On February 9, 2023, the fact check unit of the Indian government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) posted a tweet refuting claims that citizens needed to mandatorily link their voter IDs with Aadhaar – the unique biometric identification issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
Screenshot of PIB Fact Check
The PIB statement was in response to a tweet by Karnataka-based citizen’s collective Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC) which said that this linkage was mandatory under the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021. State elections are set to take place before May 2023, making this issue particularly relevant.
According to the PIB Fact Check Unit, “It's ‘voluntary' to link an Aadhaar card with a Voter ID card”. To prove this, they provided a link to a letter from the Election Commission of India (ECI) to electoral authorities nationwide last year explaining a new rule added to the Registration of Electors Rules 1960 to facilitate the collection of Aadhaar data. “It is made clear that submission of Aadhaar number is voluntary on the part of electors,” the letter reads.
However, the PIB Fact Check statement is an oversimplification of a far more complex situation.
Why Is This Issue Important?
According to the ECI letter cited by PIB Fact Check, the deadline for linkage is April 1 this year. The deadline comes amid nine state elections scheduled for 2023 and the 2024 general elections. The timeline is important in light of the worst-case scenario that could arise from mandatory linkage of voter IDs with Aadhaar – the removal of voters from the electoral rolls.
To understand why this is a possibility, we have to analyze the 2021 amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1950 (RP Act).
According to the central government, this amendment was needed to address the “menace of multiple enrolments”. To do this, several sub-clauses were added allowing an electoral registration officer to ask a person registering to vote or already registered to vote, for their Aadhaar number.
“The purpose of collection of Aadhaar from existing electors is to establish the identity of electors and authentication of entries in the electoral roll and to identify registration of the same person in more than one constituency or more than once in the same constituency,” the 2022 ECI letter noted.
In addition to deciding who can be added to the electoral rolls, electoral registration officers have the power to correct existing entries in the rolls. This can be done if any entry is “erroneous or defective”, in which case the officers can edit, transpose or delete entries in the electoral rolls.
This power could potentially lead to voters seeing their names struck off the voting lists on failing to link their Aadhaar numbers to their voter IDs, or if there was a problem with the authentication process.
Can Names Be Struck Off?
In August 2022, Scroll and The Hindu reported that some voters were complaining of block-level officers asking individuals to link their voter IDs with their Aadhaar. They were told their voter IDs would be canceled if they failed to do so.
Political commentator Meghnad S claimed he received a similar call from local officers. He later added that Delhi’s chief electoral officer personally clarified that it was not mandatory and that local officers would be given training to prevent the spreading of this misinformation.
However, Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organization, told Logically that they continued to receive complaints from citizens post the August 2022 incidents. “At the Internet Freedom Foundation, we have been receiving complaints from all over India that booth-level officers have been asking for Aadhaar-voter ID linkage, without adequate training that this is optional and not mandatory,” he said. “This is despite responses to RTIs from central and state election commissions that instructions have been provided that the linking is not mandatory,” Gupta added.
Previously, pilot projects in 2015 in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, rolling out linkage for the ‘purification’ of electoral lists, have resulted in massive deletions. By the time the linkage projects were stayed by the Supreme Court, the process had already been completed for millions of voters. When the electoral rolls for both states were published in 2018, nearly three million voters had been deleted from the rolls in Telangana, and over 2.1 million in Andhra Pradesh, The Quint reported.
Even though the electoral registration officers are supposed to provide prior notification and give voters a chance to be heard before deleting them from the rolls, thousands of people only found out about the deletions on the day of the state assembly elections. The Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana eventually had to apologize for the problem.
Is Linkage Voluntary?
The text of the amendments to Section 23 at first seems to confirm that the linkage is purely voluntary. The newly added Section 23(6) says:
“No application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for the inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number due to such sufficient cause as may be prescribed: Provided that such individual may be allowed to furnish such other alternate documents as may be prescribed.”
But the text also implies that this prohibition against deletion of names for failing to provide Aadhaar details is not absolute. It only applies where a person fails to provide Aadhaar details “due to such sufficient cause as may be prescribed.”
The central government can exercise its power to prescribe rules or regulations which would specify what constitutes “sufficient cause” to not provide Aadhaar details. If a citizen doesn’t provide Aadhaar details for any other reason/cause, the law leaves the door open for their names to be deleted from the rolls. This was confirmed in an interview by Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra in May 2022. “It will be voluntary. But sufficient reason will have to be given by voters for not giving their Aadhaar numbers,” Chandra told the Press Trust of India. “The reason may include not having an Aadhaar or not having applied for one or any other reason they can think of. I cannot think of any other reason."
In June 2022, the Registration of Electors Rules, 1960 was also amended. A new Rule 26B says that a person “may” intimate their Aadhaar number to the electoral registration officers using a special Form 6B for this purpose. While the language of Rule 26B continues to indicate linking is voluntary, Form 6B muddies the waters.
This form allows a person to submit one of eleven other ID documents if they are not able to provide their Aadhaar number – but only if they aren’t able to because they don’t have an Aadhaar number.
Portion of Form-6B
“The exercise to link Aadhaar and Voter ID will be voluntary in the true sense only if a voter possessing an Aadhaar could exercise their discretion to link the same with voter ID or not,” explains Maansi Verma, a lawyer and trustee at Article 21, an organization that tracks the effects of Aadhaar and other technological solutions on people’s rights. “However, as per the existing law, only a voter who doesn't have an Aadhaar can provide any other ID to authenticate their name on the electoral roll,” she told Logically. “In effect, every voter having an Aadhaar has to fill the form 6B to link their Aadhaar with voter ID by April 1, 2023, or risk their name being deleted from the roll for want of authentication.”
This confusion between what is voluntary and what is mandatory is not new when it comes to Aadhaar. “Ever since Aadhaar has been introduced, it has been claimed to be voluntary,” says Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms and veteran campaigner for electoral and political reform. “But over some time, every facility, every single service from a government agency or semi-government agency, has made it compulsory. Aadhaar has become a big hypocritical activity, in which consistently from day one, every government has said one thing and done another.”
Chhokar told Logically that a booth-level officer had come to his house to ask him to provide his Aadhaar details, but he resisted. When he asked the officer to show him the basis for asking for his Aadhaar details, the officer produced a letter that was “confusingly worded, as it could be interpreted as making the process voluntary or mandatory.” The officer eventually agreed he did not need to take Chhokar’s number. “But the impression most people have is that it is mandatory,” the activist said.
While the ECI and government officials including Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju have consistently said that linking voter IDs with Aadhaar is voluntary, the rules are complex when read between the lines. The legal provisions introduced to allow this linkage have left a backdoor for the process to effectively become mandatory, with continuing reports that local officers are telling locals they could lose their right to vote on failing to comply.
How citizens are viewing this question can perhaps be summed up by an answer given in Parliament on December 15, 2022. Law minister Rijiju informed the Rajya Sabha that over 543 million Form 6Bs had been submitted to the ECI from the start of the programme on August 1, 2022. This would mean that over half the registered voters in the country had provided their Aadhaar details in just four months. “It is difficult to believe that within a short period, 54 crore people filled the Form 6B to link their Aadhaar with Voter ID completely voluntarily,” argues Verma. “On the contrary, it indicates that the message that has trickled down to the people is that there will be some consequences if this Aadhaar-Voter ID linking is not done, effectively making the exercise involuntary.”