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Meghalaya’s doubtful voters

State Assembly elections in Meghalaya are slated to be held early next year – in February or March. As the final electoral rolls are being prepared, there is a strong demand that the names of 'doubtful' voters should be deleted. A number of NGOs and other bodies have been pressurising the state government to remove the 'facilitation centres' at the district and block levels to ensure that 'people of doubtful antecedents' do not get enrolled as voters. The facilitation centres have been set up by the Election Commission through a notification.

Who are the 'doubtful voters'? The agitators clarify that their drive is against 'outsiders and suspected foreign nationals' who have managed to get their names into the voters' lists and that they seek to disenfranchise 'all persons above eighteen years of age who settled in Meghalaya for any period of time in contravention of the provisions of the Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act. They claim that such people cannot be given the benefit of enrolment  as voters.

The demand for disenfranchisement was steadily snowballing for quite some time. A rally organised by the NGOs at Shillong ended in violence in which houses were torched and a large number of vehicles were burnt. Apprehending further trouble, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma convened an all-party meeting to discuss the situation in the second week of May. Representatives of the Congress, United Democratic Party (UDP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP), CPI, BJP and KHNAM attended. The last named is the youngest political party to be launched in the state. The initials stand for Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement.

The meeting decided to set up all-party committees to formulate 'friendly and effective voter enrolment guidelines' but 'without infringing the Election Commission's directives.' Chief Minister Mukul Sangma explained: 'Legally, we cannot infringe the EC's directives but we would formulate our guidelines for the State, fine-tuning the existing ones, keeping in mind the local interest. The implications are obvious: without technically infringing the guidelines laid down by the EC, the State Government, the political parties, the NGOs and other bodies will ensure that 'local interests' are protected while drawing up the electoral rolls by keeping out all those voters who have settled in the state.

This has created grave apprehensions among certain sections of the people of Meghalaya. The memory of the 'bahiragata virodhi andolan'  or the movement to drive out the so-called 'outsiders' from neighbouring Assam that engulfed the entire state for many years during the seventies and eighties of the last century is still too fresh in their minds to be forgotten easily. An offshoot of that movement was the birth of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

A brief look at the population composition of Meghalaya will help understand which sections of Meghalaya's population have become apprehensive of their being targeted for disenfranchisement. Roughly, the Khasis constitute 32% of the population, Garos 27.5%, Jayintias 18%, Nepalis 10.5%, Muslims (mostly of Bangladeshi origin) 4.3%, Koch-Ranbongshis 2.8%, Bengalis 2.5%, and Hajongs 1.8%. It is the Nepalis, the Muslims, the Koch-Rajbongshis, the Bengalis and the Hajongs who together constitute about 22 per cent or more than one-fifth of the State's population. It is they who fear that they will be placed in the category of 'outsiders and suspected foreign nationals.'

The Nepalis form the bulk (10.5%) of the last five categories of the population. They are engaged in cultivation and milk trade or are employed as drivers, mechanics, domestic help or as labourers in the open-cast coal mines of the Jayinthia Hills. Bengali Muslims are cultivators or owners of small shops and petty trades. There are certain pockets in the Garo Hills district, adjacent to Assam's Goalpara district, which are peopled almost wholly by Bengali Muslims who migrated from East Pakistan or Bangladesh. The Bengali Hindus run shops or are engaged in trade, government service or the teaching and legal professions. Irrespective of the length of their stay in Meghalaya, they are likely to be declared outsiders and foreign nationals.

The All-Party Committee, chaired by Deputy Chief Minister B M Lanong, has  submitted its recommendations to the State Government. One recommendation is that citizens who shift from one state to another or from one constituency to another, will have to submit a deletion certificate issued by a competent authority to prove that he or she is no longer a voter of the previous place of stay. This recommendation runs counter to the existing guideline of the EC which says that the electoral registration officers, not the voters, are responsible for deletion of the names of 'double voters'.

The NGOs spearheading the movement want that the antecedents of voters must be checked at the grassroots level with the 'traditional heads of institutions' as one of the 'checking' authorities. The state government has not yet made known its decision on the recommendations of the All-Party Committee. But any attempt at large-scale disenfranchisement of the voters who have been dubbed 'doubtful' is likely to meet with resistance and possibly with counter-agitations.
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