On August 25, a letter surfaced in which the Election Commission is seemingly directing Delhi’s Chief Electoral Officer to share with the Delhi police the electoral rolls of North East Delhi parliamentary constituency along with the images of the voters.

According to the letter, the Election Commission was acting in response to a request by the Delhi police investigating the violence that had beset the area earlier in the year. The police, the letter stated, wanted to match the “photographs of culprits captured through CCTV and other video footage” with the electoral rolls.

The letter, released by Saket Gokhale, who describes himself as a transparency activist, led to an outrage on social media. Several people claimed that it not only amounted to a violation of privacy, but also contravened the commission’s own data sharing protocols.

What the guidelines say

Later in the evening, the Election Commission issued a statement. In it, it referred to its guidelines, issued in 2008 and updated in 2020, on sharing of electoral rolls and the electronic photo identity card database with other governmental agencies. “The Commission has not in any way deviated from the original guidelines of 2008,” the press statement said.

So, what are these guidelines? At the outset, they state that copies of electoral rolls can be freely shared with other government departments. These rolls, the guidelines point out, are available online in any case and do not contain any images of voters.

However, the database of state/district/assembly constituency containing the images of voters cannot be provided in its entirety, the guidelines state. The department that seeks such information should be “asked to supply the particulars of those persons who electors’ database they need”, the guidelines note, and a printed copy bearing the records may be provided.

Here, the Delhi police seemed to have asked for the entire database, considering the Election Commission in its letter to Delhi’s chief electoral officer invoked its policy about sharing such data.

In the first paragraph of the letter, the Election Commission pointed out that “the electoral database of entire assembly constituency/district should not be shared with police authorities in accordance with the commission’s prevailing policy and practice”.

Was an exception made?

Yet, in the second paragraph, the commission went on to direct Delhi’s chief electoral officer to “display the electoral roll along with images of electors of North East Parliamentary constituency before the investigating officials”.

Said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association of Democratic Reforms: “The second paragraph is the operative part where the Election Commission is making an exception. Under the existing system, the chief electoral officer should ask the police which voters it wants to compare, but here it is bending the law and making the entire database of the district available.”

Lack of clarity

Former chief electoral commissioner of India, SY Quarishi said the commission’s letter to the Delhi chief electoral officer was worded confusingly, so it was difficult to say with certainty if the Election Commission broke its own rules.

Sheyphali Sharan, the commission’s spokesperson, refused to field queries seeking clarity. “Whatever we had to say we have said in the press release,” said Sharan. “That’s the stand we have and there’s nothing more to share.”

Delhi’s chief electoral officer, Ranbir Singh, did not respond to repeated calls and messages seeking comment.

On Tuesday, The Indian Express reported that the police did not take up the Election Commission’s offer in any case as it had sought the digital electoral database of the area to match the faces on it digitally to its list of suspects in the violence using a software. The Election Commission, the paper reported quoting unidentified sources, was only willing to let the police go through the list in its office.

Delhi police’s spokespersons declined comment to Scroll.in.

Regardless, Chhokar said the Election Commission’s seeming deviation from its own stated policy had set a bad precedent. “It is not a good thing,” he said.