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Archives for : November2018

Haren Pandya: Banquo’s Ghost in Search of Macbeth!

The deposition by gangster Azam Khan, implicating the then top cop DG Vanzara, has brought unanswered questions on Pandya’s murder to the fore again.
Haren Pandya

In Act 3, scene 4, Macbeth causes chaos at a celebratory banquet at his castle when he suddenly starts to behave very oddly. Everything starts quite normally. The guests are greeted and they all sit down ready for the meal. One man is absent: Macbeth’s old friend, Banquo. The reason why he is absent is very simple – Macbeth has just had him murdered.

Where Banquo should be sitting at the banquet, Macbeth sees instead his ghost. ..

Will we ever know who really killed Haren Pandya — a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat — who also happened to be its Home Minister in late 1990s and early years of 2000? Or will it always remain, to quote police parlance, a “cut-out murder” in which it is not possible to establish the link between the victim and the conspirator or motivator of the crime. (From Hermitude To Holography”. Outlook. April 8,2013. Retrieved 20 September 2016)

The deposition by a gangster Azam Khan — who is at present lodged in the Udaipur jail — in the alleged fake encounter cases of Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Tulsiram Prajapati has brought the issue to the fore again. According to him, the contract to kill Pandya had been given to Sohrabuddin and two others by DG Vanzara, former top cop of Gujarat.

Azam Khan, a one time associate of Sohrabuddin and Prajapati “[a]lso said that while he had told the CBI investigator about it in 2010, the officer had refused to record it as part of his statement.” Interestingly, one can even refer to newspaper archives which point towards similar conclusions quoting sources in the state police.

The gravity of the charges levelled by Khan can be gauged from the fact that he is directly implicating the top cop — who himself was very close to the ruling dispensation in the state then and was discharged from the fake encounter case of Soharabuddin only last year after spending a few years behind bars. Till date, many lower level officials of the police department are still languishing in jail in the fake encounter case.

Forget rejecting outright what Khan has told the court, few in-depth analyses have appeared in Hindi /English publications explaining this 15- year-old case 3 and providing enough hints about the mastermind.

Can we then say that the fresh allegations would prompt the people in power to revisit the case and help untangle few more leads in this unresolved murder mystery of a senior politician, who had started his social-political journey from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh?

With the ups and downs which the Pandya murder case has witnessed, it is impossible to make any such prediction. But, to begin with, we can at least recapitulate the turn of events:

One, Pandya had allegedly testified before a Concerned Citizen’s Tribunal headed by former Supreme Court judge V K Krishna Iyer about the Gujarat 2002 carnage and the details were definitely not soothing to the ruling dispensation then. Less than three months after the riots, he made similar startling revelations before a leading news magazine, Outlook, which he repeated a few months later as well. What is disturbing to note is that he feared for his life if his identity was revealed.

So, the question arises as to why such a senior state leader of the ruling dispensation feared for his life? And within six months of expressing this fear, he was dead.

Two, Pandya was killed (March 2003) while he was on a morning walk and his body kept lying in his car for around two hours. The persons  who were accused of his murder were released by the Gujarat High Court and the courts heavily criticised the Gujarat police and probe agencies for a botched investigation. (2011). As of now, an appeal is lying before the Supreme Court, challenging the acquittal.

Three,  Pandya’s father, Vithabhai Pandya, always maintained that it was an insider job. Pandya’s wife, Jagruti, was also of the opinion that it was a political murder.  Mukul Sinha, the fearless civil liberty activist and lawyer, had even provided details of how ‘late Shri Vitthal Pandya had gone from pillar to post asking for a free and fair investigation. Despite being a BJP member, he showed complete lack of confidence in the CBI investigation which was at that time under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government…’ Sharing other details about his several applications praying for ‘re-investigation before the POTA Court in 2006, which were not entertained’ it also tells us how the widow of  Pandya later strived to reopen the investigation and had ” ..even approached the High Court vide the Sp. Cr. Appl. No.2327 of 2011 seeking re-investigation but it was not entertained as the Supreme Court is seized with the appeal of CBI.’

Perhaps it needs to be mentioned here that Ms Jagruti Pandya, widow of Haren Pandya later joined BJP and is now head of the Child Rights Commission.

