‘Minority exclusion’: Are Indian Muslims facing voter suppression?

Claims of voter suppression are rising – from names missing from electoral rolls to physical violence and constituencies redrawn to reduce Muslim clout.

New Delhi, India – Daily wage worker Mustagir Qureshi decided to cast his vote early in the morning to avoid queuing up under the scorching sun in Uttar Pradesh state’s Sambhal district in northern India.

But as he reached the school-turned-polling station in his native Obri village on May 7 for the third phase of the staggered election, he saw dozens of men wearing skull caps and women in burqas fleeing to avoid blows from policemen carrying batons.

Moments later, he heard from his neighbours that his 70-year-old father Raees Qureshi, who had rushed to the booth upon hearing of the commotion, was lying injured in front of the school. He had been hit on his chest by a police baton and had collapsed.

As Mustagir carried his injured father home, videos of the incident went viral on social media. In one of the videos, Mustagir and his younger brother, Alam, were seen carrying their wounded father as they argued with the police over the baton charge. At one moment, Mustagir puts Raees down on the road demanding an answer from the authorities.

‘They threatened to shoot me’

Three hours later, when Mustagir returned to the booth to cast his vote, a police officer summoned him. “They seized my voter slip and Aadhar card and tore it into pieces,” he alleged. A voter slip is issued to voters by the authorities to inform them of their nearest booth, while Aadhar refers to India’s biometric identity card, carrying of which is mandatory for a voter along with the voter identity card.

Mustagir, 30, said at least six police officers shoved him into a van as his younger brother Alam recorded a video of the detention on his mobile phone. He claimed he was beaten and abused inside the vehicle as the officers took him to Sambhal’s Asmauli police station.

“They said: ‘Mullah, you’ll vote for cycle?'” he told Al Jazeera. Mullah is a common pejorative term for Indian Muslims. The bicycle is the election symbol of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the main opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically crucial state that sends 80 members to the lower house of parliament, the most by any state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rules the state, as well as nationally.

Mustagir said he was taken to a nearby jungle and forced to record a video claiming he was misled by the villagers about the baton charge and that the police officers did not assault him or his father. “They threatened to shoot me in an encounter. I was kicked and punched, forced to say all that on camera. I made the video under their pressure,” he told Al Jazeera.

Later that day, that video was shared by the police on X to deny allegations of voter suppression and assault on the villagers in Obri. Yet, similar incidents of police attacks on voters were also reported from at least three other villages in Sambhal, about 187km (116 miles) from the national capital New Delhi.

Zia ur Rahman Barq, a member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly and the SP candidate from Sambhal, alleged that the local administration had colluded with the police to intimidate and stop Muslims from exercising their vote to help the BJP.

“I saw serious head injuries, fractured arms, and old men as well as children mercilessly beaten by the police,” Barq told Al-Jazeera. “They rained batons on the people lined up to cast their vote, snatched their ID cards and voter slips, and arrested many of our polling agents.”

Al Jazeera reached out to five senior police officers in Sambhal, but only one of them responded. “I have already given my statement in writing,” said Anuj Kumar Chaudhary, circle officer for the Sambhal subdivision, before disconnecting the call. Further attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. Barq accused Chaudhary of intimidating election officials and taking away voter lists from at least four polling stations.

The Sambhal incident is only one among a series of allegations of vote suppression of India’s largest minority in the country’s mammoth election, which comes to an end with the final phase of voting on Saturday, June 1. Votes will be counted on June 4, when results will also be announced.

As India began voting on April 19 in the seven-phase election, there were several reports from across the country of Muslim names allegedly deleted from the list of voters, of attempts to disenfranchise them through intimidation, or of using the law to draw constituencies in a manner that dilutes the impact of the Muslim vote in areas where the community resides in large numbers.

‘My vote has become useless’

In the northeastern state of Assam, where nearly a third of the 35 million residents are Muslim, the demographic profile of several parliamentary constituencies has been altered through a process called delimitation. That refers to the process of election authorities redrawing the boundaries of some seats according to changes in the population.

The BJP has been in power in Assam since 2016.

Sanwar Hussain, a bus driver by profession, used to be a registered voter in Barpeta constituency. Now his name has been added to the voter list in Dhubri, about 130km (80 miles) from his home.

“Why should I have to vote for a place that is this far from my home? I have always been in Barpeta,” the 43-year-old told Al Jazeera.

The delimitation in Assam raised the number of Muslim voters in Dhubri but reduced it in Barpeta from 61 percent to 30 percent, according to Indian media reports. Chenga, a state assembly seat with more than 76 percent Muslims, used to be a part of the Barpeta parliamentary seat, but now falls under the redrawn Dhubri constituency.

Delimitation has similarly affected two other parliamentary seats in Assam: Kaziranga and Nagaon.

“I feel that my vote has become useless,” Barpeta resident Abdul Jubbar Ali told Al Jazeera.

Aminul Islam of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the state’s third-largest party after the BJP and the Congress, said delimitation has “ensured no Muslim candidate can win in the future”.

“It is meant to cheat Muslim voters,” Islam told Al Jazeera.

Pabitra Margherita, BJP spokesman in Assam and a member of the upper house of India’s parliament, told Al Jazeera the delimitation process was a routine exercise by the election commission and not aimed at impacting the influence of the Muslim vote to help the BJP win.

“Such allegations and this kind of propaganda,” he said, “hampers the social fabric of the state of Assam.”

Al Jazeera reached out to Assam’s chief electoral officer, Anurag Goel, for his response to the allegations by opposition parties and some voters that the delimitation exercise had rendered the Muslim vote in the state less relevant. He did not reply.

