From August 1, the Election Commission of India has started a drive to link Aadhaar with voter IDs in order to weed out duplicates in the electoral rolls. In Parliament, the Union government had said this process would be voluntary, but in recent weeks, several voters have received calls from election officials telling them it was compulsory to link the two.

“The officer told me that if I do not do it, my voter ID would be cancelled in a year,” said Meghnad S, an author and public policy professional from Delhi, who received a call from a block level officer in the state election commission on August 12.

Aadhaar refers to the unique 12-digit identification number assigned to Indian residents on the basis of their biometric data.

When Meghnad asked the officer what made this process mandatory, he was told: “Upar se order aya hai” – the order has come from above.

After he posted a message about this exchange on Twitter, a person from the office of Delhi’s chief electoral officer contacted him and clarified that the process is voluntary and his voter ID would not be cancelled. He blamed the confusion on block level officers and said they “need to be retrained”.

But it is not the fault of block level officers – the process is governed by a law that has made it nearly impossible for citizens to escape linking their Aadhaar numbers with their voter IDs. Further, there is pressure on them by senior officials to link the two documents expeditiously.

The legal apparatus

In December, the Union government brought in the Electoral Laws (Amendment) Bill to enable this linking amid huge protests by the Opposition. The Opposition contended that this move would violate the fundamental right to privacy.

Law Minister Kiren Rijiju had claimed at the time that this process would be voluntary.

But as had reported then, the text of the law suggested otherwise. It said: “No application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number...” However, this provision was qualified with the phrase “due to such sufficient cause as may be prescribed”.

In June, the Union government notified rules to give effect to the law. Under the rules, the only “sufficient cause” under which a person could avoid submitting their Aadhaar to the electoral office is if they did not have one. In such cases, 11 other identity proofs, such as driving licence and passport, can be used to authenticate voter IDs.

Even the instructions to chief electoral officers of all states and Union territories sent on July 4, while stating that submitting Aadhaar was voluntary, mention only one ground for refusal: when a voter does not have an Aadhaar number.

“Any officer reading the rules and the forms will come to a conclusion that Aadhaar and voter ID linking is mandatory,” said Maansi Verma, lawyer and trustee at Article 21, an organisation that closely tracks Aadhaar.

Further, the rules provide the cut-off date of April 1, 2023, for the completion of the linking exercise. But what happens if one fails to link Aadhaar – or any other identity card – with the voter ID is unclear. Instructions to electoral officers state that they should not delete a voter’s name from the rolls if they do not submit their Aadhaar details.

Verma said this confusion benefits the government: “If people are unsure about what will happen, they will end up linking the two documents.”

Struck off the list

Voters across the country continue to get calls from electoral officers threatening that their names will be deleted from the electoral rolls if they fail to link their voter ID to Aadhaar.

In some cases, the officials already had the Aadhaar numbers of the voters and only sought a confirmation of this. “When I asked them how they had got the number, they told me that many people use Aadhaar numbers to make their EPIC [Electors Photo Identification Card],” said Sudipto Ghosh, a resident of Delhi. However, Ghosh was surprised, as he had not made his voter ID using his Aadhaar.

“I told them to strike out my Aadhaar number,” he said. Ghosh does not know if the official followed his instructions.

Targets and deadlines

Block-level officers said they were merely doing what their seniors had asked them to, and that they had been given targets to fulfil. “We have been instructed to do 100% linking by August end,” said one officer.

The push by higher authorities was visible in a tweet posted by the Assam election commission on August 19, congratulating a block level officer who had achieved 100% linking of Aadhaar with voter IDs in their area.

Another officer explained how the pressure was built up by senior officials: “They put out lists three times in a day, noting the progress made by different officials,” she said. If an officer is not being active, they send personal messages asking the reason.

“Sometimes we have to lie and say that your voter ID will be deleted,” the officer said. “This gets people to share their Aadhaar numbers.” She continued, “In case they do not share their Aadhaar numbers, then we ask for any other identification.”

Issues with linking

Several Aadhaar and digital rights activists have flagged concerns with this linking. First, the extent of the problem is not clear, Verma pointed out. “We do not know how many duplicates exist in the electoral rolls,” she said.

Then, it is not known how linking Aadhaar will solve this problem. “Even Aadhaar has duplicates,” she said. A recent report by the comptroller and auditor general noted that close to five lakh Aadhaar cards were deleted for being duplicates. “So how can it be the basis to weed out duplicates?” she asked.

There are also concerns that this would lead to voters being disenfranchised. Earlier, nearly 55 lakh voters saw their names deleted from the voter list after voter IDs were linked to Aadhaar numbers in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

This may also result in the names of genuine voters getting deleted. A 2020 study found that when ration cards were linked to Aadhaar numbers to weed out fake ration card holders, 90% of the deletions were of genuine card holders.

Then, there are also security concerns, given that India does not have a data protection law, and the potential of misuse of this information for voter profiling and targeted campaigning.

Linking Aadhaar and voter IDs may also violate citizens’ fundamental rights. In 2017, the Supreme Court had laid down certain criteria that had to be met to restrict the right to privacy.

One such condition is proportionality – that the move must be necessary and must be the least intrusive. “It does not seem that the purpose the government is trying to achieve is going to be achieved through this process,” Verma said. “Thus, it is unlikely to pass the standards laid down by courts.”

Further, in case the government strikes off a voter from the list because of linking, that may also be illegal. “Voting is a constitutional right [under Article 326],” said Krishnesh Bapat, a lawyer from digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation. “It can only be restricted on grounds of ‘non residence, unsoundness of mind, crime or corrupt or illegal practice’. The government will have to justify any deletion on these grounds.”

Also read:Centre claims linking of Aadhaar to voter ID is voluntary – but bill in Parliament contradicts itExplainer: Why the move to link Aadhaar to voter ID cards is so contentious