Why is EVM a sacred cow?

Despite an Indian-American Syed Shuja’s claims of hacking an EVM and sharing the information with USA, which is a punishable offence, the ECI does not seem eager for an inquiry in the matter

Gauhar Raza

Once again Electronic Voting Machines are in the news. Battle lines are drawn between the bullies and the bullied, between votaries of infallibility of the machine on the one hand and those who consider it a curse for the largest democracy on the other. Familiar charges have been levelled against the machine and once again stale, old arguments have been repeated to refute them.

The interview of Syed Shuja, live streamed from London, sent the media on a tailspin for some time. Even mainstream media with a colonial mindset had to take notice of a US citizen’s press conference, but lost no time to recover and give it a political twist. It took them longer to dissect the serious charges Shuja had levelled.

The interaction of Shuja with journalists in London on Skype and his claims undoubtedly appeared a bundle of contradictions and ramblings of an incoherent person. But there is also no doubt that what he claimed were serious and Kapil Sibal’s presence during the interaction in London did not reduce the gravity of the charges made. Most of the assertions made by Shuja can be verified or refuted in no time, as the case may be, but investigating them will take much longer.

Let us not forget that this was for the first time that someone claimed that he and his team hacked the machine and manipulated election results. Until now, no one had come forward to claim that. All past efforts and claims had merely suggested how the machine could be tampered with. BJP itself had sustained a campaign against the EVM and its leaders had demonstrated how it could be hacked. But post-2011 the party had suspiciously stopped the campaign. While others accused the BJP of hacking EVMs, they were unable to produce any proof.

The reason is simple. If anyone claims that he has hacked the machine, and is still in India, she/he will immediately be arrested and put behind the bars. For that matter, even if someone makes it public that she/he had even accessed the machine unofficially, the person will invite the harshest of punishments. There are no laurels for ‘jailbreak’.

If someone is able to ‘break the jail’, then the natural tendency will be to go to a political leader or party and make money, which is what Shuja admitted his team had done. And his story, true or false, has had a sad end.

Let me deal with the other claim that he made. He narrated that his team was engaged by ECIL to break the security and develop a device to communicate with existing EVMs and change the results. He did not say so in so many words but by implication one may safely conclude that the team successfully made a remote controlled device, which could be used for hacking the machine.

It will not be out of place to recall that in 2003, in Belgium, an EVM machine was found giving erroneous results. The machine had added such a large number of votes in favour of a candidate that it exceeded the total number of votes polled

He did not say at any time that they had to add any component to the existing EVM for using low frequency radio waves. What he claimed was that using the remote device his team altered the results of Delhi, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh elections.

Media reports and critiques which followed his claims have basically argued that this cannot be achieved without making changes to the EVM and installing an antenna to the machines.

It will not be out of place to recall that in 2003, in Belgium, an EVM machine was found giving erroneous results. The machine had added such a large number of votes in favour of a candidate that it exceeded the total number of votes polled.

A thorough scientific investigation was carried out and it was found that an alien cosmic particle had hit the chip and altered the result. This effect is technically called ‘single-event upset’ (or SEU). In Belgium this could happen, one machine gave erroneous results and a thorough independent scientific investigation was conducted and its findings were made public.

But back home, every scientific institution is directed to do research on cow urine, but when it comes to the EVM, we adopt an ostrich-like position, burying our head in the sand and treating the EVM as a sacred cow.

In my opinion, there are only two ways to deal with Shuja’s claims. The first is to reject the story, throw it in the dustbin, go home and sleep. The other is to appoint a team of independent experts, give them the same EVM which Shuja claims to have hacked, and ask them to ‘jailbreak’ it.

It is the duty of the Election Commission of India to protect our democracy. If there is an iota of truth in what Shuja claimed, then let us remember that by implication, the EVM hacking technology has also reached the Americans who, as he in his interview says, verified his claims for two years before giving him an asylum.

(The author is former Prof. AcSIR and Chief Scientist, National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources. This piece was first published on nationalheraldindia.com)

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