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November 21, 1998


Fear still stalks Morena

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A Ganesh Nadar in Morena

The Chambal is far removed from the rest of India. It has a charm of its own and a different set of values. Here politicians ask for votes a bit harshly. In the last assembly election a Congress candidate in Morena district came out with the slogan, ' Jeetoonga to lootoonga, haroonga to maaroonga ' (if I win I will loot and if I lose I will assault). He won and went on to become a minister.

As we travelled towards Morena from Gwalior the road was full of trucks, and very few buses went past us. A metre-gauge line traverses the Chambal valley from Gwalior to Shahpur. It passed us on the way, with as many people on the roof of the train as there were inside.

The driver warned me that if I asked stupid questions the car and I would both be smashed, but he promised to cart me back. We passed several check-posts but were not halted anywhere.

Neem, peepul and small date trees abound in the area. The fields had a predominance of mustard, a few were growing wheat and one even rice. From Morena we travelled to Jorha, another 25 kilometres away. After Morena the condition of the road deteriorated -- we passed a herd of camels that had come to graze from Rajasthan.

You must have seen propaganda vans elsewhere. In Jorha you see propaganda cycle-rickshaws. They were playing Meri desh ki dharti ... from Manoj Kumar's Upkar. The song was switched off every now and then, to enable a vote-seeking spiel.

Mustard is the only permanent crop in this hilly terrain. Farm labourers are paid between Rs 40 and 50 a day. Agriculture suffers because of the frequent power cuts. The much-publicised panchayat taj is a total failure here.

Most of the elected representatives are illiterate and have no idea what they are supposed to do. Funds are irregular and when they do come, panchayat presidents seem to pocket it without qualms. And so will the people vote for the same president again? ' Zaroor, woh to hamare biradari ka hai' (of course, he belongs to our community). As somebody has to be the sarpanch we might as well keep it within our community, is the belief.

Jorha residents don't expect much violence on election day. "Of course, some of them will threaten us but their bark is worse than their bite," says a middle-aged man. The BJP workers say they are going to win this seat for the first time in 50 years, and have a totally casteist reason for this belief. They had divided the electorate into brahmins, ravats, baniyas, backwards, rajputs and kushwas. According to them, they would get 40 per cent of the vote, the Congress 35 pc and the BSP 25 pc. The Congress workers, however, give themselves a five per cent margin.

All the people I spoke to appear quite casual about booth capturing. "You see, when you have a powerful candidate you have to capture a few booths just to prove a point." Some 40 pc voting is expected in the area, "while in the captured booths it will be 100 per cent," remarked a wit.

"In certain areas life is very cheap." In the Sipri area of Chambal, last week a dacoit issued a diktat Jeena hai to dena hai (You want to live, pay up). He wanted every villager to pay him Rs 2,000 every month. The local media got wind of this and headlined it, so what next? "He will kill a few people and then the rest will pay," was the matter-of-fact reply.

Poverty breeds dacoity out here. Farm labourers ill-treated by landlords become dacoits. "After they become rich, they become leaders," said a local. But the locals also admit that those leaders who had earlier been farm labourers were the only ones who did something for the poor. The voter does not care if he was or is supported by dacoits. A young man told me, "Ordinary people cannot stand for elections in Chambal."

A lorry driver boasted: "Even the police do not stop a vehicle with a Morena registration. Every new RTO gets bashed up here. When he first gets transferred here he comes with his head full of rules. Once he gets bashed he learns the Chambal way of life."

So what do the police do? "The police don't count here. They don't come into the picture at all."

In Morena people deflected the question when I asked them who they would vote for. People spoke about BSP vice-president Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav asking for votes but they would not admit who they would vote for. Here the ballot was truly a secret.

Among the nine constituencies in Morena district, the most violent campaign is slated to take place in Sumawali. Here Gajraj Singh Sikharwar of the BJP takes on Rakesh Yadav of the Congress. The candidates are guarded by carbine-wielding cops and the people are guarded in their reply.

Optimists say the situation has improved in the last decade and a half. Now the landlords do not treat the labourers badly because many had fled to the cities. The landlords now realise that they might be faced with a labour shortage if they further alienate the poor.

The only industries are found in Gwalior, the rest of the Chambal valley has only the mustard crop. "If there is no work, we have to loot," is said in a very normal tone.

While Gwalior throbs with life, Morena is scary to the outsider. Fear hangs over the stoic villagers and they will be happy with the election out of the way.

Assembly Election '98

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