A gomchen or lay monk cannot participate in the electoral process, and is ineligible to vote in any election although many did so in the past, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has said.

The issue came to light when election officials on August 8 took away Voter Photo Identity Cards (VPICs) belonging to more than 15 gomchens from a public meeting venue in Wangphu gewog in Samdrupjongkhar. The gewog’s gup Sangay Tenzin confirmed the report.

Head of Department of Electoral Registration and Delimitation, Tashi Dorji, acknowledged that gomchens had voted in the past elections because there were no claims or objections made to the election commission.

The ECB, he said, would delete the names of the persons whose status in the civil registration are reflected as gomchen. “No one had objected that they were gomchens,” he said.

Tasho Dorji cited the Guidelines for Interpretation of Section 184 of the Election Act 2008, which states: “A religious personality is a Bhutanese citizen who is a monk, gomchen, nun, priest, sadhu, pundit, an ordained or a robed person of any religion, whether or not he or she is a member of any religious organisation or institution.”

The ECB endorsed the guidelines in 2013. Gomchens voted in the past elections, including the National Council elections, held in April this year.

Tasho Dorji also said that a person will not be eligible to vote if he or she wears the robe of a religious personality even if the civil registry record does not reflect the persona as a religious personality. Similarly, even if a person is not a religious personality but the record shows that he or she is a religious personality, such as gomchen, the person will be ineligible to vote.

“We (the election commission) must follow the book of law,” he said, adding that the ECB can make the necessary changes upon correction in the civil registration. However, the ECB can make such changes only until the date of freezing the electoral roll.

He said the issue was found during the verification of the draft electoral roll. Dzongkhag election offices report to the head office in Thimphu of any such cases.

The ECB before the commencement of the election issues a draft electoral roll and a draft postal voters list for voters to verify if the details reflected in it are correct. The deadline for claims and objections in the draft electoral roll closed on August 12.

Also, according to the guidelines for interpretation of Section 184, religious persons include truelkus, lams, pundits, imam and priests, and ordained members of the Zhung Dratshang lobdras, shredas, and drubdras, nunneries and parstshalas.

Members of private or community dratshangs or any other religious institutions are also considered religious personality. The guidelines also state that any other person who does not fall in any of the above categories but is ordained or robbed and registered under the Religious Organisations Act 2007 are ineligible to vote.

Section 184 states, “A truelku, lam, any influential religious personality or ordained members of any religion or religious institutions excluding the laity, as determined/registered as religious organisations or religious personalities under the provisions of the Religious Organisations Act 2007, shall neither join a political party nor participate in the electoral process as they must remain above politics and can not use their influence for the benefit of any party or candidate.”

However, a political observer said that the ECB’s decision to disqualify gomchens from voting would lead to not only shrinking the voter population but also was against Section 184 of the election Act, which states that the “laity” can vote. Gomchens, according to him, fall in the category of the laity.

He said that exclusion of gomchens from the electoral roll was against one of the core philosophies of GNH, which he said was the coexistence and harmony of spiritual and material life. “ECB should follow the election Act. There are anyways inconsistencies because gomchens voted in the past.”

Acknowledging the importance of religion as an important aspect of Bhutanese life, the guidelines on interpretation of Section 184 states that religious personalities, institutions and organisaations should continue to promote peace, harmony and spiritual development of the society. “At the same time, it is important that religious institutions and personalities remain above politics as laid down in the Constitution,” it states.

Wangphu gup Sangay Tenzin said that gomchens had been voting and that he was of the view that they were allowed to do so. “Gomchens are farmers although they perform religious rituals on auspicious days,” he said.

Gomdar gup Sonam Tshering, also in Samdrupjongkhar, said that no VPICs were taken although a similar meeting was held there.

MB Subba