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September 15, 1999


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Jats vs the rest in Chaudhary Charan Singh's fief

Onkar Singh

"Baghpat is Baghpat. There is no other way you could describe this place," says Kuldeep Seth, district magistrate and electoral officer and the man responsible for maintaining law and order in this famous parliamentary constituency which Chaudhary Charan Singh made almost his own.

The polls are ten days away but the strain of ensuring a smooth election in Baghpat is visible on the faces of Seth, and Piyush Anand, superintendent of police of the newly created district. "We are determined to do our best and make sure that nobody rigs the election in Baghpat this time. We are working round-the-clock to ensure this and the rest is in the hands of God and the Jats of the Chaproli assembly constituency," Seth and Anand told in separate interviews.

The duo started their campaign to ensure a free and fair election as soon as the election notification for Baghpat was issued along with some other constituencies in Uttar Pradesh. "We have visited almost each and every village. There are 370 villages in the entire constituency. It has 88 colonies. We told the villagers this is their chance to wash off daag,'' Piyush Anand said as he rattled out details of the precautionary measures taken by the administration.

According to Seth the administration has blacklisted more than 15,000 people -- thereby subjecting them to various restrictions -- for a period of six months under sections 107 and 116 of the Indian Penal Code. Seth, however, denied allegations levelled by the Lok Dal leader, and its candidate in Baghpat, Ajit Singh's supporters that the administration was arresting only Jats. Gajinder Singh Munna, the MLA from Chaproli, charged the administration with specifically targeting Ajit Singh's supporters and claimed that those who have been let out on bail include senior citizens well beyond seventy years in age.

"We have targeted all those who have a history of being involved in some case or the other. Perhaps you don't know that the polls in Baghpat are rigged by young Jats at the instance of the Chaudharis. Their modus operandi is simple. Two Chaudharis sit about 200 yards from the polling booth and keep an eye on each and every person who goes to the polling booth to cast his or her vote. A couple of days before polling date, a warning is issued to non-Jats to fall in line and not to go out on the day of voting. If someone defies that edict they are dealt with later on. People are still apprehensive. Despite security arrangements they don't come out and vote. We are now persuading them to come out and vote,'' Anand explains.

Of the 500 polling booths in the constituency, more then 40 per cent have been declared hyper-sensitive. Another 30 per cent have been declared sensitive.

Three observers from the Election Commission have been camping in Bhagpat and will remain here till the poll is over. The district administration has established a huge security presence in the area and is maintaining a round-the-clock-vigil to prevent the smuggling in of arms and explosives. ''Last time we had more then 5,000 policemen and paramilitary personnel on duty during the poll. This time the figure could go up substantially," cautions Seth.

When Som Pal Singh Shastri decided to contest from Baghpat last year on the BJP ticket, he was cautioned by Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he would be fighting a losing battle because Ajit Singh's Jat supporters were sure to indulge in violence and prevent Shastri's supporters from casting their votes. Not only did Shastri run a spirited campaign he defeated the Jat leader by a convincing margin.

Seventeen months later Ajit Singh and Shastri are once again pitted against each other in Baghpat. Though there are 19 candidates in the fray, it is virtually a straight fight between the big two. Ajit Singh is supported by the Congress.

While Shastri has begun his campaign in right earnest and is going from village to village to woo the voters, Ajit Singh has left the management of his campaign entirely in the hands of his trusted aide Munna.

"Last time Chaudhary sahib lost because we were a bit over confident. We relaxed our vigil and our arch-rival managed to capitalise on it. But this time around we will avenge the humiliating blow that Jat pride suffered last time,'' Munna told at his home in Barot, 15 kilometres from Baghpat.

More than 200 senior Jats shared a hookah in the compound of the house and animatedly discussed how they should go about ensuring victory for their leader. Munna asserts that not just the Jats but even the other communities are against Shastri, minister of state for agriculture in the Vajpayee government. ''What has he done for the area? He lives in Delhi and cares little about what goes on here,'' he alleges.

Asked if his party is involved in poll malpractices, Munna said Shastri's supporters were deliberately spreading a canard to malign the Jats. "Our leader need not even come to Baghpat. He can work for other party candidates elsewhere," says Munna. But some of his supporters believe that as the polling day -- September 25 -- nears Ajit Singh will camp in Baghpat to make sure things go the way he wants.

Shastri, on his part, is busy canvassing door-to-door. "I have been walking through slush, meeting villagers and listening to their complaints. Even when it is raining, as you see, I continue to meet the villagers. I have done a lot for the people of this area. The road from Delhi to Baghpat and from Meerut to Baghpat have been repaired. We have introduced kisan credit cards for our farmers. We have given them high rates for their produce. Sugar and Khandari mills no longer need a licence. We have given more electricity to the farmers for irrigation. The canals are full of water. The law and order situation is under control," Shastri reels out a seemingly endless list of achievements.

Some of Charan Singh's aides are helping Shastri in his campaign against the former prime minister's only son. "People often ask me the name of Ajit Singh's village. Since I am yet to know which village he hails from, I reply it is Miami,'' Shastri quips half in jest.

''Jai Pal Singh, who used to manage Charan Singh's campaigns, is with us now. I am likely to get more than 20 per cent of the Jat votes. Besides, other communities are going to vote for me in large numbers. People have seen development in the area for the first time since 1952 and they are happy about the work that I have done. I have promised them more development in the days to come and this should tilt the balance in my favour," Shastri explains as he walks through a village in a heavy downpour along with the village pradhan.

Jats constitute nearly 30 per cent of the 1.3 million voters in Baghpat. Muslims number around 250,000, Thakurs 80,000, Yadavs 50,000 and Tyagis another 50,000. The rest belong to the smaller castes. The five assembly segments are Baghpat, Barnava, Chaproli, Khekara and Sirul Khas.


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