“Enroll now, become a voter,” says the Election Commission of India website. Tomorrow, over 12 million Delhi residents will go to the polls to elect a new state government. But not all of them. People with mental or intellectual disabilities will be denied this privilege.
Article 16(b) of the Representation of the People Act (1951) disqualifies a person who “is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent Court” from registering to vote. On what basis does the world’s largest democracy legally deprive an estimated 2.6 million citizens nationwide of this fundamental civic right?
Two arguments are usually made: first, people with mental or intellectual disabilities lack the mental ability required to vote. And second, that they can be easily manipulated by others.
Both arguments are dubious. There is no objective means to establish who has the required knowledge or intellectual capacity to vote. In fact, the hallmark of democracy is that all citizens have the right to vote. A voter’s competence is not meant to be assessed — citizens can vote irrespective of their level of education and are at liberty to choose candidates based on political agenda, affiliation, caste, or even religion.
It is the government’s responsibility to make the electoral process accessible, including by providing information in simplified language, visual aids, and oral instructions, so all citizens — whether they have a disability or not — can make an informed choice.
In addition, the experience of countries where people with intellectual disabilities have the right to vote demonstrates that manipulation or fraud are not serious concerns so long as safeguards against abuse are in place. If Indian policymakers are genuinely worried about fraud, they should focus on preventing it instead of disenfranchising a large group of citizens.
A 2007 Supreme Court judgment ruled that special facilities need be put in place to make polling booths more accessible for persons with disabilities. Since then, efforts have been made to make polling stations accessible to people with physical disabilities and Braille-enabled electronic voting machines have also been introduced.
However, the government continues to treat people with intellectual disabilities as second-class citizens. These restrictions extend well beyond the voting rights. The government limits the right for people with mental disabilities to marry, manage property, or even obtain identity cards. Without these cards, they are unable to access water and electricity services or open bank accounts. Six years after ratifying the international disability rights treaty, it is long past time for India to stop denying these people such fundamental rights.
Today is the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities and honouring the right of people with mental disabilities to cast their votes would be a good step towards making India a truly inclusive democracy.
Kriti Sharma is a disability rights fellow at Human Rights Watch, based in Paris
The views expressed by the author are personal