Whatever happens in the case — whether Khan’s testimony is rejected once again or a re-investigation is undertaken at the behest of Pandya’s own party people — one can at least revisit the period post-2002 riots on our own, which is dotted with the assassination of  Pandya, a spate of encounter killings, arrest of senior as well as junior-level police officers — the number reached 32 at one stage — and leading politicians from two neighbouring states for their role in these fake encounters, formulation of a ‘counter terrorism plan’ with special focus on religious minorities, etc.

DG Vanzara and Encounters

Any close watcher of the Gujarat police would tell you that the top cop (now retired) Vanzara, who is  under the spotlight once again, was DIG of Gujarat police and head of its Anti Terrorist Squad, and till his arrest, he had been privy to the entire goings on in Gujarat since 2002, which included the 2002 riot investigations which were handled by the crime branch, the Pandya murder case and the Akshardham attack, apart from the fake encounters.

It was the same period when Gujarat witnessed a spate of encounter killings that saw 15 deaths. All these killings followed a very similar pattern. Be it the case of Ishrat Jahan, the student from Mumbai, or Sameer Khan Pathan or, for that matter, Soharabuddin, all these encounters took place at night wherein none from the police force received any injuries, despite the ‘terrorists’ being armed with ‘latest automatic weapons’ (as was announced later). The rationale provided for these killings was that they had come to kill Modi and his other colleagues, and had Pakistan connections.

Focusing on one such encounter case, that of Sadiq Jamal Mehtar, who died in police encounter in January 2003, Mukul Sinha had exposed the modus operandi:

How did Sadik become ‘the dreaded terrorist’? The story is better told by Journalist Ketan Tirodkar who admitted to have profiled Sadik as a terrorist on the request of Daya Nayak, the real life Ab Tak Chappan hero, the then PSI of Crime Investigation Unit (CIU), Andheri. Ketan Tirodkar, a confidante of Daya Nayak,  had filed an affidavit in the writ petition (SCrA No. 963 of 2007) filed by Shabbir seeking a CBI investigation into the ‘encounter’ of Sadik. We quote here in below paragraphs 3 and 4 of his sworn affidavit.

3. I say and submit that in my aforesaid complaint in paragraph nos. 7 and 8, I have specifically stated about the manner in which Sadik Jamalbhai Mehtar was deliberately profiled as being a member of Dawood Ibrahim gang by Shri Daya Nayak and me, and further profiled as if he was to go to Gujarat as a contract killer of Lashkar-e-Toiba for eliminating the Chief Minister of Gujarat Shri Narendra Modi.

One can also recall the ‘revelations about the counter terrorism plan of the Gujarat police’ (The Rediff Special, Sheela Bhatt in Ahmedabad, How Gujarat plans to counter terrorists, July 15, 2004) shared by Vanzara himself. It was the same period when the saga of fake encounter killings was unfolding itself.

The implicit understanding (as per the Gujarat government) behind this plan was that the ‘state has become a haven for terrorists’ (read Islamic terrorists)’. In an interview to the same e-mag, the additional CP of Ahmedabad, Vanzara, hammered this point home in no uncertain terms plainly stating that “..After the Godhra carnage and the subsequent riots terrorists of a variety of types and shapes are aiming at Gujarat. Gujarat has become the destination for terrorists.”(The Rediff Interview July 27,2004) .

As a precursor to this plan a detailed survey of the number of mosques, madrasas at the state-level was done and the various Islamic organisations active inside the state and their alleged linkages with other national-international organisations was noted. As per the plan, every policeperson from the constable level upward had been instructed to keep a close watch on the situation at the ground level. S/he had been asked to keep tabs on meetings at masjids and the goings on in the madrasas. Activities of the Tablighi Jamaat were also going to be keenly watched under this plan.

It was then clear to even a layperson that the neatly designed ‘counter-terrorism plan’ of the Gujarat police at the behest of the state government stigmatised the whole minority community in uncertain terms. The most ironic part seems to be that it did not even bother to mention the extremist elements within the Hindu community and the need to keep a close watch on the controversial activities of the plethora of organisations of the Hindutva Brigade and its leaders. It was during that period only that the ‘intelligence bureau people overseeing the national scene had warned the central government to rein in Hindutva leaders like xx and xxx if ‘[i]t was keen to nip the fresh sources for terrorist activities in the bud.’ (Jansatta, Sep 5, 2003, Delhi, ‘Intelligence bureau warns the government about xx and xxx .)

