Democracy Lab

Policing Electoral Violence in India

How India's elections administration used “vulnerability mapping” to stop trouble before it happened.

Meeting in 2007, officials from India's elections administration, the Election Commission of India, sought a new approach to dampen conflict during campaign periods. At polling places throughout the country, thugs (known as "gundas" in local parlance) hired by campaigners often intimidated, harassed, threatened, or bribed citizens -- preventing them from casting their ballots. In one example, non-registered voters descended on polling stations to deliberately lengthen lines and frustrate legitimate voters into going home. Not only did such activities disenfranchise many voters, they also resulted in violence and sometimes death. 

S.K. Mendiratta, a longtime member of the commission, recalled: "We were thinking, ‘How can this situation [the fraud and violence] be controlled so that people are encouraged to come out and vote?'" Mendiratta said the public was increasingly aggrieved that "in an independent India, we are not free to vote." 

The stakes were high. Roughly 714 million registered voters were eligible to cast ballots in the up-coming 2009 national parliamentary elections. Limited police resources intensified the problem; there were not enough uniformed personnel to guard every one of the country's 828,000 polling places. The problem was further exacerbated by ruling parties that chose to send security to where it would suit their candidates, as opposed to where it was needed to help citizens. But chief electoral officers had legal authority over the heads of police in each state, and as a result, the commission decided to focus its efforts on those areas where violence was most likely. 

The commission worked on a new technique: "vulnerability mapping," designed to help identify which polling places would be most prone to thuggery. Using their knowledge of sensitive areas, country-level officials developed vulnerability mapping to efficiently allocate police and paramilitary forces to states and polling districts that were more susceptible to fraud and violence. 

The inspiration for "vulnerability mapping" originated from West Bengal's 2006 state assembly elections. In 2006, Debashis Sen, the state's chief electoral officer, had been in his post for only three months when he approached R. Balakrishna, the head of India's election commission's planning division. Sen explained to Balakrishna that the majority of West Bengal's citizens had little faith in the national commission. In past elections, the state -- India's fourth most populous -- encountered widespread fraud and political party violence, complicated by a 30-year-long Maoist insurgency. Maoists, more commonly referred to as Naxalites, often boycotted Indian elections, and targeted election officials and polling places with shootings and bombings. Meanwhile, a coalition of left-leaning parties had held power in the state for 30 years; that a coalition could hang on to power for so long provoked suspicion that the coalition parties were rigging the elections and that the commission was "merely applying its stamp of approval." 

West Bengal's state assembly elections, scheduled for May 2006, offered an opportunity for a new approach to election management that could sway public opinion about the fairness of the electoral process. Sen and Balakrishna began to brainstorm "how to make it so that on the day of elections everything would be absolutely fair and proper -- [and also] appear to be fair and proper," The two men drew up a strategy paper that, among other things, proposed that members of India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) be assigned to each of the 45,000 designated polling places. Typically, states never received enough CRPF personnel to cover every polling place because the agency needed to cover the whole country. But because states scheduled elections for their own legislatures at varying times, Sen was granted his full request. 

As election day neared, and with CRPF police at each polling station, Sen and Balakrishna deployed the state police to detain people with existing arrest warrants. They also brought in observers from outside the state to monitor voting. 

Sen described the 2006 experiment as a resounding success. "There was not a single serious complaint or even a substantiated non-serious complaint that said that any of the 45,000 polling stations were rigged." He shared the story with senior election officials in New Delhi. The officials were impressed. Sen's presentation came at a time when the commission was seeking a way to limit fraud and violence. Balakrishna's planning department began developing specific guidelines for limiting fraud and violence in preparation for the 2009 national parliamentary elections. 

But there was a major problem: The national demand for police would greatly exceed the supply. Efforts to allocate security personnel would need to be greatly finessed. Balakrishna proposed distributing the CRPF to specific polling stations based on the area's history of election-related violence. 

In October 2007, the commission issued instructions for "vulnerability mapping" to the chief electoral officer in each state. The officers were to conduct the mapping in three stages. 

In the first stage, elections officers compiled a list of all polling places in their states and ranked them by level of vulnerability relative to violence or suspicious activity in the last election. Based on those criteria, each polling place would be classified as normal, sensitive, or hypersensitive. The commission believed the criteria captured the telltale signs of voter intimidation, fraud, and incipient violence. Chief electoral officers would then allocate state police based on these rankings. 

