The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood which implies that everybody counts. When around 90 crore Indian citizens (Economic Times 2019) were set to vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, approximately four lakh Indian citizens (NCRB 2016) were not given a chance to vote. These citizens are prisoners, denied their right to franchise based on Section 62(5) of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951.
The latest National Crime Reports Bureau (NCRB) report of 2021 shows that a total of 5,54,034 prisoners were confined as on 31th December, 2021 in various jails across the country. The percentage of convicts and under trial inmates were reported as 22.2% and 77.1% which means that many of them are not even actually inside jails for committing an offence and are waiting for the final judgement on their case. Also, India is one of the very few countries to have a blanket ban on all prisoners. Such a ban affects detainees, undertrials and convicts alike. Only those who are out on bail can vote those under preventive detention can cast their vote through postal ballots.
BODY PARAGRAPH-2 REASONS WHY THE BAN HAS BEEN PUT
(i) Resource crunch as permitting every person in prison also to vote would require deployment of a much larger police force and greater security arrangements.
(ii) A person who is in prison as a result of his own conduct cannot claim equal freedom.
(iii) To keep persons with criminal background away from the election scene.
Elections encourage us to speak about our disappointments and problems with the state of affairs in the country, while also taking the opportunity to campaign for our demands. Denial of voting rights pushes the prisoner further away from the society. Taking the right to vote away from prisoners establishes a retributive system, where citizens are condemned and forgotten.
A citizen without a vote in a democracy has no existence. This is evident in Indian polity as well, where election manifestos barely mention any promises for the betterment of prison conditions or legislation. Prisoners are dependent on others to become their voice and raise issues on their behalf. Hence, one direct impact which prisoners’ right to vote will bring is the attention from policymakers regarding needs of prisoners. It might still be a small population as compared to the size of other communities, even then a moral responsibility would stand for vote seekers and subsequent winners of power to be responsive towards demands of the prisoners.
We need a reformative system which aims to improve the structure of society, nurturing the law-breakers and integrate them back to the society. Right to vote for prisoners is one step towards shaping our criminal justice system into a caring, and reform-oriented institution, one that abides by the universally accepted human rights values.