Explained | Bengaluru’s voter data theft case and political storm in Karnataka

4 days ago 24

The story so far: On November 16, Bengaluru’s civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) said in a press release that it had cancelled permission granted to Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust, an NGO, to conduct house-to-house survey to help create awareness about Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) for allegedly collecting personal information from the public.

A day after this, a political storm started in Karnataka after the Opposition Congress called it voter data “theft” by the NGO impersonating BBMP officials, and alleged that the ruling BJP was trampling democracy.

Since the scandal broke out, the police have arrested six people, including Krishnappa Ravikumar, the prime accused in the voter data theft case and co-founder of Chilume NGO. Meanwhile, three revenue officers have been suspended so far and 45 revenue officers have been questioned by the police.

What is the voter data theft case?

In March 2018, permission was granted by the BBMP to Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust for house-to-house visits to create awareness towards making online applications via the voters’ helpline mobile app.

On November 2, 2022, the BBMP revoked permission to Chilume to carry out the SVEEP campaign after receiving several complaints from residents that the NGO was collecting personal details while conducting door-to-door surveys by deputing field level workers.

BBMP Chief Commissioner Tushar Giri Nath had earlier said, “The Trust has violated the conditions of the permission. Therefore, the permission has been withdrawn with immediate effect... We appeal to the public not to share their voter ID details with the representatives of the Trust.”

The Congress party has alleged the NGO of large-scale electoral fraud, malpractice and manipulation of voters’ list in the name of awareness and also by developing an app — called Digital Sameeksha — where the personal information of the voter — including Aadhaar number, phone number, Voter ID number — was uploaded and misused.

The police are recovering the data that has potential for misuse. They have broken open the offices of the Trust in Malleswaram in west Bengaluru and have recovered electronic devices from the premises.

What are the allegations against the NGO?

Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust has been accused of collecting personal information of voters, with its members posing as BBMP officials in some cases.

The Congress alleged that Chilume committed a brazen fraud of collecting voter data by having privately hired employees impersonate BBMP officials and also issuing them BLO (Booth Level Officers) ID cards.

The NGO had developed a mobile application where its employees, posing as BLOs, went door to door in a few Assembly constituencies and collected voter data along with personal information, which was directly uploaded to the app.

According to the Congress, the NGO’s ground level employees were uploading vital voter information onto the Digital Sameeksha app owned by its sister concern, Chilume Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. The information was not uploaded on the Election Commission’s official voter registration helpline Garuda or Voter Helpline.

BBMP officials say the NGO was conducting the awareness campaign on SVEEP free of cost for the civic body. The question is, how was Chilume able to hire field level officials and conduct the free awareness campaign, as the source of the money continues to remain unknown. Police investigations are on.

Who are the prime accused?

On November 20, police arrested Krishnappa Ravikumar, co-founder of Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust, who had been absconding since the scandal broke out.

According to the police, Ravikumar is a realtor from Dobbaspet, with links to many politicians through his phone and email. His interrogation is expected to reveal the true extent of the fraud and the case.

Earlier, the police had arrested Kempegowda, one of the directors of the Trust. They also detained the main software developer of the Digital Sameeksha app. The police are analysing the app to ascertain what data was collected and for whom it was meant.

The police arrested Dharanesh and Renuka Prasad in connection with the case. They were produced before the court and taken into police custody for further investigation.

Opposition Congress amps up attack, demands ECI probe

The Congress, on November 23, submitted a petition to the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commission of India, seeking an urgent investigation by the ECI into alleged “large-scale electoral fraud, malpractice, and manipulation of voters’ list’ in Bengaluru by the Karnataka government.”

In the petition, All India Congress Committee general secretary in-charge of Karnataka and MP Randeep Singh Surjewala and KPCC president D.K. Shivakumar urged that the “ECI must initiate criminal law and ensure the registration of an FIR against Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, and officials and employees of the BBMP and the State government involved in the scam, and officials of the private entities and NGOs who have committed the fraud under political patronage”.

“All this has been done with a view to influence and tamper with the personal information of voters and add or delete names from voters’ list for malicious electoral considerations in order to influence the outcome of elections,” they said.

BJP hits back at Congress

Meanwhile, the BJP denied the Congress’s allegations and launched a counter-attack alleging that the NGO was first given permission by the previous Congress government.

The BJP submitted a petition to the ECI on November 22 stating that the NGO was roped in during the Congress regime in 2017 and sought action against the party.

Police probe continues

The BBMP has registered two FIRs in Bengaluru against the NGO under sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 419 (cheating by personation), 420 (cheating) and 468 (forgery) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

On November 21, the police issued notices to 20 Revenue officials, who are in-charge of electoral roll revision and linking of Aadhaar card with electoral rolls. Hours later, the BBMP suspended Revenue Officers in three Assembly constituencies — Mahadevapura, Shivaji Nagar, and Chickpet — pending departmental inquiry for alleged dereliction of duty.

The suspension orders said these officers were found to have issued ID cards to volunteers from the Trust tasked with carrying out the SVEEP campaign as block-level coordinators (BLCs), in violation of norms.

The city police have recovered several BLO ID cards of those associated with the Trust and are probing their source. They have also issued notices to 45 Revenue officers.

The police are also examining the contents of the computers seized from the NGO office with the help of cyber experts.

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