In the second stage of vulnerability mapping, chief electoral officers deployed the limited number of CRPF personnel at their disposal. Members of the CRPF were widely seen as politically neutral because they had no direct ties to the local state governments. Knowing how many polling places were vulnerable helped the chief electoral officers determine how many CRPF personnel to request. 

In the third and final stage of vulnerability mapping, chief electoral officers and the director general of the state police carefully created a roster of potential troublemakers likely to commit acts of fraud or violence during the elections, based on past experience and current intelligence.  They then tracked those people who were potential threats. Targeted individuals were asked to pay bonds of guarantee, reimbursed after the election upon good behavior. In extreme cases, suspicious persons were subject to arrest. Individuals with pending arrests were rounded up prior to the election. Mendiratta justified these measures under Indian law. (Sections 107 and 110 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allowed district magistrates -- the head civil servant in a given district -- to require persons whom they suspected might stir up trouble during the election period to pay a bond. Section 151 gave the police the authority to make a preemptive arrest if they believed that a person was about to commit a crime.)  

Back in West Bengal, where more than 52 million voters were expected to cast ballots at 48,900 polling places, officials began the mapping exercise five months before the 2009 national parliamentary elections. (Voters in the state would go to the polls on one of three days between April 30 and May 13, depending on what district they lived in.) To rank the vulnerability of polling places, the commission dispatched election officers to cover about a dozen polling places each in their respective constituencies. The officers met with party candidates, voters who lived near the polling places, and local election staff, and then classified a polling place's vulnerability level. The officers deemed a polling place sensitive if a high percentage of voters' names appeared on the electoral roll without accompanying photographs -- indicating a higher risk of voter fraud; if more than 75 percent of votes cast in the past election were for one candidate; if a violent act had been committed there in the previous election; if a revote had been ordered there in the most recent parliamentary contest; or if conversations with local villagers revealed perceptions of threats or intimidation. District magistrates forwarded the list of vulnerability rankings to Sen, who submitted a formal request to the state government for CRPF support and developed a detailed plan for deploying security personnel. 

Observers drawn from the Indian civil service began monitoring the areas around polling places two to three weeks before the elections. Cognizant of India's strong state-based ethnic ties, the commission required that observers could not work in the states where they were born, where they were married, where their spouse was from, or where they were currently working or living in order to promote neutrality. Meeting with the district magistrate and superintendent of police, the observers were able to familiarize themselves with the issues in their constituencies.  Observers were required to revisit all of the polling places labeled as hypersensitive or sensitive, host public discussions, and find out more about the local problems. District magistrates and police superintendents were also supposed to make similar visits to bolster voter confidence in safety at the polls.  

With a formal roster of potential troublemakers, the district magistrate sat with the chief of police and decided which individuals to monitor, which individuals to require a bond from, and which individuals to arrest preemptively. Preemptive arrests were considered an act of last resort. Individuals targeted for monitoring were subject to video surveillance in accordance with relevant laws regarding privacy and freedom of expression. A committee of local government officials reviewed the footage. If they saw a possible electoral offense, they forwarded the footage to the chief electoral officer for another committee inspection, and then to commission headquarters in New Delhi if action was necessary. The national commission made a final ruling on whether to arrest or fine the person who committed the offense. Nationwide, state election commissions had designated 86,782 villages and hamlets as either sensitive or hypersensitive; the police and the election commission monitored, bonded, or arrested 373,861 people in accordance with existing laws. 

The CRPF personnel arrived in West Bengal a day or two before the polling places opened, bringing their own tents and food. The CRPF operated under the command of the director general of police, who took orders from the chief electoral officer. Sen addressed the CRPF staff when they first arrived in West Bengal and used the opportunity to assert his authority. "You report to me, not to the state police," he recalled telling the security personnel. Sen also briefed the CRPF on the specific security concerns in the state and offered advice on how to avoid being viewed as partisan, such as "never accept the offer of a cup of tea or a sweet from a civilian." Most polling places received just one officer from the state police; those classified as sensitive or hypersensitive received as many as a dozen state police officers.  

On election day, junior government officers visited polling places and reviewed lists showing how many voters had cast ballots. If voting was unexpectedly slow, the officers informed district magistrates, who would then call upon the CRPF reserve teams to visit the specific villages and check for anything that would hinder voter movements or hamper voter participation. Central observers were also critical to ensuring that vulnerability mapping promoted openness and transparency: Observers' telephone numbers and assigned polling places were published in newspapers, and voters were able to call in anonymous complaints. If illegal activities were suspected, the commission directed the local police and election officials to take whatever action was needed. Without any complaints however, the CRPF was required to stay at least 200 meters from the building where voting took place. 