Interestingly, in his resignation letter – which he wrote from jail after remaining there for around seven years – Vanzara had in an indirect way expressed how he and his police officers were just implementing the diktats of the policy formulators in every possible way.

Through his 10-page resignation letter, Vanzara had made some important points. Expressing no regrets over these encounter killings for which he and his associates/juniors were in jail, he maintained that because of these killings only Gujarat remained free from similar terror attacks. According to him the trumpeted success of the ‘Gujarat’s model of development’ was only possible because of the ‘sacrifices made by me and my officers in thwarting the onslaught of initial disorder in the state’. Commenting on the unprecedented situation wherein more than 30 officers working with him were now in jail — which included few officers of the IPS rank also — he maintained that between 2002 and 2007, he and other officers of his ilk “simply acted and performed their duties in compliance of the conscious policy of this government” and yet his political bosses betrayed him.

According to him

..the CBI investigation officers of all the four encounter cases of Sohrabuddin (Sheikh), Tulasiram (Prajapati), Sadiq Jamal and Ishrat Jahan have to arrest the policy formulators also as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters”

It is worth underlining that despite Vanzara’s focussed attack on what he called ”policy formulators’, and despite demanding that they be similarly ‘sent to jail’, the state government had rejected the said resignation by not forwarding it to the Central government.

Why was the government keen to retain him in service — despite receiving enough opprobrium because of these encounter killings? Was it because the accused officer wasprivy to secrets which the government did not want to divulge in public?

https://www.newsclick.in/banquos-ghost-search-macbeth

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PUCL statement in solidarity with #MeToo

As national conscience acknowledges the long-standing problem of hostile workspaces for women, it is time to closely examine the legislative framework in place to protect a women’s fundamental right to work with dignity. It has been over a decade since the Supreme Court guidelines in the landmark judgment Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan and others, established the responsibility of employers and persons of authority to delineate a complaints and redressal mechanism to ensure accurate and timely reporting of incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. After 16 years, Parliament passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 “the Act”. While the Act has to some extent clarified the definition and broadened the ambit of what a workplace constitutes, we must address the systemic failure of legal remedies and social support systems in addressing complex issues that arise from incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment of women, and the gross non-implementation of the provisions of the Act by the state. In January 2018, Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation filed before it, was constrained to call on multiple State Governments to implement the provisions of the Act, including the setting up of a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) in each district.

We acknowledge that the Law as of today does not provide adequate safeguards to protect a survivor of sexual harassment against the social and professional sanctions imposed on her once she decides to report an incident of sexual harassment. The Law further fails in its objective to ensure that a survivor of sexual harassment is protected against intimidation in the form of defamation cases that are strategically used to disempower and deter a survivor who takes the step to report a case of sexual harassment. While the Vishaka Judgement did not contemplate a limitation period within which a complaint ought to have been filed, the Act reflects the patriarchal notions of justice in mandating that a complaint ought to be filed within 3 months of the incident or at the latest within 6 months of the incident, if the aggrieved women can justify the delay in the filing of the complaint. This restriction does not cater to the interests of the women as Parliament has failed to acknowledge the lasting psychological impact that a traumatic incident of sexual harassment can have on a survivor of sexual harassment. This is more so important in the light of the number of cases that go unreported and the number of offenders who face no consequences for their misconduct. It is our responsibility as members of a healthy society to strive to create an equal, gender empowering society and community, which harbours a safe environment for all members to live a life of dignity and to work with dignity.

It is in this interest that we urge all organisations with more than 10 members to constitute an Internal Complaints (IC) Committee and urge organisations with lesser than 10 members to inform their employees of the Local Complaint Committee constituted / to be constituted in each District.

The recent social-media movement or the ‘#Metoo campaign’ in an Indian context effectively began in the year 2017 and has since opened up issues of sexual harassment to the public gaze. This movement has made it accessible for women to speak publicly about incidents of sexual harassment. The first phase called out numerous academicians and professors for having abused their positions of power for many years. The current phase of the movement has led to several media personalities, journalists and persons in the NGO and development sector being investigated for misconduct and sexual harassment.

