The Wire
Vrinda Gopinath

Simantini Dhuru of Mumbai was shocked to know on polling day that her name was deleted from the electoral rolls, as it was recorded that she was dead. She is now determined to fix accountability.

In the pitched atmosphere of election season, of colourful campaigns and animated public meetings and speeches, what should have been a smooth free and fair poll mandated by the Constitution on the Election Commission of India has instead turned out to be a spectacle mired in suspicion and intrigue, as is on display since the last few weeks. The EC has none other than itself to be blamed for this mess – you don’t have to look too far behind as the EC’s mandate is littered with doubtful decisions on the part of the constitutional body’s three commissioners, just consider the EC’s actions since polling began on April 19. First, conducting an election spread over 8 weeks whipped up a lot of apprehensions on the unusually long time table; next, to make matters worse, the EC first refused to release absolute voter turnout numbers, and released only the percentage of voter turnout on April 30, only 11 days  after the first phase of polling.

Worse, the data showed a sharp increase by about five to six per cent as compared to the initial percentages announced by ECI on the day of polling (leaping from 60% to 66.14%) as the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) pleaded in court later. This trend carried on for another couple of phases on the EC’s part with increased revised figures so much so it is calculated that almost 2.8 crore absolute votes were polled in the last six phases even though the turnout is lower than the last election in 2019.

However, it was voter name deletion rather than addition that stunned special educationist Simantini Dhuru, who went to her polling booth in Mumbai South constituency, which spreads from Girgaum to Malabar Hill, on the day of voting, May 20, only to discover her name did not exist on the electoral list. Dhuru was stumped because it was only on December 18, 2023, that she received her spanking new voter card, for which she had applied in September, to replace her old lost card.

Now, if the EC has come under scrutiny for an unexpected increase in voters after initial counting, stories of voter name deletion are legion, where lakhs all over the country have gone back from polling booths because they have been told their name is not on the rolls. But Dhuru was not going to back down like the lakhs of dejected voters who returned home without casting their vote; and when she got this dire news, she marched out of her polling booth in Queen Mary School, and headed to Wilson College where she was directed to go by the booth official to find out what happened and lodge a complaint.

It set off an intriguing plot of death, deceit, impersonation and forgery.

At the zonal office of the Election Commission located in a corner of Wilson College, Dhuru met officials who simply shrugged off her complaint as a routine protestation. Unhindered, a nonchalant Dhuru produced her spanking new voter ID card and demanded to know why her name was struck off the voter list. To her surprise, the official who checked the list on his computer found her name but it said that it was deleted as she was declared ‘dead’.

Says Dhuru, “This was simply shocking as I had received my voter card after going through the whole process of applying for a new card to replace my old, lost one; lodging a lost complaint at the local police station, taking the FIR and handing it to the EC office in Prarthana Samaj in Girgaum, all this only in September last year; and now they tell me I’m dead!’’

Pushing the officials further, she asked a helpful R.B. Chavan, the zonal officer, to show her the computer screen to see for herself what was her legitimate status. Under the category of name deletion, she was astounded to see that a person, Keval Chiman Shah had asked her name to be struck off by claiming she was dead. Screenshot below:

“According to the form on the screen in front of me,’’ explains Dhuru, “it seems the application was made by this Shah on January 2, 2024, and the name was deleted promptly on January 9, barely a week later. It was pretty swift.’’ Chavan explained to her that the application was done offline, but he could not give her any details of the form submitted to her immediately as it had to be hunted down.

Dhuru then spoke to Chavan’s senior, Balasaheb Vakchaure, the returning officer, who was not helpful she says, barely acknowledging her complaint but saying he would look into the matter. However, it’s the random pick of Dhuru that is intriguing for she says, no one in her house had a problem, her house helps nor does her partner, Anand Patwardhan (the filmmaker who has blazed with his most famous investigative film, In the Name of God, on the Hindutva militant group VHP and their campaign to raze the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, among other films).

So, how did it happen? Could those who had applied for a lost card become eligible to be declared dead, maybe? After all, there is a name Keval Chiman Shah, who is not known to either Dhuru or her neighbours, who marched into the zonal office in Wilson College, and submitted Dhuru’s name for deletion, without any documents or death certificate to prove it? Dhuru has demanded that all valid papers and the form filled by Shah be handed over to her.

The Wire spoke to Vakchaure, who did admit there could be something wrong but he needs time to get to the bottom of the story. Says Vakchaure, “Prima facie, it seems there was some mischief done as we don’t know on what basis her name was deleted. We get lakhs of applications for name addition, deletion etc; however, I am not sure what documents were handed over to delete her name. We can only know after we find Shah’s application in the first place. I’ve asked her to fill Form 6 to get her name back on the rolls again. After all, Madam is alive as she has come before us.”

So far, the intriguing part is: Who is Keval Chiman Shah? Does he exist?

Keval Chiman Shah exists only on the form; his given address is Malabar Hills, but no name of building, street etc. There is no mobile number on the form either even though it is mandated; he has an EPIC (election photo identity card) ISD5275243 — and the screenshot on the computer of the zonal office says, “In case of Form submission mode PSE, DSE and migrated old forms, the applicant’s details are not available hence the bow details are coming null. This will not create any problem processing, please proceed further.’’

Is it common to delete names without a death certificate, to which Vakchaure replied that it is not possible and he can only know how Dhuru’s name was deleted after he finds the form that was submitted in January this year. Both Chavan and Vakchaure say they joined the zonal office only after January 2024 so they are clueless about how it happened.

Meanwhile, Dhuru is determined to take this cliched Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare to its logical end.

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