With elections due to take place this year to the Legislative Assemblies in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry, the Election Commission has written to the Government of Bharat that it is in favour of Non-Resident Indians (Bharatiya citizens living abroad) exercising their franchise through postal ballot.
Among the various states, Kerala has vital stakes in the postal ballot, because there is a big concentration of Malayalees in West Asian countries. Moreover, if one analyses the voting pattern, in many constituencies the margin of victory is very narrow and the postal ballot could tilt the balance. The irony of the situation is that even in Kerala, with universal literacy and a highly politicized electorate, the issue has not generated a healthy debate.
According to the Election Commission, the system could be introduced through a modification of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 and would not require parliamentary approval. According to media reports, the Election Commission has informed the Ministry of Law that it is “technically and administratively ready to extend the electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS)” to NRI voters.
According to unofficial estimates, there are 10 million non-resident Bharatiyas of which 60 percent have reached the voting age. Most of them are concentrated in West Asian countries. Migration of workers is a mixed beg. The majority of them migrate with work permits. But, there are also cases of workers who become victims of human trafficking.
The Schleppers (human traffickers) charge exorbitant amounts depending upon the country and the migrant’s needs. It is a risky venture and if they are caught, in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, they are subjected to barbarous forms of punishment including whipping while in detention. The living conditions of the non-resident Bharatiya workers are extremely miserable.
There are no prescribed minimum wages, no minimum hours of work, no freedom of association, and no mechanism for redressal of grievances. One silver lining in the situation should be highlighted.
The Government of Bharat has banned the migration of young women to work as housemaids in West Asian countries, whereas many countries, including Sri Lanka and the Philippines, allow their girls to work as housemaids. Many become victims of sexual abuse and they lead a life of shame.
The Global Alliance against Traffic in Women has described several cases of gender-based violence like bullying and intimidation, physical and sexual abuse. Migrant workers are the backbone of most West Asian countries and their prosperity is due to the tears, toil, and sweat of migrant workers.
Dr. John Sunavia, former Director-General of the ILO, pointed out: “Migrant workers provide valuable services with their labour and furnish an often invisible subsidy to the national economies. They work in factories, produce food, provide domestic services, staff in hospitals, and contribute to a wide range of basic needs, often for low wages and with little recognition of the value of their contribution”.
In a seminar which Prof. Suryanarayan organized in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam a few years ago Bharatiya diplomats, who had served in West Asian countries, pointed out that every aircraft which comes from these countries brings a few dead bodies, victims of violence or suicide.
Gross Human Rights violations take place not only in West Asian countries but also in Southeast Asian countries, which practice distorted forms of democracies. Singapore, which used to boast that it was an oasis of communal amity in a turbulent region characterised by xenophobia, woke up from its slumber when large scale violence erupted in “little India” in 2014.
Singapore’s rapid economic development was based on migrant labour, mainly from China, Bharat, and the Malay world. The migrant workers were exploited to the hilt, but their genuine grievances were not looked into. What happened in “Little India” on that fateful Sunday in February 2014 was the outburst of pent up grievances of the Bharatiya migrant community.
More importantly, the Chinese workers were also agitated. Chinese workers who were employed in the public transport company SMRT, to their dismay, realized for the same work Malaysian and Singapore workers were paid higher wages. They went on a spontaneous strike, unheard of in the Island Republic. The Government came down with a heavy hand and many workers were deported to China.
Prof. Suryanarayan gave a background of these developments to a then Tamil Nadu BJP member of Rajya Sabha, who appreciated the information, but closed the chapter by saying “we must not do anything to disturb the cordial relations with Singapore”.
For many years after independence, the Election Commission could not do anything for extending the franchise to non-resident Bharatiyas because of practical difficulties. The right was limited to Bharat’s diplomatic personnel and a few others who were deputed on specific assignments.
With revolutionary changes taking place in the communication system, several influential people started demanding the introduction of postal ballots to NRIs. The Government of Bharat, especially the Ministry of External Affairs, maintained that the Indian Missions abroad did not have the wherewithal to meet the enormous challenge.
What is more, the permission of the host country needed to be obtained and they were unlikely to positively respond because many of them did not have participatory democracies. The next step was the suggestion made by the Election Commission proposing proxy voting, where the voter could nominate someone to exercise franchise on his behalf.
In 2018, an Amendment to the Representation of the People Act. 1951 was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The Amendment did not introduce proxy voting, but postal ballot. The bill was passed in Lok Sabha, but it could not be approved by Rajya Sabha. Finally, It got lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
Several questions come to the fore. Will West Asian Governments accord permission to the introduction of voting rights to the NRIs? The answer is no because these governments would be digging their graves. It would mean the introduction of two political systems simultaneously: one applicable to foreigners (Bharatiyas) practicing vibrant democracy and the other to the local people without basic democratic rights.
Will the candidates be allowed to campaign in these countries, hold public meetings, and distribute propaganda material, and house to house mobilization of voters? The ruling elite has not forgotten that not so long ago they had to face a democratic upsurge, popularly known as the Arab Spring, which was put down with a heavy hand. An inter-related issue should be highlighted.
The Left Parties have started criticizing the Election Commission for initiating the process without consulting political parties. They also maintain that the Election Commission is not taking any steps to enroll the domestic migrant workers so that they could vote in the coming elections.
We submit that if the scheme is implemented now, it would open a Pandora’s Box. It would bring about avoidable strains in bilateral relations. The proposal deserves to be shelved for the present and postponed to a day when all the relevant issues are sorted out.
The interests of the NRIs could be fostered if both the Central and State Governments, in consultation with the Department of Law and political parties, introduce a new system of allotting time during every session so that members could articulate the grievances and aspirations of the NRIs.
There are well-known specialists in Diasporic Studies in academic institutions and former diplomats well versed in the subject who could provide support.
M.R. Sivaraman (IAS (Retd.), former Revenue Secretary to the Government of Bharat)
Dr. V. Suryanarayan (Founding Director and Senior Professor (Retd.), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras)
(Featured image source- keralakaumudi.com)
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