We acknowledge that this is a significant movement as social media has facilitated and empowered women to speak openly  (even anonymously) on social platforms. The movement is significant for it urges us as a society to take stock of how effective the law and intended ‘due process’ is in addressing issues of women’s safety and health at the workplace. It is clear that many women have chosen to exercise their freedom of expression to inform society, peers, and colleagues of the prevalent culture of sexual misconduct and abuse of power by persons in a position of authority or otherwise. These women have chosen to speak despite the social and professional consequences faced by them and their families.

PUCL extends its support to all persons who have taken the step to come out with their personal and truthful accounts of sexual harassment. We acknowledge that to speak out and share these experiences is hard and that the backlash faced by these persons sometimes leads to further harassment.

We are committed to protecting the civil rights and liberties of all individuals and have zero tolerance towards sexual misconduct of any kind. We are also committed to finding solutions to social problems faced by the community.

We extend our support and would like to intimate any persons who are keen on pursuing any remedies that PUCL if approached, would guide and support to our best ability.

Mihir Desai,

Convenor, Ad-Hoc Committee,

People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Maharashtra

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10 years- #MeToo Journey of a Journalist for Justice and cost of ‘ due process’

Rina Mukherji to win her case of illegal termination arising out of a complaint of sexual harassment at The Statesman.

 

As women growing up in India, nearly all of us are familiar with street sexual harassment. Catcalls, lewd comments, shoving, groping and pushing are the norm as one grows up into adolescence, teen and adult. However, moving into the workplace was a special thrill, since it meant that the world viewed you with a special respect. Whether you worked for a news agency, magazine, or newspaper, people looked on you as an opinion-maker.

In spite of the comparatively slim pay-packet that the job ensured (at least in the mid-to-late 1980s), when I entered the profession as a post-graduate following journalism school, this was what appealed. The exhilaration continued even after I moved from Mumbai to Kolkata after my marriage. Journalism was what I loved and hence I continued being a journalist even after having completed a doctorate on a UGC fellowship. However, the arrival of my daughter and the need to be with her put the brakes on my career for a while.

When I returned to work after a few years, it meant taking up whatever came my way. Through some people in the profession, I learnt that The Statesman was looking out for senior reporters. So, one fine morning, I left my application at the reception of Statesman House and left the rest to chance. I was told it would take a month for the newspaper to take a decision. It was a Thursday.

On Saturday, I received a call. They wanted me to come over for an interview. My resume had impressed them and I was given the job. It did mean losing my seniority in the profession and putting up with a far lower salary than I deserved. Yet, I did not mind. I needed to get back to work and get back into mainstream journalism.

I joined The Statesman in June 2002. I was to report to the chief reporter and, through him, to the news coordinator—and my eventual harasser—Ishan Joshi. The first few weeks were fine, with everyone being welcoming and friendly. The news coordinator was, in fact, even more so. My ideas and stories were highly appreciated. I was also given the environment and public health beat to cover, which made me happier.

About a month into my job, I noticed that Ishan Joshi would dash into me in the corridors and whenever he did so, feel me up. Initially, I took it to be accidental. But then I realised the huge corridors of the British-style edifice of the Kolkata office of The Statesman did not call for it. The corridors were just too wide. I started keeping a distance but the behaviour persisted. It was in the newsroom, the editorial meetings, everywhere. It was common for him to stalk me in the office premises and otherwise find ways to touch me, often inappropriately.

As the months progressed, the harassment got worse. It was sometime during the height of the Kolkata monsoon that Joshi decided to invite the news bureau to his home for a party. That was when, taking advantage of a moment when I was alone, he forcibly molested me. The incident so shocked me that I was left speechless and numb. From then on, I started to avoid him.

But this only made the harassment worse. My best stories started getting killed. Everything was spiked at the news coordinator’s level, with nothing reaching the desk.

When I complained to the managing editor Ravindra Kumar, he suggested that I “compromise”. Irked by my complaint, Joshi now called on me to resign, on grounds of “not fitting the bill”. By then, I had decided to fight it out, and so I refused to resign. On Dussehra day, October 2002, I was terminated by The Statesman; this was a little before my probation was scheduled to get over.

Although happy to escape the daily harassment, the entire ordeal began revisiting me in the weeks that followed, leaving me an emotional wreck. This was when I learnt of Sanhita, a non-governmental organisation that worked on cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. After dilly-dallying for over a month, Sanhita excused itself from the case, citing constraints involved when dealing with “a big media house”.

However, Sanhita helped me get in touch with Ananya Chatterjee and Rajashri Dasgupta of the newly-formed Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) who took up my case withThe Statesman which, in spite of being one of the oldest media houses in India, had not complied with the Vishaka Guidelines of the Supreme Court that had been passed as far back as 1997. Although The Statesman and its managing editor refused to recognise their authority to speak on my behalf to demand an investigation into my complaint, the pressure that the publicity fallout generated did succeed in having The Statesman set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in early 2003.

Meanwhile, I had approached the West Bengal Commission for Women, with the help of fellow-journalist and friend Partha Pratim Nag. The chairperson, Professor Jasodhara Bagchi, and her colleagues tried their utmost to have The Statesman investigate into my complaint but to no avail. By then, convinced that my issue had no chance of being solved internally, I proceeded to lodge a police complaint, as advised by the Women’s Commission. I also went on to lodge a complaint of illegal termination with the Chief Labour Commissioner.

The Statesman refused to cooperate with both arms of the state. Thus, my case landed up with the Industrial Tribunal.

By then, nearly every person in Kolkata civil society knew about my fight against sexual harassment. I had become an icon for many and ended up addressing the Maitreyee network of women’s organisations, besides some national-level organisations too.  Unfortunately, although there were many who initially pledged support for my cause, few cared to stand by me when the police investigation was underway. In fact, some actively tried to work against me. It was also tough to convince many seasoned lawyers to take up my case since sexual harassment at the workplace was a very new issue. Thankfully,  a social activist from Maitreyee put me through to the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), and Sutapa Chakravarty.

Ms Chakravarty and her lawyers—Shamit Sengupta initially, followed by Debashis Banerjee and Ambalika Roy—helped me through the Industrial Tribunal, the Calcutta High Court and the Patiala House Courts, standing by me all through.

Mine is a classic case of a media house—a part of the fourth estate of the world’s largest democracy—refusing to respect or follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines, even as it wags an accusing finger at a complainant demanding justice against sexual harassment. Until this day, my complaint has not been investigated, and neither has my harasser Ishan Joshi been punished. Instead, even as I battled it out in courts in Kolkata and Delhi, he got promoted to deputy editor at The Statesman, from where he proceeded to adorn the position of editor-in-chief at The Herald in Goa.

As for me, it has been a long wait for justice, wherein I had to keep alive my professional career, trying hard to stay afloat through freelancing for a variety of print and online publications, while balancing my obligations as a homemaker and mother. Attending regular court hearings in Kolkata was tough. Attending court in Delhi to contest criminal defamation meant spending my hard-earned money travelling and staying in another city. My daughter was four years old when I worked at The Statesman. As she grew up, I had to forego my presence by her side during tests and exams, although I have always helped her with nearly all subjects in school. It meant keeping in touch with her on the phone, advising her on how to tackle a tricky math problem, or giving her ideas for her Hindi or English essays.

A decade and a half in courts taught me how to persevere in the face of frustrating delays at every level. The Industrial Tribunal saw me deal with vacant courts for periods ranging from six months to 1.5 years, and the coming and going of four different judges. At Patiala House, the 15 years I spent fighting for justice saw five different judges and four different courts handle my matter, although there were no vacant courts to deal with in Delhi. In both Kolkata and Delhi, the opposing party easily delayed matters on grounds of their lawyer/s being busy, not being ready with the argument, and not feeling well on numerous occasions.

I realised India has the best laws in the world, but tardy implementation prevents justice from coming our way. The Vishaka Guidelines were put in place in 1997.  But The Statesmandid not have an Internal Complaints Committee( ICC) to deal with my case in 2002. Even when it was set up, my complaint was not investigated. Even after the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act came into force in 2013, very few organisations bothered to set up ICCs with trained members in place. Until today, complainants continue to be victimised and thrown out of their jobs, the way I was. Interim relief, if resorted to, can further delay proceedings.

After a decade, the Tribunal ruled in my favour. The verdict was upheld in the Calcutta High Court, albeit with a much-reduced compensation. The Statesman referred it to a division bench, where the case awaits closure. The Patiala House courts in Delhi have acquitted me in my criminal defamation case, but I am yet to return to a full-time job in mainstream media. Winning has vindicated my stand but it all seems so hollow when there is no full-time job or savings to fall back on.

 

Recently, an amendment was introduced to penalise organisations that do not have ICCs in place. One hopes the government will also set up a mechanism for compliance of the SHW Act, and ensure speedy justice through fast-track courts. It will prevent many other careers from getting derailed, the way mine was!

https://www.newslaundry.com/2018/11/03/metoo-my-journey-for-justice-and-the-cost-of-due-process

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India – UIDAI’s Voter ID-Aadhaar Linking Plans May Have Cost Millions Their Vote

Joint Plan by Election Commission and UIDAI compromised privacy of millions of Indians

Representative image of polling in Rajnandgaon Chhattisgarh.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Representative image of polling in Rajnandgaon Chhattisgarh.

JALANDHAR, Punjab — In Godrej almirahs, on shelves in forgotten storerooms, and in kitchen cabinets in private homes of government school teachers, are dusty electoral lists of millions of voter identity cards with their corresponding Aadhaar numbers carefully scribbled down by hand.

These printouts, linking two extremely sensitive personal identity numbers, are the remnants of the 2015 National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), the Election Commission of India’s (ECI’s) controversial drive to use Aadhaar-related software developed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to ostensibly weed out so-called duplicate entries in India’s voter rolls by flagging these names for deletion.

The project ran till August 2015, when it was curtailed by the Supreme Court as it was still adjudicating the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

Interviews with serving and retired election officials in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and a review of hundreds of pages of internal documentation reveal how the ECI and UIDAI sought to use Aadhaar-linked biometric authentication, and unproved algorithms, to toy with the most fundamental right of any citizen in a democracy — the right to vote.

The documents show how Aadhaar-related technology, particularly data-sorting algorithms, have permeated some of the most fundamental aspects of civic life in India without any public discussion about its efficacy, or the risks involved. Rather than create transparency and accountability, the UIDAI’s software has had the opposite effect — where senior government officers defer their judgement to software which they barely understand.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, two states that served as a template for a wider, national roll-out in February 2015, election officials admit that software could have played a role in the elimination of 2.2 million voters from Telangana’s electoral rolls.

“A new software has been put in place as well and there could be other reasons also behind the deletion of names,” Telangana chief electoral officer Rajat Kumar told a press conference, as reported by Mint, in September this year. “There are people living here who have chosen to exercise their voting rights in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. There could be multiple reasons.”

The issue of so-called missing voters has since animated political parties, with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal going as far as to suggest that the Bharatiya Janta Party has deliberately sought to suppress voting of those opposed to the BJP.

On 27 November this year, the Madras High Court will hear a petition asking for the ECI to link voter cards to Aadhaar numbers. The poll body has indicated that it will not oppose the petition, paving the way for the revival of the project.

Yet the roll-out of electoral roll purification programme, and its aftermath, raise questions of whether such an exercise should be attempted at all. If the ECI’s launch of the programme in February 2015 was poorly conceived, its conduct when the project was halted in August 2015 was marked by rank incompetence.

Rather than secure the private and confidential data of the 350 million Indians it had already collected, the Commission left it to individual officers and departments to do what they saw fit with the information.

In Punjab, HuffPost India found that many booth-level officers simply locked the printouts and Aadhaar numbers in the safest place they could think of— their office almirahs and their homes. In at least one case, HuffPost India found the Aadhaar numbers stored in the kitchen cabinet of a government school teacher, deputed to the election commission, who was worried that the files might get lost at her office.

In another case, a teacher handed over his data to the office of the sub-divisional magistrate, but kept a copy for himself. HuffPost India has reviewed these aadhaar-linked voter rolls, but is not reproducing them here to protect the privacy and sanctity of the electoral rolls.

“You never know when the file gets lost,” the official told HuffPost India. “The ECI may ask for it again. Since the process was so tedious, we cannot afford to repeat it again.”

The ad hocism of the exercise was so extreme that when the Supreme Court asked all seeding projects to be halted, the ECI was confronted with having printed millions of voter-enrollment forms that asked for Aadhaar numbers to complete the voter registration process.

On 17 August 2015, the ECI came up with a high-tech solution to the problem.

“To avoid wastage of paper, existing stocks of the forms and BLO registers with Aadhaar numbers shall be used by removing Aadhaar field by hand or by blackening it with black sketch pen,” the ECI circular read.

ELECTION COMMISSION OF INDIA
An Election Commission of India (ECI) circular asking that forms asking for Aadhaar numbers be blackened by hand using sketch pens.

Needless to say, very few officers took up the arduous task of manually blacking out the Aadhaar field. As a consequence, enrollment officers told HuffPost India, Aadhaar numbers of voters continued to be collected well after the project was halted.

The ECI has not responded to repeated emailed inquiries sent by HuffPost India. The Commission has also declined to disclose how many voter ids have been linked to Aadhaar numbers, claiming it does not know, in response to a Right to Information request filed by Medianama.

AN IRRESPONSIBLE EXERCISE

The UIDAI, two former Chief Election Commissioners told HuffPost India, had long lobbied to link voter IDs and Aadhaar cards as a means to illustrate the value of the controversial project.

“They said we should integrate Aadhaar with electoral rolls to eliminate duplicates,” said a former Chief Election Commissioner, seeking anonymity to speak freely. “The Commission held the view that we should hold off until we fully understand the implications.”

“It was during a meeting with (Nandan) Nilekani , we agreed to link voters card with the Aadhaar numbers,” SY Quraishi, another former election commissioner, agreed. Nilekani is the architect and a vocal cheerleader of the Aadhaar project.

Quraishi insisted that the decision was taken by the ECI, but it is pertinent to note that such a significant decision, with the potential to strip disenfranchise millions of voters, was taken with little public deliberation,

HuffPost India has reached out to Nilekani for comment, and will update the if he responds.

The ECI’s reluctance, the former Commissioner who sought anonymity revealed, stemmed from the fact that there is no one official unified national electoral roll of India. Rather, each state keeps its own voter rolls.

“Each state Election Commission is the custodian of the rolls for that particular state,” he said, admitted that this allowed for voters to have more than one voter card, “but removing duplicates is a sensitive exercise to be done with caution.”

The ECI cannot share voter data—in a manipulable form—with any other body. Hence, Commission officials worried that seeding voter ids would mean sharing the data with the UIDAI.

In 2015, HS Brahma became the Chief Election Commissioner. Brahma was the CEC for barely three months, but made it a priority to push through the seeding process.

“Brahma wanted to leave a mark, he pushed very hard for the process,” the former Chief Election Commissioner said.

“It was always meant to be voluntary,” Brahma told Scroll.in in a recent interview. “Campaigns were organised across the country and state election commissions were roped in for the purpose. The message had to be delivered to common people about how the initiative would help weed out bogus voters and strengthen democracy.”

ELECTION COMMISSION OF INDIA
A February 2015 Election Commission of India (ECI) presentation on linking of voter identity numbers and Aadhaar numbers.

On 23 February 2015, the ECI held a conference to discuss seeding their rolls with Aadhaar numbers at its headquarters on Ashoka Road in New Delhi.

“Year 2015 is the golden year available to the Electoral Machinery to utilise for improving the quality of roll and linking with Biometric data,” stated a powerpoint presentation made by the commission’s IT team. HuffPost India has reviewed a copy of the presentation.

By 1 October 2015, the presentation said, the ECI hoped to build a unified electoral roll with “100% linked and authenticated by Biometric data of Adhaar and in absence of non-coverage, by one of the 5 documents namely Passport, Driving License, PAN Card, TIN No. or by Bank Account.”

Also at the conference were election officials from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana who shared the results of a pilot project in their states.

“We worked with the regional office of the UIDAI in Hyderabad,” said a senior former election officer involved in the Andhra Pradesh project. “They developed a software that allowed us to seed voter ids with aadhaar numbers.”

INORGANIC SEEDING

The software, documents reviewed by HuffPost India reveal, allowed the ECI to seed voter IDs with Aadhaar numbers in bulk using a tool provided by the UIDAI — a process known as “inorganic seeding” of voter ids with Aadhaar numbers.

As a first step, the UIDAI shared the names, addresses, dates of birth, and Aadhaar numbers of citizens—gathered under the Aadhaar project—with the State Resident Data Hub(SRDH), essentially a giant storage server containing the personal details of all the residents of a state.

