Come April 2014, each and every internally displaced person in India should have the choice and the privilege of casting his or her vote.
The Muzaffarnagar riots and the displacement of its victims portrayed all that is rotten and abysmal in our country. The riots, which displaced almost 55,000 Indians and killed more than 60, garnered ample attention. Yet their significance meandered in and out of our national consciousness, as and when when it was highlighted by the media. With the elections looming, the situation of this population group was sensitively handled by all in the political classes– with either apathy and denial or with each blaming the other and participating in grand rhetorical exchanges and not to mention, bigotry. However, even months after the incident, not much was done by any, to improve the conditions of the victims.
There is little that is worse than being made a refugee in your own backyard. The victims of Muzaffarnagar not only lost their homes but they also lost their identities—documents and paperwork validating their existence. Keeping this in mind, the Election Commission launched a special drive earlier this month, across 22 villages where the victims had been rehabilitated, to register them as voters. The outcome of this was that over 33,000 riot victims applied to enroll in the voters list.
Recently, an MLA and a Lok Sabha candidate for the BJP, Mr Hukum Singh, charged for instigating hate speeches before the riots, said that the displaced victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots should not be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections because they were ‘trespassers’, living ‘illegally’ on government lands in another constituency and hence had no legal right to vote. He went on to say that he would complain to the Election Commission if they were allowed to vote.
Instead of attempting to rehabilitate the victims, encouraging them to return to their economic livelihoods, win back their confidence in the government or an alternative, and rebuild the social trust ahead of the elections, an individual aspiring to emerge as a national leader, effortlessly reduced Indian citizens to trespassers and illegal immigrants within their own country. Not only were his opinions dogmatic and crass, they were also flawed. According to a Delhi High Court Ruling of 1999, all internally displaced individuals in India, have the right to vote and the Election Commission upheld this in Mizoram last year. Additionally, the ADM of Muzaffarnagar responded strongly to Singh’s statements by saying “There are three norms for the right to vote and the riot victims fulfill all of these.”
The primary fact should not be forgotten that riots do not happen on their own. People are the protagonists in them. Investigation, implication and punishment need to be transparent and simultaneously systematic and speedy. The focus should not only be limited to the promises of compensation; it should be on the efforts for the re-establishment of social and communal trust and the faith in law and order– the ideals that govern the country. It should be to rehabilitate the citizens and bring their lives back to normal. These individuals should be encouraged to return to their old homes without any fear or have the free choice, as guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution, to live in any part of the India without being called a ‘trespasser’ or an ‘illegal’ inhabitant by anybody, least of all, a politician.
In the coming month, India will celebrate its democracy, with 814.5 million eligible voters choosing their next government. Despite all its dysfunctions, the Indian Republic has had its election systems in place. It is at such times that the institutions and systems of this country need to stand up for its citizens. In the face of individual or partisan bigotry, they need to uphold the democratic principles and the liberal and pluralistic credentials of India.
The first step towards bringing all internally displaced persons out of this so-called refugee status would be to ensure that their national identity—their right to vote—is reinstalled. The Election Commission should ensure that its efforts are not limited to the voter registration drives. Even if it takes additional labour, it needs to ensure that all displaced Indian victims who registered, have their names on the voters list and their voter IDs dispatched to them. It needs to ensure that come April 2014, each and every one of the Muzaffarnagar riot victims, along with other internally displaced persons has the choice and the privilege of casting his or her vote.