Political scientist Gilles Verniers described the Assam delimitation as “a case of minority exclusion”. He said the effect of such manipulations on the electorate is “compounded by a growing distress and distrust” the voters feel towards the election commission.

“What is really missing is a response from the election commission on these allegations and appropriate action to find solutions and to remedy them,” he said.

‘Our Muslim identity had a role to play’

In Modi’s home state of Gujarat on the other side of the country, Jukub Patel said he failed to get his voter slip despite repeated attempts.

Patel was among 600 Muslim fishermen whose homes in Navadra village in the coastal district of Devbhoomi Dwarka were razed by the state’s BJP government in March last year following allegations they were illegally built. Soon, his name was also allegedly deleted from the voter list.

Patel now lives about 50km (30 miles) away from his lost home.

Al Jazeera wrote to JD Patel, deputy district election officer of Devbhoomi Dwarka, on the alleged deletion of Muslim fishermen’s names from the voting lists, but received no response.

Manish Doshi, spokesman for the opposition Congress party in Gujarat, accused the BJP of exerting pressure on the administration to manipulate the election. He alleged that BJP workers threatened Muslim voters in the Muslim-majority localities of the main city of Ahmadabad, where many voters were not provided with voter slips. “This is how the BJP always wins the elections in this state,” he told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reached out to five BJP politicians to seek their response to the allegation but did not receive a reply.

Verniers said the election commission is responsible for ensuring that citizens are not deleted from the voter lists and that there was sufficient history of the body being proactive in getting people registered. But, he added, that did not seem to be the case in Gujarat.

Bureaucratic hassles

Gujarat’s chief electoral officer, P Bharathi, told reporters that an objection should have been raised by the Muslim fishermen before them and new applications for a new voter ID card should have been made.

However, rights groups say that the process of getting new voter IDs at an applicant’s new address can be punishing, especially for people whose documents have been misplaced during the demolition of their homes. A local rights group, the Minority Coordination Committee (MCC), also wrote to the election commission on behalf of the fishermen but received no response.

“If the government pursues a policy of displacing Muslims from their land, citizens will be deprived of their fundamental rights,” said Verniers. “There are bureaucrats who are eager to do the bidding of the ruling party.”

The denial of voting rights can also happen because of reasons such as misspelled names on ID cards. But many Muslims said unlike them, their neighbours belonging to other religions did not seem to have a problem in getting their voter slips.

Mohammad Sabir, 78, a resident of Gali Ahiran in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura constituency, said his family of eight people could not vote during the second phase of the election on April 26.

“My wife went to the polling station. Her photo was there on her Aadhar card and her name was correct on the voter slip, too. But they refused to allow her to vote, saying her name and photo don’t match,” he told Al Jazeera. Sabir himself could not vote because he did not get his voter slip.

Syed Khalid Saifullah, a Hyderabad-based IT expert and activist, said the government has all the means and guidelines in place to ensure that citizens are not excluded from the voter list. Saifullah runs an app called Missing Voters, which helps get eligible voters back on the electoral list if they find that their names have been dropped.

“Almost everyone has access to a phone in their household. An automated call alerting them about their name being removed from the voter list shouldn’t be much of an effort,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the state has enough resources to tackle such issues.

“There are enough booth officers who can go house to house, and in due time, verify any discrepancies and ensure people are able to exercise their right to vote,” he said.

Alleged threats, detentions in Kashmir

But what happens in regions where the state suffers from a particularly high level of distrust from the population?

In Indian-administered Kashmir, where mainly Muslim voters in its valley areas have long boycotted India’s elections, this year was different as many thought casting their vote against the BJP was their only way to protest their loss of partial autonomy in 2019, when the region’s special status was scrapped.

But both major pro-India political parties in the disputed region – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party – have accused the police of detaining and intimidating their workers and suppressing the votes of the people.

Aga Ruhullah Mehdi, the National Conference candidate in the main city of Srinagar, told Al Jazeera the police attempted to slow down voting by threatening voters at booths where people were voting for his party.

“Sometimes they would make excuses about how crowded the polling booth was and try to force voters to leave before voting. They were checking their IDs, which is the responsibility of the booth officer, not the police,” he said.

The police admitted to the detentions, saying its action was “regardless of any party affiliation” and targeted “miscreants and potential offenders with a background of linkages to terrorism and separatism”.

India has long considered a rebellion against New Delhi’s rule in Indian-administered Kashmir as a form of terrorism and has deployed millions of its soldiers in the region for decades. New Delhi claims the region as an integral part of the country.

‘Horrors and heartbreaks’

Down south, Madhavi Latha, a BJP candidate in Hyderabad, capital of Telangana state, was booked by the police on May 13 after a video of her allegedly intimidating Muslim voters went viral.

In the video, Latha was seen telling Muslim women to remove their veils as she checked their documents without any authority to do so.

Being a candidate, Latha argued, she had a right to verify the identity of voters. But election rules depute such duties to designated polling officers. They also recommend setting up an enclosure with female staff to verify the identity of women covering their faces.

M Aruna, the election officer at the booth, told Al Jazeera that in her decade-long experience overseeing election procedures, Latha’s was the first instance of a candidate entering a polling station and asking women to reveal their faces.

In the police report accessed by Al Jazeera, Aruna said one female voter left the polling station without casting her vote after being told to do so by Latha.

Jagdeep S Chhokar, a co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works on electoral and political reforms, said the opposition has complained of vote suppression in this election, but the election commission’s response had been “extremely subdued if it at all ever came”.

Back in Sambhal, Mustagir said the election, often called a “festival of democracy”, has been one of horrors and heartbreaks.

“I still have the fear that if I speak up, they might do something worse to me,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera