongoing special summary revision of electoral rolls in Jammu and Kashmir.

The certificates were to be issued after field verification, as per guidelines provided by the Election Commission of India. The guidelines say that for those Indian citizens who do not possess any of the prescribed documents — “water/electricity/gas connection for one year, Aadhar card, current passbook of nationalised/scheduled bank/post office, Indian passport, revenue department’s land owning record including kisan bahi, registered rent/lease deed (in case of tenant), registered sale deed in case of own house” — registration as voter can be done after a field verification.

The order was issued after it was brought to the authorities’ notice that some “eligible” people were facing hardships in getting registered as voters because they lacked documents.

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The 2021 controversy

Tuesday’s order stoked anxieties already simmering in the Union Territory over the inclusion of “outsiders” as voters.

With the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, rules for voter registration in Jammu and Kashmir changed, bringing the Union Territory under the purview of the Representation of People’s Act 1950.

In August 2021, when announcing the revision of Jammu &Kashmir electoral rolls for the first time after the abrogation of Article 370, the then J&K Chief Electoral Officer Hirdesh Kumar said that 25 lakh new voters were expected to be enrolled.

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Kumar pointed out that all those “ordinarily residing in J&K” and having achieved the age of 18 or above as on October 1 were eligible to vote, as anyone, including an employee, a student, or a labourer ordinarily residing in J&K, could now become a voter here.

Kumar’s statement was apparently based on projections by the Registrar General of India that the 18+ population in J&K as on July 1, 2022 was likely to be 98.96 lakh, whereas its registered electors were just over 76 lakh, indicating a gap of 22.93,603.

The position prior to abrogation of Article 370

Before August 5, 2019, the then state had its own Jammu and Kashmir Representation of People’s Act, 1957, which provided for enrollment of only permanent residents of J&K (state subjects) as voters for Assembly polls.

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For Lok Sabha polls, non-state subjects considered to be outsiders, like West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis, Gorkhas etc., staying here for many generations, were allowed to register as voters.

Position post Abrogation of Article 370

All these non-state subjects became Jammu and Kashmir domicile as the Central government redefined the domicile through its Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaption of state laws) order, 2020, issued under section 96 of Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019.

It provided that any person who has resided in the UT of Jammu & Kashmir for a period of 15 years, or has studied for seven years and has taken Class 10 and Class 12 board examinations from here, would be considered the domicile of J&K.

Moreover, with the applicability of the Representation of Peoples Act 1950 and 1951 to J&K, any Indian citizen who has attained the qualifying age and is “ordinarily residing’’ anywhere in the UT is eligible to be registered in the electoral roll of that place.

What the law says

According to Section 19 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1950, every person who is not less than 18 years of age and is ordinarily resident in a constituency can register as a voter in the electoral roll of that constituency.

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However, it clarifies that “a person absenting himself temporarily from his place of ordinary residence shall not by reason thereof cease to be ordinarily resident therein”, giving the example of a member of Parliament during the term of his office.

Section 20 of the Act while explaining the meaning of “ordinarily resident’’ says that a person shall not be deemed to be ordinarily resident in a constituency on the ground only that he owns, or is in possession of, a dwelling house therein. In this context, it points out that a person in an establishment to treat mental illnesses, or who is detained in prison or other legal custody at any place, shall not be deemed to be ordinarily resident there.

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Opposition parties’ stand

In the absence of any time limit provided in the law to define “ordinarily resident’’, all Jammu and Kashmir parties barring BJP have objected to the enrollment of “outsiders” as new voters.

Congress’ chief spokesperson Ravinder Sharma said, “We are not averse to enrollment of people like West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis or Gorkhas who have been living in Jammu and Kashmir for generations. But in the absence of any time limit to qualify as “ordinarily resident’’, enrolling people as voters just on the basis of their stay here for a year or so, and that too without any documentary proof of residence, is not acceptable. These include migrant workers who are already enrolled as voters at their native places. Section 17 of the People’s Representation Act, 1950, states that no person can be registered as a voter in more than one constituency.’’

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Sharma claimed such a system of voter registration would create a poll of “floating voters” to the advantage of the BJP.

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (comprising the National Conference, PDP, CPI, CPI(M) and Awami National Conference) has formed a 15-member panel, which includes leaders from parties like Congress and Shiv Sena and even the Jammu-based Dogra Swabhiman Sanghthan, to prevent any move for inclusion of outsiders as voters in the UT.

The BJP’s Stand

BJP leaders said that while all Indian citizens are allowed to shift their vote from their birthplace to the place of stay anywhere in India, they expressed dismay that officials in Jammu and Kashmir had “unnecessarily given excuses to Opposition politicians to rake up controversies”.

A BJP leader said, “First it was Hirdesh Kumar who in August created a political storm by saying that 20-25 lakh new voters would be added to the electoral rolls. . Before this controversy could die, the latest tehsildar order came in. What was the need for such an order when the law is explicitly clear on the issue?”

First published on: 15-10-2022 at 18:35 IST
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