A Muslim Voter’s First-Person Account Of How She Fought To Cast Her Vote In The 2024 Election

Nabeela Khwaja
20 May 2024 6 min read  Share

Amid reports and allegations of voter suppression from the parliamentary constituency of Sambhal in western Uttar Pradesh, a Muslim educator shares her struggle to cast her vote in the 2024 general election.

Nabeela Khwaja, an online educator, writes about her experience voting in the 2024 election./ NABEELA KHWAJA

Sambhal (Uttar Pradesh): As someone deeply connected to my community and passionate about ensuring everyone's voices are heard, I couldn't sit back quietly during the chaos that unfolded in Sambhal, my home and a parliamentary constituency in western Uttar Pradesh that voted on 7 May 2024. 

I was so unsettled and troubled after witnessing such blatant voter suppression that I felt compelled to write about it, giving voice to this experience that had shaken my faith in the integrity of our democratic process.

I am a 25-year-old online educator and creative writing instructor with a post-graduate degree in English literature. I was born and grew up in Sambhal. This town is the very fabric of my existence. Every street and every neighbourhood holds memories that have shaped who I am. 

Writing has always been an outlet for me to express by giving voice to my thoughts. But after 7 May, I find myself at a loss. The emotional scars from watching my community be disenfranchised, abused and silenced cut deeply. 

More than anything, I'm consumed by uncertainty about our future as Indian Muslims. Will we always be treated as second-class citizens on the soil that is just as much our homeland?

I arrived at the polling station in the Lodhi Sarai area at eleven in the morning. I was excited—it was only the second election since I turned the minimum voting age. 

As I waited eagerly in the queue, I witnessed two booth-level officers verifying IDs to allow voters inside, turning away women around us. Then, they curtly informed my sister and me that our names weren't on the voter list so we couldn't cast our votes. 

We insisted this couldn't be right since we had double-checked the Election Commission of India (ECI) website and were on the electoral rolls. But the officers refused to believe us, leaving us flustered. After adamantly demanding to see the voter lists ourselves, they begrudgingly showed us one, seemingly concealing the other. 

My sister and I were well-versed in the process, so we didn't back down and persisted until they finally revealed the second list. Our names were right there on the very first page. What should have been a routine interaction suddenly felt like deliberate voter suppression.

When we first inquired about our names, they bluntly stated, "There were no names with this surname on the list." In hindsight, those dismissive words now carried more insidious undertones. It was as if they had predetermined that we, and other women from our neighbourhood, wouldn't be allowed to vote that day.

The entire experience left me shaken. 

These officers were meant to be nonpartisan overseers of a democratic process. Instead, their behaviour reeked of outright bias and a clear intent to turn away voters through deception if needed. 

As a young person finally experiencing the voting process, it was incredibly disillusioning.

My sister and I were caught up in this confusion, feeling frustrated and sidelined in our own "democracy". But then a commotion broke out as a group rushed in, voices raised in heated arguments over something that had happened earlier. 

Talking to those around me, I learned that some women had been turned away despite their names being on the voter rolls. The officials either carelessly missed their names or intentionally denied them entry to suppress the voter count, is what I heard. These ladies were not even allowed to double-check the list for themselves before being shooed away. 

It was evident from their behaviour and responses that some officials were deliberately trying to make the process difficult for the people in a Muslim-dominated area. If not, then they were super slow in processing, which felt as if they wanted fewer people to be able to cast their votes.

I learned from residents in the neighbourhood that a particular polling station in the Chaudhary Sarai area of Sambhal district was closed for several hours, while another one in the Pakka Bagh area opened late. 

Both these areas are predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods. I heard firsthand accounts of women being turned away, with booth-level officers falsely claiming their names were not on the voter list. 

Despite their pleadings, these women were denied that basic democratic right in a manner that reeked of bias. Many suspected that the officers either didn't check properly or intentionally tried to reduce the voter count by preventing people from verifying the list themselves.

But even more harrowing were the visuals that emerged from Hayat Nagar. Videos flooded social media showing police unleashing brutal lathi-charges on women after confrontations broke out, with women displaying their bruises. 

It's all emblazoned into my mind's eye. I've watched those clips over and over, trying to make sense of the ugly bruises marking the bodies of women I have seen around.

Someone who was on duty at one of the polling booths confided in us about the collusion between the security forces and authorities involved, alleging deliberate efforts to undermine local voices questioning the hindrances in the voting process. However, the individual requested to remain anonymous.

In another incident reported from the nearby village of Omri, an elderly voter was severely injured after being struck by a police lathi and left lying on the ground. Additionally, I heard several young individuals, including a boy from my neighbourhood, were detained simply for questioning the officials on duty. 

Understandably, the surrounding community's reaction was anger and dissatisfaction. 

People were frustrated with the slow pace of work by the booth level officers and their mishandling of important duties on election day in Sambhal district and adjacent villages. 

The common sentiment around was understandably one of anger and dissatisfaction among the locals, with a strong belief that these actions were deliberate attempts to suppress voters, especially given the fact that it occurred in a Muslim minority area. 

Many felt discriminated against, particularly due to the heavy presence not only of state police but also of the provincial armed constabulary (PAC). This significant deployment of force during elections has been a recurring occurrence and is often perceived as an intimidation tactic.

“Personally, I feel awful and disturbed that as Indian Muslims, we have to go through this—being deprived of our fundamental right to vote due to the carelessness or purposeful actions of the very officers meant to facilitate voting,”  51-year-old Shabnam, who witnessed discriminatory behaviour of officials at her polling booth, told me. 

“The situation was so abrupt, and a significant amount of time was wasted, which was quite provocative to witness such blatant attempts to decrease the voter count.” 

After speaking to one of the local leaders from the Samajwadi Party, I learned that they tried reaching out to the election commission and authorities to ensure fair elections. There have been videos circulating of a little scuffle between local leaders and police when they reached the authorities to question.

Considering the heightened marginalisation faced by the Muslim community under the BJP-led central government, coupled with the recent anti-Muslim rhetoric from PM Modi, the prevailing sentiment among those around me was one of frustration and sorrow. 

People were deeply upset that their fundamental democratic rights were being obstructed, leaving them feeling helpless despite their trying to participate in the election process. 

Whoever I spoke to during the election day and the following days, one thing I found common is that this has led to them losing trust in the fairness of the voting system and anger at this misuse of power by those responsible for ensuring a smooth process. 

I worry that if situations like this are left unchecked, it will only increase disillusionment and detract from the strength of our democracy.

(Nabeela Khwaja is an online educator and creative writing instructor based in Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh.)

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