A burqa-clad woman showing her inked thumb, women in veil standing in queues, yet others in their traditional attire and head cover, flashing their voter ID cards. These images are a regular feature of election coverage in India. The country may have some way to go in terms of gender parity when it comes to participation in elections. But the image of the woman in the veil at the polling booth has become one of the indicators of the success of the country’s election process. The BJP, though, thinks that the women in the traditional Islamic attire are a threat to fair elections. On March 2, the party asked the Election Commission (EC) to deploy women force — including central paramilitary forces — at polling booths in the last two phases of the UP assembly polls to check the identity of burqa-clad female voters and prevent bogus voting. Women in all manner of veils exercise their franchise. That it’s the burqa-clad woman who makes the BJP uncomfortable shows that the fear of bogus voting is only a ruse for targeting a section of the voters.
This is not the first time the BJP has made such a demand. During assembly elections in Assam last year, it went to the extent of demanding voice tests for women voters in burqa. The EC had then pointed out that a voter — including one in burqa — is allowed to cast her vote only after the poll officer verifies her photo identity card. It seems that the BJP’s remarkable win in Assam has done nothing to change its stand on women voters in the traditional Islamic attire. The party’s new demand also shows that it is either ignorant of the protocols of the EC or wants to undermine them. These protocols do not give security officers the authority to check a voter’s identity. The agency’s Handbook for Returning Officers has a provision for the identification of pardanashin women. They permit the presiding officer to rope in a local woman to identify a woman in a veil of any sort in case of doubt.
Female voter turnout in the country has increased from 46 per cent in the 1962 general election to more than 65 per cent in 2014 — the gap between male and female participation has narrowed down to 2 per cent. The BJP’s attempts to give a communal colour to the participation of a section of women in the electoral process could reverse the trend. The party would do well to retract its demand to the EC.