Q. Where did you learn about the missing names of Muslims in the voters’ list from?
Ans. In general, I roam around the country and get to meet many Muslims. I live with them, try to gauge their pulse. I try to understand what is going on in their hearts. That’s how I realised that they are disappointed with the voting process. Muslims have a perception in their mind, that even if they vote, what good will happen? They seemed indifferent towards political change. Then I came to know that many people among them had not even voted. Most of them did not even bother to find out whether their names were in the voters’ list or not. Many said that their names were missing from the voter list though they had voted before.
Q. But this is a normal procedure. Checking, adding and correcting names in the voter’s list is much publicised. How did you do your investigation?
Ans. We think that this should have happened correctly. But that is not what happened on the ground. About 15% of the Muslim voters are out of the list. I thought it was important to work on this issue. I decided to focus on delivery of government schemes among Muslim people. The marginalisation of Muslims in the political scene was a larger concern for me. If there is no involvement of such a large population in democracy, then this is a bad sign. So, when Karnataka elections were to be announced, at the same time, we thought we should examine the situation at the ground level. There were reports that elections would be held in May.
So, we started our exercise in March. I called one of my associates who is an expert in extracting data. Then we collected the data from the Election Commission’s website. There are lists of voters on the website of all the State Election Commissions, they have their names in a PDF format, about 1000 names for a booth. There were 66,000 booths in Karnataka. We downloaded all of them and then turned it into a database. We put it all in excel format and separated the Muslim names.
Two lists were made, one with Muslim names and the list with other names. Then we got into the division of households. In Karnataka, we found that a single-voter Muslim household was about 30-35% of the total Muslim households, whereas non-Muslims had 16-17% of such households. The numbers were disproportionate. It signalled that exclusion of Muslims was very high. It can not happen without a reason, it cannot happen by itself.
Q. Comparing it with the Census and then taking out an average…Was that done earlier in India?
Ans. It is important to do this so that the data can be certified. Both are official figures. We are calculating and analysing both the data sets. Census is the number of adults living in every home. Thus, the number of single voters emerging from Muslim population is too much. In Rajasthan, the number of such households is coming to 2 to 3% in the Census, but in the voter list, it is 30-35% among Muslim households. So, we believe that this is happening in the whole country. Names of Hindus and Dalits and tribals are also missing, but Muslims, percentage wise, are the single biggest group excluded from the voter list.
Q. What now after Karnataka?
Ans. Now we are going to homes in Rajasthan. One more thing we came to know here was that the voters from the same house have been allotted separate booths in the voters’ list. There are three people in the house, so one man is in the list in a booth and the other two have been allotted a remote booth. In the Hawa Mahal Assembly segment, we started in 184 houses initially. Of these, 87 were adults who were legally eligible to vote but their names were out of the list. This is a very high ratio of exclusion. Most of them are Muslims and Dalits.
Q. What impact did your efforts have?
Ans. Our efforts have created an impact. The State Election Commission launched a special drive in Karnataka. After our research, they added 15 lakh voters. It was possible due to our hard work. Of these, 65% were non-Muslims and 35% Muslims. The campaign has benefited all. What is the next strategy? Now we want to run these campaigns across the country before the 2019 elections. It is our mission. Our work is currently underway in Rajasthan. After the work gets completed in Hawa Mahal, we will move to other places. We have found that many people’s names are missing from the list everywhere, and because of this, they are disempowered.
Q. What is the political message of this?
Ans. Look, We are doing our work under to uphold the Constitution and democracy of the country. The absence of names in the electoral roll results in the end of the political future of the people living on the margins. If the names of Muslims will be removed from the voters’ list, then they will not remain citizens. The basic thing for citizenship is the voter card, not Aadhaar card. Not everyone has a PAN card or a passport. The Muslim people are being politically disempowered and are at the risk of being labelled as non-citizens.
Q. Has the exclusion of Muslims increased recently?
Ans. It is not that the process of exclusion of Muslims from the voter roll has started in the last four and a half years of the Modi government. But, now the situation is very dangerous. This scale of this exclusion has increased manifold. Coupled with media propaganda against Muslims and the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, this is pushing Muslims into ghettos, trying to get them out of public space. We want Muslims to be part of the democratic process. They should believe that they are equal citizens. Alienation is not good in any society. It can lead to militancy.
Q. A sense of terror has gripped the Muslims and there is much concern in the community about this.
Ans. Yes, that’s right. Actually, we want to save this country. These big ministers and leaders, who are spewing venom against Muslims and say Bharat Mata ki Jay, should understand that India is our mother too. They have to understand that since they have numbers, they can’t do anything, they can’t shut everyone up. This is not right. Such people need to keep their mouths shut. The element of fear in the Muslims has increased. But how long will this fear last? There is a limit to every thing. After this, what if there is a backlash in the form of militancy? That is why we want Muslims back in the electoral rolls. Their citizenship and voting rights are of prime importance.
Abusaleh Shariff is an economist and is chairman of the Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy