'Violates Citizens' Privacy': Opposition Slams Electoral Reform Bill Cleared in Lok Sabha

According to the government, the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 seeks to link the electoral roll with Aadhaar on a voluntary basis to root out multiple enrolments.

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New Delhi: Amid protests by opposition parties, the Centre pushed through Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 without any discussion on Monday, December 20.

According to the government, the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 seeks to link the electoral roll with Aadhaar on a voluntary basis to root out multiple enrolments. However, several opposition parties, including Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and the AIMIM, said that it would violate the right of privacy of the citizens.

The Bill was introduced in the Lower House by Kiren Rijiju, minister of law and justice, at a time when the Opposition members were seeking a discussion on the Lakhimpur Kheri violence.

The Bill provides for linking the Elector’s Photo Identity Card (EPIC) with the Aadhaar card. Along with the Bill, Rijiju also introduced in the House, amendments to the Representation of the People Act, 1950, and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021

The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill stated that Section 23 of the Representation of the People Act Act, 1950 will be amended to allow linking of electoral roll data with the Aadhaar ecosystem “to curb the menace of multiple enrolments of the same person in different places”. Meanwhile, the amendment to Section 14 of the RP Act, 1950 provides for allowing four “qualifying” dates for eligible people to register as voters.

While as of now, January 1 of every year was the sole qualifying date, the amendment proves that “the 1st day of January, 1st day of April, 1st day of July, and 1st day of October in a calendar year” will be the qualifying dates in relation to the preparation or revision of electoral rolls.

Two more amendments were introduced – to Section 20 of the RP Act, 1950 and Section 60 of the RP Act, 1951 – to make the elections “gender-neutral” for voters from defence services. These amendments replaced the word “wife” with “spouse” as until now an army man’s wife is entitled to be enrolled as a service voter, but a woman army officer’s husband is not.

The legislation also seeks to allow the electoral registration officers to ask for Aadhaar number from “’persons already included in the electoral roll for the purposes of authentication of entries in the electoral roll, and to identify registration of name of the same person in the electoral roll of more than one constituency or more than once in the same constituency.”

The amendment also lays down that “”no application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number due to such sufficient cause as may be prescribed” and adds that such people will be allowed to furnish other alternative documents as may be prescribed.

‘Personal liberty, fundamental rights under threat’: Opposition 

Opposing the Bill, Leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, insisted that the legislation would curb people’s personal liberty and infringe on the fundamental rights of citizens. He also demanded that the Bill be sent to the Standing Committee for scrutiny.

“We do not have data protection laws. You cannot bulldoze such a Bill on people,” he said.

Another Congress MP Shashi Tharoor too opposed the Bill saying Aadhaar was only meant to be a proof of residence, but not a proof of citizenship. He said if Aadhaar were to be asked for voting, “all you are getting is a document that reflects residence, not citizenship. You’re potentially giving the vote to non-citizens”.

Other opposition leaders also opposed the move.

‘Apprehensions baseless’: Centre

However, Rijiju defended the Bill saying the apprehensions being raised around it were “baseless”. He said various proposals that were part of the Bill had already been suggested and recommended by the Standing Committee of Law and Personnel.

The minister also insisted that the Opposition MPs were “misinterpreting” the Supreme Court judgment on personal liberty, and claimed that it “fully qualifies” the apex court’s judgment.

The Supreme Court had in 2015 stated Aadhaar could only be used for identifying beneficiaries of state-sponsored welfare schemes. It had thus stalled the Election Commission’s attempts to get the UIDAI (Aadhaar) numbers linked with the electoral data of voters.

However, Rijiju insisted that the amendments were not in violation of the apex court’s ruling.

“This will make the election process more credible. It is an attempt to stop bogus voting and that is why the House should support it,” he said, claiming that the objectives of the Bill had not been understood by the Opposition.

The Election Commission had in August 2019 too demanded that the electoral laws be amended to allow its officials to seek Aadhaar numbers of existing voters as well as of those seeking to enrol themselves in the voters’ list.

Subsequently, in March this year, the then law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told the Lok Sabha in a written reply that the poll panel had proposed to link electoral roll with the “Aadhaar ecosystem” with a “view to curb the menace of multiple enrolment of the same person at different places”.

Prasad had said that the “electoral roll database system does not enter into the Aadhaar ecosystem and the system is used only for the authentication purpose keeping a tight air-gap between the two systems. These measures effectively prevent theft interception and hijacking of the voter system.”