Shivaji’s controversial 14 ft tall bronze statue stands at Bhashyam circle signal in Sadashivnagar. INTACH (The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), says that the area was earlier known as Belikkahalli, probably derived from Bili Akki or ‘white rice’, which was traded here, this name got anglicized to ‘Blackpally’, with the British probably denoting it as a settlement of ‘black’ people, even today, there is a plaque on a school in the area which denotes the place as ‘Blackpally’.
The constituency has a predominantly Urdu and Tamil-speaking population and is a fascinating confluence of various religions. The ancient gothic style St Mary’s Basilica and the Jumma Masjid with its 90 ft tall minarets stand tall together here, the Jumma Masjid in fact sits right between two temples on the Old Poor House Road (OPH), the Lakshmi Narayanaswamy temple and the 101 year old Venugopalaswamy temple. In fact on OPH road itself there is the St Paul’s Church and four other mosques, Masjid-e-Azam, Masjid–e Bewarpawan, Lal Masjid and Masjid-e- Lababeen. The Someshwara temple of the Chola period lies within this constituency, the city's first Gurudwara in Ulsoor ward is here and so is a Parsi Fire Temple. Many old timers consider this area the epitome of old world Bengaluru, a secular beacon of coexistence.
A Congress bastion since 2008 and a foregone political conclusion many would say, the constituency is now seeing some hectic electoral machinations. Rizwan Arshad, the current Congress MLA from Shivajinagar, alleges that minority voters largely belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities have been deliberately selected for impending deletion from finalised electoral rolls of the constituency at the behest of a complaint filed by sympathisers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
He told this reporter, “We have taken the matter to court and in the last hearing the court instructed the election authorities to abide by the Article 21A of the Representation of Peoples Act and carry on their investigation, which in itself is a dangerous precedent, and now the authorities have again published a second list of 8,000 voters from Shivajinagar whose names could be deleted. This is blatant and malafide flouting of the set norms, how can the Election Commission even think of taking suo moto cognizance of a motivated complaint filed by BJP sympathisers and embark on a reverification exercise that too after the finalised voters list for the constituency has been published!”
Arshad is referring here to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the Election Commission of India on September 13, 2021, which clearly specify that suo-motu deletions cannot be made in the voters list six months prior to the term of an Assembly ending, Karnataka assembly term ends in the last week of May. The SOP is prescribed in order to avoid last minute chaos in the lead up to polling, but in the case of Shivajinagar, according to reports, the ECI has sought to justify its actions by invoking a clause which said that deletions can be done under ‘special circumstances’.
“This is clearly an extremely biased action to deny minorities their fundamental right to vote and manipulate the results of the upcoming election, especially as this process of possible deletion was carried out selectively at 91 booths where predominantly minorities reside,” he added.
The Shivajinagar constituency has a total of 193 booths and has around 1.91 lakh voters, 40 percent of whom are Muslims. The controversy began in October last year, when BJP sympathisers filed a private complaint with the Election Commission alleging that 26,000 fake voters had been identified as either shifted out or dead in the constituency. The Election authorities took cognizance of their complaint and conducted an independent investigation in January this year and issued notices to 9,159 voters.
“We had noticed many discrepancies in the voter list, as many individuals had dual addresses, dual voter identities, residential changes etc, so our senior people filed a complaint,” said S Sampath Kumar, BJP Corporator, Vasanth Nagar.
The office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka, strongly contested Arshad’s claim of bias, R Venkatesh Kumar, Additional CEO told, “Our Electoral Registration Officer from Shivajinagar did conduct an independent detailed survey of the Shivajinagar constituency after the complaint was filed and as a rule we have no provision to capture any religious or caste-base data, so no data of this kind was captured by us. But we did find discrepancies in 9195 instances where voters were not found to be living at their residence or were deceased and thus we followed due procedure and issued all of them notices through registered post and gave them 15 days to respond.”
“Political parties then took the matter to the Karnataka High Court and earlier this month the court pronounced that we should carry on our investigations according to the Representation of the People’s Act. Which is when around March 22, 2023, we published a second list of voters that require to furnish adequate documents in all local and daily newspapers, websites etc. This was again challenged by a writ petition filed by the Congress and a final judgement is yet to be pronounced by the court on this issue.”