The software then scanned the electoral rolls and the Aadhaar databases, comparing names, dates of birth and address pin codes to find matching entries in the two databases, and assigned a particular score to the exactness of the match.

The matching as not an exact science: a voter recorded as S.Shiva in the ECI database for example, could be registered as Siva Srinivas in the Aadhaar database. So the UIDAI used a set of algorithms to come up with a score to evaluate these matches.

CHIEF ELECTORAL OFFICER, ANDHRA PRADESH
Presentation by Chief Electoral Officer Andhra Pradesh, listing the algorithms used in the bulk seeding of voter ids and Aadhaar numbers.

For matches above 50%, the software linked the Aadhaar number and the voter id, those below 50% were flagged as needing verification.

Once the software had run its matches, the Commission embarked on a door-to-door household survey to verify these matches. If a house was locked, the election official was supposed to visit the house two more times, paste a sticker asking the voter to reach out to the ECI on the door, and then recommend that the voter be struck off the rolls.

In interviews with HuffPost India, officers involved in the exercise recalled several instances where names were recommended for deletion because residents were not at home when the verification officer visited.

“The problem with inorganic seeding is that if you have wrong data about an individual, and you use that information, you will cause harm to the individual,” said Srinivas Kodali, a cyber security researcher. “The individual has no idea that this data has been used against him because he doesn’t know.”

In Andhra Pradesh, a pilot exercise limited to about 20,000 voters in 15 polling stations resulted in claims that 42% of electors had either shifted residences or did not answer their door.

A much larger exercise in Nizamabad district, with a sample size of 18,88,348 voters, claimed 22% had shifted residences.

This might seem like an impressive number of duplicates, but a similar exercise to ‘verify’ ration cards, food rights activists said, simply excluded genuine, vulnerable, beneficiaries in the guise of weeding out ‘duplicates’.

“Aadhaar linking has been the source of exclusion of a large number of people,” said economist Reetika Khera, who has critically examined the impact of linking Aadhaar to welfare services. “Those who did not, or could not, link Aadhaar numbers were suspected to be “ghosts” or “fake”, and without ever giving them notice or warning them, their names were struck off the rolls.”

Aadhaar-linking to voter IDs, Khera said, would curtail democracy’s most fundamental right—the right to vote.

“Our experience with welfare programmes suggests that if Aadhaar and biometrics are brought in — in any manner— it will lead to exclusion of the most vulnerable,” she said. “Bedridden elderly who cannot authenticate themselves, migrants who may miss the government’s deadlines, those whose biometrics do not work due to age or the nature of their work.”

The deletion of 2.2 million voters in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana—two states that have become laboratories for all things Aadhaar— and the admission by Telangana chief electoral officer Rajat Kumar, that a “new software” could have played a role, suggests Khera’s concerns are not unfounded.

PRIVACY, WHAT’S THAT?

Serious constitutional matters apart, HuffPost India’s reporting in Punjab reveals how such a massive data-gathering exercise presents its own problems. Aadhaar’s defenders have long argued that privacy is an elite concern of little interest to most Indians.

Yet in Punjab, the election officials—mainly school teachers deputed to record Aadhaar numbers by data—encountered vigorous, occasionally violent, resistance from residents concerned about how the data would would be used.

“We faced protests, threats and even physical and verbal abuse in areas especially sensitive for communal violence as the information sought by ECI was ‘too personal’,” said an election official who went from door to door collecting the data. “We took local leaders along to prevent any resistance.”

From February 2015 to August that year, the teachers spent long hours knocking on doors and recording Aadhaar numbers by hand in bulky paper ledgers. But when it was time to submit these ledgers to district offices, they were told that the ECI had suspended the drive.

So these ledgers, with sensitive personal information that residents had fought hard to keep private, were stored by officials who had an innate sense that the information was valuable and sensitive, but no knowledge of how to secure it.

“I kept the election roll safely in my kitchen cabinet,” an earnest school teacher in Jalandhar told HuffPost India, adding she feared the rolls might have been misplaced had she stored them in the school where she worked.

The teacher insisted that the data was stored safely—just not in the way that most cybersecurity experts would expect.

https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2018/11/08/election-commission-uidai-plan-to-link-aadhaar-to-voter-ids-may-have-robbed-millions-of-their-vote_a_23584297/

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