The election commission declared that the 2009 balloting was one of the most peaceful in the country's history. West Bengal experienced its highest voter turnout ever, with 81.4 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Because no one maintained a count of violent incidents surrounding Indian elections, it was hard to know the exact magnitude of the change. The new tactic did not eliminate all violence. For example, three election officials stepped on a lethal landmine in a Naxalite area of West Bengal during the first phase of elections, while two voters were killed during the second phase of elections. Voters who had cast ballots despite threats and intimidation may have faced retribution days or weeks later.  

Although the 2009 elections were largely peaceful, the experience also highlighted limitations in the design, implementation, and transferability of vulnerability mapping. The compatibility of the procedures with civil rights norms was a potentially sensitive matter. Another limitation was that unexpected violence could change the vulnerability ranking of a polling place at a moment's notice, and because security personnel were limited in number, beefing up security at one location required weakening security at another. Finally, the mapping did not address the issue of dependence on the central police force, the CRPF, and public lack of trust in the local state police. Thus future vulnerability mapping would continue to rely on the CRPF, which was already thinly stretched across the country. Regardless of such obstacles, Debashis Sen reflected: "I deeply and sincerely believe that this mapping exercise was a key to peaceful free and fair elections in 2009." 

Photo by DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Cooling Ethnic Conflict in Guyana's Elections

Guyana's 2001 presidential election left the country deeply divided along ethnic lines. In 2006, they decided to try something new.

When Steve Surujbally, a former advisor to the minister of agriculture, accepted a presidential appointment as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission in September 2001, he had no experience in election administration. In accepting the appointment, Surujbally recognized how politically charged his new role would be. Guyana had a history of tense racially-aligned politics between the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese with roots in colonial policies, suspected Cold War alliances with the Soviet Union, and personal political rivalries. Campaign seasons were marred by violence, ranging from riots to assassinations. Political candidates competed fiercely for every vote in a country of just 760,000 and a parliament elected by proportional representation. 

Electoral conflict was concentrated between two parties: the primarily Indo-Guyanese supporters of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the primarily Afro-Guyanese supporters of the People's National Congress (PNC). The election commission included three representatives from each of these parties, an uneasy balance that slowed deliberations, which then spurred critics to attack the commission as biased or indecisive. Nevertheless, Guyana's elections commission worked with international donors, and civil society groups before the last election in 2006 and was able to defuse conflict, thwart violence, and deliver free and peaceful elections. 

This cooperative solution was rooted in public frustration with the violence surrounding the March 2001 regional elections, which were particularly contentious. When voters found their names missing from the registry on election day, the opposition PNC accused the incumbent PPP of dirty tricks. Moreover, the elections commission reported results four days after the election, exacerbating tensions. Television and radio hosts contributed to the frenzy by pushing rival narratives about the source of the delay. Although international observers ultimately declared the election free and fair, many citizens believed it was rigged. Incidents of violence quickly escalated into angry public protests and retaliation. The elections commission needed to restore trust between the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities, and trust in the electoral process, ahead of the fall 2006 elections. 

Surujbally and his six electoral commissioners knew they had to revamp the elections commission in order to rebuild credibility and avoid the mistakes of 2001. Their first priority was to improve the voter registration process. In 2001, the commission had registered voters only during the few months preceding the election, when tensions were already high and parties were quick to seize upon any perceived fault in the process. In this charged atmosphere, the registry became a political football. 

Assessing their options before the 2006 elections, the three PNC-nominated commissioners wanted a full door-to-door verification of the registry. Surujbally and the three PPP-nominated commissioners argued that this would not be cost effective, and lobbied for a continuous registration system grounded upon the existing registry. They contended that spreading registration across the electoral cycle would also make the process less open to political criticism. After many meetings, the PPP-nominated members overruled their PNC-nominated colleagues and called for the reuse of the 2001 registry -- an outcome that created significant tension within the commission. 

In order to do this, the commission had to go and create registration field offices. It placed one office in each of Guyana's 10 administrative regions, and established additional offices in more populous regions to avoid overcrowding. In total, the commission set up 23 permanent field offices and 160 temporary ones, to cope with increased registrations right before the election. 

