New Delhi, India – India‘s general election, the world’s largest democratic exercise, is past its halfway mark.
The country’s election commission says nearly 900 million voters are eligible to vote in the seven-phase voting, which started on April 11 and will go on till May 19 for 543 parliamentary constituencies.
But nationwide reports of voters finding they were unable to vote after being deleted from, or deemed ineligible to be included in, the electoral rolls have raised concerns.
Voter turnout this year has been high, particularly in the state of Assam which recorded an impressive 80 percent polling.
But those left out of the voting process in India’s northeastern state have not been able to join in the enthusiasm.
“I feel neglected. It’s very painful and I can’t explain it,” says Saleha Begum, a 60-year-old resident of Assam’s Baksa district.
Saleha is one of around 125,000 “D” or “Doubtful” voters in Assam deemed ineligible to vote by the authorities, who say they were not provided with sufficient evidence of their Indian citizenship.
Such people have been accused of being undocumented immigrants from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, a long-running issue in the state.
I feel neglected. It's very painful and I can't explain it.
Assam has witnessed mass agitation against so-called foreigners for decades.
Last year, a controversial update to a citizenship list, known as the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), excluded around four million people, effectively stripping them of Indian citizenship.
Many of them, including Saleha, are from Assam’s Bengali-origin minority.
But Saleha says she has lived in Assam her whole life and used to vote regularly until the “D Voter” category was created in 1997. The last vote she cast was in India’s general elections the year before.
“Suddenly, I became ‘doubtful’. It is something I would never understand and I feel helpless,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone in my family can vote except me. I also want to vote and be counted as a citizen of India.”
Assam’s D voters are not the only people to have been denied voting rights in India. Around three million names were allegedly deleted off voter rolls in the southern state of Telangana between 2015 and 2018, leading to mass disenfranchisement in the state elections that were held in December.
The deletions in Telangana took place during a process aimed at removing duplicate names from the electoral rolls and linking voter details to Aadhaar, a controversial biometric identity card.
But people there say their names were removed from the list without proper verification, leaving them unable to cast their votes in last year’s elections.
Similar mass deletion of names from voters’ lists has been reported from other states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Delhi.
Overall, it is hard to ascertain just how many people are not on India’s voting rolls. Research by two leading psephologists has suggested that as many as 28 million women are missing from the electoral rolls.
An initiative called Missing Voters goes even higher, estimating that a whopping 120 million Indians are not on the voters’ lists.
Khalid Saifullah, founder of the Hyderabad-based initiative, told Al Jazeera that he believes around 65 million of these missing voters are women.
Among the 120 million people Missing Voters suggests are not included on the rolls, Saifullah further estimates that around 40 million of them, like Saleh and Imran, are Muslims while 30 million are Dalits, the former “untouchables”.
Saifullah’s estimates are based on discrepancies he says he found between the number of single households in census data and the election commission’s data. The numbers include those who may not have registered to vote in addition to the names that may have been deleted.
Targeted voter deletions?
There are also concerns that India’s minorities, mainly Muslims and Dalits, were the chief targets of voter suppression.
Experts say one of the easiest tools of exclusion is Form 7, which is available on the website of the election commission. Anyone can fill out that form, requesting the poll body to remove an individual’s name.
“There is often mischief by political parties who fill out Form 7 in various people’s names,” says Saifullah. “That is targeting. It’s pretty easy in India.”
Saifullah points out that no verification is done when somebody fills out Form 7. He suggests the use of OTPs (or One-Time Password) for such procedures. An OTP is a common feature in India while conducting financial transactions online.
“In the present system, you don’t have to give any of your details,” he says. “It should at least ask for a mobile number, because I know a lot of people are misusing it. If you know which polling booth someone is registered at, you can say that person doesn’t live in the area and ask for his removal.”
Independent researcher Srinivas Kodali, who has taken India’s election commission to court over voter deletions in Telangana, agrees there is a targeting of certain communities.
The elections may be free but they are not fair anymore when you're not transparent enough.
However, he says it is hard to tell because of a lack of transparency or clear information in the system, which he regards the root of the problem.
“Their practices are weird,” he says, referring to the election authorities. “When you’re deleted from a roll, you never know which year you were deleted in? Was it 2015 or 2017? There is no way to know.”
“They have issues with their algorithms and their systems which they don’t want to accept … They want to keep using the same system or process forever.”
The Election Commission of India denied reports that a large number of voters was missing from the rolls.
“The report in media that a huge number of voters are missing is not correct at all,” spokesperson SB Sharan told Al Jazeera in an emailed response. “lf a once enrolled voter finds out that his name is deleted, he can submit application for adding his name to the appropriate constituency.”
Sharan said the poll body has “tirelessly worked to ensure that every citizen gets easy access to the system for either getting his name added to the electoral rolls or correcting any errors in personal information”.
N Gopalaswami, a former Chief Election Commissioner, also defended the electoral body. He told Al Jazeera that the numbers being alleged are “absurd” and that voters have ample opportunity ahead of elections to ensure they are on the rolls.
“One unfortunate thing that happens in this country is that voters are so pampered that they never check [the rolls] … People will talk in exaggerated tones and so that they can say hundreds of thousands of people have been removed,” he says.
Saifullah believes that the onus cannot be on poor people, who either don’t have internet access or cannot afford to take time off of work to check their names on the voters’ list.
Both Saifullah and Kodali insist that voter disenfranchisement is real, and its effect on Indian elections clear.
“You can’t say that the elections are fair,” says Kodali. “The elections may be free but they are not fair anymore when you’re not being transparent enough.”
Abdul Gani contributed to this report from Assam