Along with Arshad, the Archdiocese of Bangalore too wrote to the chief electoral officer, Karnataka, insisting that it has come across cases of deletion of names from the final electoral roll after its publication in the booths under the Shivajinagar assembly constituency, “On a close scrutiny and verification, we observe that a large number of names belonging to Christian community are missing. Of the total number of 9195 names, about 8000 names that include voters from the SC, Backward Classes and the Muslim Communities are missing, if such mischiefs are allowed to carry on unchecked, the confidence of the people in the electoral process will be destroyed and devastated beyond measure,” the Archdiocese said in its letter.
Another damning charge made by Arshad is that the agency that collected this voter data claiming that 26,000 voters in the Shivajinagar constituency could be bogus is the notorious NGO Chilume that has been accused of massive data theft to get information such as name, age, gender, caste, mother tongue, Aadhar Card, Voter ID and phone numbers of voters across the city. Last December, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), blacklisted the Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Institute amid allegations that the NGO indulged in voter data theft. “The chief electoral officer of Bengaluru and BBMP Commissioner has issued an order to blacklist Chilume Educational, Cultural and Rural Development organisation on 27/12/2022. This decision has been taken after the organisation was found to have misused the permission it had obtained to integrate the voter ID and Aadhaar cards of residents through VHA (Voter Helpline App) in 28 Vidhan Sabha constituencies,” the BBMP order read.
This came after the Bengaluru police arrested three people, including one of the founder-directors of the NGO Chilume, in connection with their investigation into alleged voter data theft across constituencies in the city. In the same context the BBMP also suspended some of its own staff last year, particularly in the Shivaji Nagar assembly constituency, an electoral officer was suspended for issuing ID cards to workers of the NGO Chilume. According to news reports, the order states that Ahmed had given out fake IDs to 14 of them, suggesting that they were booth level workers.
Congress obviously did not pull any punches on the Chilume controversy and went straight for the jugular. Senior party leaders Randeep Singh Surjewala, Siddaramaiah and D. K. Shivakumar, in November last year demanded the resignation of state Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and a judicial probe into theft of voter data by Chilume. Surjewala, Siddaramaiah, Shivakumar, Ramalinga Reddy and M B Patil said in a press conference that Chilume uploaded vital voter information on the Digital Sameeksha App owned by its sister concern, Chilume Enterprises and the information was not uploaded on the election commission voter registration helpline Garuda or the Voter Helpline. This was yet another fraud perpetrated on the innocent voters of Bengaluru, they alleged.
The BJP quickly countered these allegations and its local leaders shared a government order dated 2017, when Congress was in power in the state — the order permitted Chilume to carry out revision of electoral rolls in the Mahadevapura constituency under the supervision of Booth Level Officers. K Sudhakar, Minister of Medical Education and Health, Karnataka shared a copy of the 2017 order on Twitter and said, “Congress government, which had allowed an organisation to revise the voter list in 2017, is now accusing the BJP government… the Congress party, which has lost the trust of the people and is desperate, is raising doubts about the voting machines, raising doubts about the Election Commission, and the alleged illegal revision of the voter list is just a new addition to this string of lies.”
Around the same time last year, as per a PTI report, the Election Commission also ordered the suspension of two poll officials after allegations of electoral fraud came to light, the commission issued directions to immediately suspend additional district election officers S Rangappa (in-charge of the Shivaji Nagar and Chickpet constituencies) and K Srinivas (in-charge of the Mahadevapura constituency). The poll panel also ordered a departmental enquiry against them. The commission also appointed officers from outside the BBMP, under which the three seats fall, to oversee the exercise of ensuring the purity of electoral rolls.
So clearly battlelines have been drawn and troops are ready for combat, with the polling and results bugle being sounded for May 10 and May 13. Shivajinagar is currently seeing a spectacular spring with Bengaluru’s signature lilac, deep pink and golden Tabebuia trees setting the area ablaze, hopefully the following summer will not be a scorched one riddled with electoral discontent.
The reporter is a senior journalist and professor, journalism, National School of Journalism