Field offices assigned voters unique computer-generated identity numbers to safeguard privacy and reduce errors. Under the old registration process, there were mix-ups between voters who registered together with their relatives and received similar numbers. The commission resolved the problem by adding two randomly-generated "check digits" to the end of each identity number. After voters registered, elections officials visited their homes to take digital pictures of the voters, their source documents, and fingerprints. Two IT operators separately keyed in each form so that the system could flag data entry errors. 

Voter mistrust was only one hurdle facing the commission; another was an inflammatory media. The commission worked with international donor agencies to establish the Media Monitoring Unit to seek out  inaccurate, biased, or inflammatory statements in print and broadcast media. Commissioners met with prominent members of the media to review examples of irresponsible reporting from the 2001 elections and discuss the subsequent violence. Keen to clean up their reputations, leading media houses agreed to adhere to a new code of conduct. They committed to providing fair, balanced, and accurate information about the elections. The monitoring unit assessed the media's behavior before, during, and after the election and flagged reports that violated the new code. Also, the unit examined the volume of election coverage given to each party, negative or positive. 

When media sources violated the code of conduct -- for instance, if radio talk show hosts made derogatory remarks against an ethnic group -- the commission wrote them a letter reminding them of their commitment. Jainarine Deonauth, the unit's deputy manager, explained that the unit treaded lightly: "Some of [the media outlets] ... thought they were fighting a battle to represent their ethnic group, and any attempt to control them was looked at as stifling media freedom." To avoid politicizing the review process, the unit referred any infractions to an independent panel of two veteran journalists from other Caribbean nations. 

Hastening the release of election results was addressed by increasing manpower. In 2001, too few staffers had supervised key areas. For example, the region comprising the capital Georgetown that represented almost 50 percent of the electorate had only 20 deputies to collect election results. For the 2006 elections, the commission increased that number to 68. The commission also changed the process for transmitting results. In 2001, a central control room had compiled all the results and made final tabulations, creating bottlenecks. Officials jammed the phone lines to report their results, stalling the count. Before the centralized office could finish its tabulation, political parties would often declare their own results -- lending the impression that the commission was "deliberately stymieing or withholding information," according to Calvin Benn, the commission's deputy chief electoral officer. To avert this issue in 2006, the commission decentralized the process. Each region carried out vote tabulation and sent final tallies to the central control room, enabling secretariat staff to compute overall results more quickly. 

Communications improved by increasing phone capacity and backing up the system with a more robust radio network helped streamline the vote count. This enhanced technology helped the commission stay in touch with field offices throughout election day. Keith Lowenfield, assistant chief electoral officer for the commission, indicated that timely communications were essential to the smooth functioning of election day: "As [the day] unfolds, you must be in a position to know what is happening, or you will lose control." The network allowed managers to nip problems in the bud. For example, when the operations room learned that a presiding officer was violating rules on election day, officials removed him before he could do significant damage. 

While the elections commission worked to streamline electoral processes, other organizations addressed the human side of electoral strife. Starting in 2003, Guyana's Ethnic Relations Commission and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began a Social Cohesion Program, organizing conversations between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese community members. Lawrence Lachmansingh, a Guyanese development consultant for the UNDP, explained: "Our calculation was, if there was a political conflict in Guyana, it was an ethnic conflict largely driven from the center, a nationally-driven problem. The people at the local level did not spontaneously combust." Because the interactions between the communities were so charged, the UNDP took the lead. It recruited local residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds with experience in regional development or youth work to set up more than 3,000 "conversations" countrywide. Trevor Benn of the UNDP explained that "one of the challenges in Guyana was that people did not have an opportunity to vent, and so these forums gave them an opportunity to do that." 

In the immediate run-up to the 2006 election, the Social Cohesion Program shifted focus, facilitating conversations among the political parties. It brought together the parties' youth wings, particularly in areas prone to electoral violence. The UNDP also facilitated a three-day meeting of Guyana's senior politicians. Roelf Meyer, a prominent conflict expert from South Africa, led the sessions. "[The politicians] all sat across from each other for three days, and they talked about the mistrust that each had with the other... You don't usually get people to do that," said the UNDP's Benn. As election day neared, prominent civil society and religious groups joined in the movement for peace. For instance, the Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB), a local organization, recruited prominent Guyanese personalities to convey messages of peace over radio and television. 

