Indian Elections and Non-Resident Indian Nationals – What would Gandhi do?

Absentee Ballot campaign march in London, conducted by Pravas Bharat in January 2013

Absentee ballot campaign march in London conducted by Pravas Bharat in October 2012

What would Gandhi do?

If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today and happened to be living abroad he would have fallen foul of the Indian election rule which requires non-resident Indians (NRIs) to be physically present in the constituencies where they are registered to be able to exercise their franchise.

NRIs are allowed to vote in Indian elections, but only if they are present at a polling booth. This is unreasonable and impractical. (Other democracies like the UK, USA, Canada, Germany and Philippines have successfully implemented an absentee ballot system). In today’s globalised world, people move across the globe for higher education, work advancement, knowledge and research, among other things. That should not become a drawback. That shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to be refused his or her voting rights.

Pravasi Bharat, a UK-based activist group that campaigns for an absentee ballot system for NRIs, believes that this is a denial of a fundamental right of NRIs who are temporarily out of India. The group has been protesting this denial through non-violent demonstrations, protests, petitions and most recently, a hunger strike.

Pravasi Bharat believes in the principles and ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi, and expresses its dissent in Gandhian ways. A citizen’s right to exercise his or her vote is one of the keystones of democracy, and what better way to fight for a democratic right than follow the father of the world’s biggest democracy. Each time this group encounters a roadblock, they ask – What would Gandhi do?

“This is our genuine democratic struggle and we will continue our battle in all democratic ways, following the methods shown by Mahatma Gandhi,” says the group’s co-founder Nagendar Chindam.

Pravasi Bharat was founded in 2012, with the group organising an online petition, writing letters and having peaceful demonstrations. One of the group’s demonstrations was held at the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square gardens, London. Since then the statue has continued to be a part of Pravasi Bharat’s initiatives, with the groups of people assembling in front of it growing with each event.

Pravasi Bharat first held a demonstration in August 2012, urging the government of India to provide an absentee voting option for NRIs. The group then submitted a petition to the High Commission of India in London. Neither initiative garnered a response from the Indian government.

In October 2012, taking inspiration from Gandhiji’s Salt March, the group organised a London March as a form of protest against the Indian government’s apathy to their request. The march began at the Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square gardens and ended with a non-violent demonstration outside the High Commission of India.

at the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square, London

at the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square, London

After another period of silence from the Indian government, the group filed a public interest litigation with the Supreme Court of India in February 2013. Pravasi Bharat’s first victory came when the Supreme Court of India presided by the Chief Justice ordered the Government of India and the Election Commission of India to respond to the matter. As the legal battle continues, the need for an absentee ballot becomes more urgent with the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Having all their attempts to get the Indian government’s attention fail only made Pravasi Bharat seek more inspiration from Gandhi’s life. The group’s chairman went on a three-day hunger strike that ended on January 26, 2014, India’s Republic Day. Nagendar Chindam broke his fast in front of the Gandhi statue at Tavistock Square. A group of NRIs stood with him on the rainy, freezing day, pledging their support to Pravasi Bharat’s cause. This time, the High Commission of India in London noticed, and a meeting was set up with the High Commissioner. The High Commissioner heard the group out and promised to forward their request to the government of India.

As a group that promotes equality and democracy, Pravasi Bharat also campaigns against human right violations. The October 2012 death of NRI Savita Halappanavar in Ireland after being denied a necessary abortion was protested at Tavistock Square gardens in London. Pravasi Bharat wrote to the Irish embassy asking for an amendment in Ireland’s Abortion law. Pravasi Bharat protested the December 2012 fatal gang rape of a medical student in Delhi, India and wrote to the Indian government asking for stricter anti-rape laws. The laws in both countries were eventually amended after similar pressure from various other groups.

As it waits, yet again, for a response from the Indian Government, the group continues its campaign among NRI communities across the globe, asking them to fight for their votes. It believes that most NRIs will vote if an absentee ballot system is made available to them.

“Be the change you want to see” said Gandhiji. Pravasi Bharat takes that very seriously.

Article by Preethi Dumpala

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.

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Categories: 1. News & Events, Politics & Democracy, South Asia, UK & Europe

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