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November 25, 1998


On the fringes of democracy

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Chindu Sreedharan in Bastar

Schoolteacher Narwara perspires furiously as he pushes his bicycle along the ribbon of flattened mud that leads to Kondapally. He is scared to death. The cheap liquor he has downed earlier hasn't done much to allay his fear, and now, though the sun isn't all that hot, he is bathed in sweat.

"Dekho saab, mujhe kahan duty diya hua hai (Look sir, where they've given me duty)," he complains, "Right in the heart of Naxalite area."

Narwara has been deputed the presiding officer at Kondapally, a highly sensitive booth in Madhya Pradesh's Dantewara district. The booth did not see even 10 votes in the February Lok Sabha poll, owing to the Naxalite ban on election. Besides, the area also recorded cases of polling officials being beaten up by the extremists.

Tomorrow, Narwara and his three companions have to conduct polling and return with the ballot box.

"Dekho saab," Narwara says, "There are no forces with us. We are going alone. What is the safety to our lives? What stops the Naxalites from killing us?"

Fear and liquor by now has brought the teacher to the brink of tears. "Aapko nahi maloom (You don't know)," he continues, "if you knew the situation here you wouldn't be travelling like this alone. Yeh area mein poora mines hai, mines (This area is full of mines)!"

The group is now passing a village. Narwara takes an instant decision: "We will stay here for the night. This looks safe enough. We will get up early in the morning and go."

Kondapally is another 25 kilometres away, and it will be hard to reach there in the morning before 0700 hours, when polling is scheduled to start. But Narwara does not care -- anything to lessen the length of his stay in that blasted area.

"Dekho saab," he begins again. "They said they will give us trucks, helicopters, everything. Lekin kuch nahi diya (But nothing was given). They just told us to go to this booth, conduct polling and come back!"

Would you prefer the police with you, Narwara is asked.

"Nahi, nahi," he says vehemently, "the police shouldn't be with us. That will be more dangerous because then they will kill all of us. The Naxalites hate the police. They killed 16 of them in Tarem, remember? Na, na, the police shouldn't be with us. Lekin aaju-baaju mein hona chayiye. (But they should be nearby)."

Eighteen kilometres away, in Tarem, where on October 8 a landmine claimed 17 lives including that of a civilian, a small group of tribals exhibit the absolute political unawareness that seems to plague all of rural Madhya Pradesh. Though the majority are in their thirties, this is the first time they are voting.

For whom will they vote?

"Maloom nahin (Don't know)," comes the answer, "Somebody will tell us..."

Ask them whether they know who is in power now, or even which are the parties involved. Again, you draw a blank.

"Maloom nahin," Jaga, a thirtyish man echoes the answer you have received from at least 10 others. "Koi bathayega (Somebody will tell us)."

Then why vote?

"Hamari sarkar hai, hamko chod nahi sakta (It is our government. We cannot let it go)," he says.

Probe a little deeper and out comes the truth: The police have told them to vote.

"They told us if we did not vote, the Naxalites would plant more bombs. Said if we didn't vote that meant we were supporting them (the Naxals)," Jaga reveals. "Now we have pressure from both sides. The Naxalites have told us not to vote and the police tell us to vote! We can't move either way."

So who will he vote for? Jaga isn't sure. "Daalega," he repeats, indecisively.

"Nahi daalega," says Shiv Narayan Pandey, a BJP activist in Bijapur, who is in charge of the village. "Till the last minute they will say they will come, but I don't think many will turn up. The Tarem blast has created a fear psychosis. And, as always, the Naxalite threat that they will cut off the marked finger of everyone who votes."

Pandey, however, admits that is no more than a threat. He is yet to see anyone who has been maimed.

"One month ago they called me to the forest and warned me against voting," reveals Narayan, the vice-president of the Usoor block, whose brother was killed in Tarem. "They told me that I voted last time and the time before and if I vote again it won't be good for me. But I will vote. Definitely, I will vote."

He pauses for a moment and, now being a full-fledged Congress politician, can't help the rhetoric: "If the police catch you they will only lock you up. But if the Naxalites catch you, it's straight to the other world. But I am not scared. I will vote..."

There are many like Narayan, all tribals, who are ready to vote. But the question is for whom, and on what basis. The majority of the village folks -- and this is no exaggeration -- doesn't even know the candidates, and definitely not the parties. Some of them know the symbols, but that's all. They have no preference, no awareness, nothing. Not even the desire to vote. They have been told to vote, so they will vote.

Mindlessly. Proving once again that polls here are a slap in the face of democracy.

Polling day

After two cups of tea and a silent prayer, the zonal officer for election in Faresghat area, Dantewara district, climbs into his rattletrap and, with a couple of colleagues and me in tow, sets off for one of the most sensitive polling booths here.

"This isn't my jeep," says the apologetic officer, clad in blue trousers, brown T-shirt, black sports shoes and a magnificent moustache. "Mine is a good one. But somebody else is using it."

The area under our zonal officer is as sensitive as an eyeball. And the village he is headed for, Mukaveli, a live wire. Some 30 kilometres inside reserved forests, the village polled exactly two votes in the last Lok Sabha election. Two from 379 voters.

The officer's booths all lie in Bijapur, identified as one of the most sensitive constituencies in MP. The main fight here is, of course, between the Congress and BJP. Or, as the tribals know, panja (the palm) and kamal (the lotus). Between Rajendraram Thodem and Rajendra Pambhoi, respectively. But Faresghat villagers are more interested in a candidate from Somanpally, a nearby village, because he is a local man.

"Because of him, more people should vote this time," the zonal officer says.

The jeep enters the forests. The road is a dirt track. The police had warned me that travelling in a jeep here is very unhealthy. Doubly so, if you are on a dirt track. The Naxalites identify jeeps with the police and think as much of blasting one to high heavens as the police do of whacking a drunk.

"Ours is the first vehicle coming in today," the officer is saying. "I tell you, this area is bad, very bad. But what to do? We have our duty."

Probably to hide his tension, he switches on the stereo, filling the lurching vehicle -- the road is pure torture even for a Mahindra Jeep -- with Lata Mangeshkar. He sings along, completely out of tune. His voice is in good nick, but he gives up the effort two minutes later.

"What happened, na, last year all these trees had Naxalite posters calling for a poll boycott," he tells me. "From here to Sagmetta (a sensitive village before Mukaveli) there was no tree without a poster. This time, there aren't any, see?"

Sarpanch ne bataya hai

Assembly Election '98

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