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Evident That Voters' Personal Details May Have Been Obtained By BJP & Put To Use For Campaign Purposes: Madras High Court

Sparsh Upadhyay
26 March 2021 2:52 PM GMT
Evident That Voters Personal Details May Have Been Obtained By BJP & Put To Use For Campaign Purposes: Madras High Court
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Observing that personal details of voters and citizens may have been obtained by the Puducherry unit of BJP, and put to use for campaign purposes, the Madras High Court on Friday (26th March) directed Election Commission to file a status indicating the steps taken by it in the matter (on 31st March). The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar...

Observing that personal details of voters and citizens may have been obtained by the Puducherry unit of BJP, and put to use for campaign purposes, the Madras High Court on Friday (26th March) directed Election Commission to file a status indicating the steps taken by it in the matter (on 31st March).

The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy specifically observed,

"It is apparent that the sixth respondent political party (BJP, Puducherry) may have resorted to a form of campaigning not permissible under the model code of conduct."

The Court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation petition filed alleging that the Puducherry unit of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has misused Aadhaar details of voters for election campaigning purposes.

On 24th MarcH, calling it a matter of 'serious nature', the bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy had sternly remarked,

"It will not do for the Election Commission to pass the buck in this case and say that the cybercrimes division is conducting an investigation."

Calling for a report from the Election Commission regarding this matter, the Madras High Court had also said,

"When the Election Commission is up and about in all other matters and asserts its primacy and authority, it has to look into this allegation immediately and with the degree of seriousness that it deserves."

"Don't Pass The Buck, Look Into Allegations": Madras High Court To Election Commission On Plea Alleges BJP Targeting Voters Via Aadhaar Data

Court proceedings on 26th March

The Court termed it 'unfortunate' that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) rather than trying to ascertain how the personal details of voters may have been leaked from its system, accused the petitioner of not having brought the matter to the notice of the relevant authority.

Further, noting that the Election Commission brought the matter to the notice of the seventh respondent (UIDAI), the Court directed UIDAI to immediately ascertain how such material could have been accessed by a particular political party.

The Court also noted that the Election Commission issued a notice on March 25, 2021, a day after the writ petition was entertained by this Court, asking all political parties to adhere to the model code of conduct in the sense that no bulk messages should be sent in the Union Territory of Puducherry without obtaining pre-certification from the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Puducherry.

The ECI also submitted before the Court that following a complaint regarding BJP's act of sending bulk messages to voters, it had already issued a show-cause notice to the BJP unit on 07th and further, a report was also given to the Cyber Crime unit, which was investigating the case.

Significantly, the ECI also submitted that it had to await the outcome of the investigation undertaken by the Cyber Crime Cell and sought to present a preliminary report of the investigation.

To this, the Court observed that it was not relevant to look into any preliminary report on the investigation, though it hoped that the investigation would be completed as expeditiously as possible and immediate appropriate action taken in accordance with the law.

Also, regarding the submission of the petitioner that the SMS messages continue unabated on the same lines as complained of, the Court remarked,

"It is for the Election Commission to take immediate action if such is the case"
"It is also hoped that appropriate steps would be taken in furtherance of the letter dated March 7, 2021, issued to the relevant political party by the nodal officer", the Court added.

As reported by PTI, when the ECI assured the Court that it would take appropriate action in the matter and till then the plea be kept pending, the Court asked the Election Commission if the April 6 polls in the Union Territory could be deferred till completion of the probe.

The Bench remarked,

"Wondering whether we should postpone the upcoming elections, let us postpone the elections until some action is taken by the Commission."

To this, the commission submitted that polls cannot be deferred on mere allegations but informed the court that a show-cause notice has been issued to the BJP.

Lastly, when the petitioner prayed that in the course of the investigation he is being harassed, the Court reminded the investigating agency of its duties.

The plea before the Court

The plea has been filed by A. Anand, President of the Puducherry State Committee of the Democratic Youth Federation of India.

The plea alleges that the Puducherry BJP Unit has gained unauthorized access to the personal data of the residents of Union Territory of Puducherry from the Aadhar UIDAI database and is illegally using the data for its own political mileage.

Significantly, the plea states that the petitioner as well as other Puducherry citizens received messages on their mobile phones with invitation links to join booth-level WhatsApp groups allegedly created by BJP.

It has been alleged in the plea that such messages were received by only those mobile numbers which are Aadhaar-linked and that, the other numbers (which aren't linked to Aadhaar) belonging to the same person didn't receive such messages.

"For instance, if a person uses two mobile numbers, which is very common nowadays, SMS is only sent to the mobile number linked with Aadhar and not in the other mobile number", the plea states.

The Plea also expresses astonishment regarding the fact that when the electoral rolls provided by the ECI do not include phone numbers, it is unclear as to from where the BJP got access to mobile numbers of the voters.

Significantly, the Plea also states,

"Being the ruling party at the centre, BJP has misused its seat of power and indulged in identity theft under section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, clearly in breach of the fiduciary duty it owes towards its subjects ie., the general public. The said offence is committed with an intention to threaten the security of the country, leading to the offence of cyber terrorism under section 66F of the Information Technology Act, 2000."

Also, the petitioner has stated in his plea that there are 30 Assembly Constituencies in the Union Territory of Puducherry and each Assembly Constituency consists of around 30 to 35 polling booths resulting in around 950 WhatsApp groups.

Allegedly, these WhatsApp groups have been created and are being run for campaigning purposes to garner votes.

The plea also contends that the circumstances are not only a violation of the model of conduct when the Assembly election to the Union Territory of Puducherry is upcoming but a serious threat to the security and the integrity of the nation.

Importantly, referring to the ruling of K. S. Puttasamy Vs Union of India (2017 (10) SCC 1), the plea has alleged,

"The ruling BJP at the Centre, has miserably failed to perform its fiduciary duty by intruding the privacy of the voters of the Union Territory of Puducherry for its personal and political interest as against the compelling State interest in utter violation of the law of the land."

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