The elections commission did however encounter a number of difficulties in carrying out its mandate. Lingering resentment about the decision to forego a new voter registry undercut public trust in the registration process. The commission's information technology (IT) department, responsible for entering and storing voter registration data, had long battled allegations of data tampering. The elections commission struggled to find a qualified person to head the department. Surujbally recalled: "We had an Afro-Guyanese [person], and that person resigned in frustration and vexation because people were slandering him." His replacement, an Indo-Guyanese woman, also resigned for similar reasons. With financial assistance from UNDP, the commission brought in Gavin Campbell, a British citizen with relevant expertise, to head the IT department. By selecting a foreigner, the commission hoped to quell perceptions of political bias. Campbell, in turn, had difficulty finding people to help run the database: "One of the problems is finding people to do this fairly specialized database-type work, because that's not the kind of work that exists in the private sector in Guyana," he said. 

Although the commission managed to address suspicions about the IT department, many opposition supporters still doubted the accuracy of the registry. When the commission released the final list of electors in July, one of the commissioners resigned in protest, "citing his inability to be further involved with a process that he believed had been discredited." This resignation, less than two months before the election, embarrassed the commission and hurt its credibility. More grievous events followed; a month before election day, four journalists were brutally killed in the outskirts of Georgetown. Afterwards, Surujbally recalled, "it emerged that my name was on an assassination list." 

Surujbally and his supporters in the commission decided to restore confidence in the electoral process by publicizing their readiness to hold elections before the planned date, emphasizing the commission's capabilities and preparedness. But at the same time, three of the other elections commissioners held their own press conference "in which they said unanimously that the chairman was fooling the president in saying that we can bring off the elections, and fooling the nation at large," Surujbally reported. The chairman held another press conference in response, announcing a range of confidence-building measures, such as leaflets that detailed how to prevent voter fraud. Surujbally emphasized the importance of his resistance to external pressure: "Chairpersons can be intimidated massively whether because of tribalism, or politics, or just straight power." 

The 2006 election on August 28 was Guyana's most peaceful in more than a decade. Although the incumbent PPP won its fourth consecutive election, the PNC opposition did not reject the result and their supporters did not react violently. Thanks to its revamped elections process, the commission was able to release results within three days of the voting, before rumors and frustration got out of hand. 

The Commonwealth's observation mission noted a change in the media's behavior: "Noticeably reduced from the airwaves was the diet of wild rumors, inflammatory statements and accusations, which in the past, served only to fuel flames of fear, doubt, tensions, and confusion during election campaigns." Commonwealth observers also noted the absence of incitement to violence or hatred at meetings they attended. Trevor Benn from the UNDP felt the Social Cohesion Program had made a positive contribution: "[Participants] felt that someone was listening, and that they didn't need to use alternative means to get their point across." His colleague, Lawrence Lachmansingh, was more cautious, saying it was difficult to quantify the program's "contribution to a peace process ... particularly when so many others are involved." 

Rafael Trotman, the leader of a small party, echoed Lachmansingh's hesitation in attributing success directly to any of the new measures. He contended that the elections were peaceful mainly because people were tired of violence. Vincent Alexander from the UNDP pointed to lower voter turnout as evidence of this fatigue. Indeed, voter turnout in 2006 was 20 percent lower than in 2001, with roughly 65,000 fewer votes cast -- likely a contributing factor to the speedier vote tally in 2006. 

The elections commission itself weathered a number of storms in 2006. Although the commission generally managed to reach consensus, the polarized nature of its composition remained a looming issue. Chairman Surujbally helped minimize discord by abstaining on many votes, but the informal nature of his abstention did not betoken a permanent solution. 

Alexander of the UNDP saw hope for Guyana's political future in local government reform: Overhauling local elections had the potential "to reduce the political stakes at the center, and therefore reverse the need for ethnic politics at the center." He envisioned a future in which effective local politics "could eventually lead to national politics being issue-based, rather than ethnic-based." Aubrey Norton, a senior PNC member, thought the solution lay elsewhere -- specifically in power-sharing. He suggested that the two main parties would work together more if legislation required a two-thirds majority of parliament, rather than a simple majority. 

While many felt the interventions to reduce violence in 2006 were successful, ethnic tension re-emerged in the years after the 2006 elections, underscoring the work that remained. Remington Eastman of the Media Monitoring Unit worried that the media was fueling the renewal of tensions. "At the end of the [2006] elections, the media went back to its same old habits," he lamented. To reverse this backslide, the experiences of 2006 illustrated that successful elections required proactive initiative from many sectors: the elections commission, civil society, religious groups, international donors, and the media alike.    

Photo by JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images