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November 25, 1998


'No one comes here'

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Prem Panicker in Jaisalmer

"If you are an Indian citizen, which I presume you are, you can go anywhere you like along the border" -- this, from Jaisalmer District Collector Subhash Pant on the evening of 24th November.

It doesn't quite work that way. At about 0730 hours on the 25th, my jeep is stopped by a roving Border Security Force patrol, about 80 km out of Jaisalmer proper, on the road leading to the Pakistan border.

That I am a journalist means nothing. That I want to cover the election along the border means nothing. I am told I need the written permission of the district magistrate. I protest that the collector, who is also the district magistrate, has told me I can go where I like.

I'd have been arguing still if I hadn't overheard two of the BSF personnel talking in Tamil. I try again in that language, a line to the effect that it feels good to hear Tamil spoken on the edge of the Thar desert. That unlocks the barrier -- Devanesan, of Trichy, now posted in Donana, has a word with his mates, and I am allowed to proceed.

Fourteen kilometres further down a narrow, metalled road brings me to Donana village -- 30 to 35 huts, 250 inhabitants, 190 voters, located 6 km from the border. Beyond this point, no one is permitted. A very large BSF contingent, camped semi-permanently just outside Donana, says no one strays into the "hot zone".

Mangilal Vaas runs the only 'shop' in Donana -- a little lean-to outside his hut, selling assorted grains and a bit of everything else. "No one comes here," he says simply. "No, there has been little canvassing -- a couple of BJP workers came about a week ago, a Congress vehicle came here as well, but not the candidates." Moosa Khan, squatting on his haunches listening attentively, chips in: "In my memory, no candidate has ever come here, for any election."

So do you vote, or ignore politics as it has ignored you? "Sarkari niyam hai ki 3 km ke andhar ek polling booth honi chaahiye," says Vaas. "Lekin niyam ko kaun maanta hai? To vote, we have to go to Shilda [a village 30 km away]. Some of us go, by camel cart. We will leave in the afternoon."

The locals eke out a livelihood of sorts, raising cattle and goats, and selling the milk to traders from Jaisalmer. Being close to the border does not bother them, Moosa Khan says. "Surakshit hain. Hamein kuch khaas taklif nahin."

But why remain in these arid regions, I persist. Why not move closer to the city? "Where will we get land to graze our cows and goats? The government won't give us land and we can't afford to buy any -- this is all we have, so we stay here."

An inertia spawned by inevitability, a patience timeless as the desert stretched before them -- that just about sums up the collective mindset in Donana. That, and a desire to go the extra mile to be hospitable. Guests being rarer than the rains, the few who come here are made much of. Thus, before I leave, I am compelled to have breakfast -- coarse bajra roti and a rough, reddish-brown concoction which I am told is made of some kind of desert bean.

Politics? Idhar ka vote Kallasaab ko padega," Vaas assures me. Apparently, the Congress candidate has the preference -- not because of anything he has done for them, merely force of habit. "Hamne to hamesha Congress ko hi vote diya hai," Vaas explains.

Come to camel country

Thirty or so kilometres back the way I came brings me to Sam village -- pronounced 'Shum'. Just outside it, spread over a three square mile area, are the sand dunes that comprise the biggest tourist attraction in Jaisalmer. Camel safaris are run to the dunes, which is also venue of a desert festival that last three days, and is scheduled for January 29, 30, and 31 next.

Village sarpanch (headman) Sattar Khan takes me, on his personal camel, out onto the dunes -- describing which can take some doing. If you can imagine a turbulent sea, wave-tossed, frozen for an instant in time, then photographed in sepia tone, you'll get a fair idea. The sand is very, very fine -- when I get down from camel back and blow at one spot, sand flies all round. Apparently the desert winds of the night cause the dunes to shift constantly. Thus, the hillock Sattar Khan and I are squatting on now could well be a trough this time tomorrow.

The camel is a very deceptive beast. This one is called Bade Miyan -- I grin when Sattar Khan tells me his name, trying to spot a resemblance to Amitabh Bachchan. When I tell Khan about the film, he laughs.

Bade Miyan -- like every other camel you see -- looks calm and composed in repose. Holds his head high, looking out over the dunes with a confident smile -- at least that is what the thick, half-parted lips resemble. Then you clamber on board, perching gingerly on your portion of a double-humped saddle, and it is a different ball game.

The camel moves in a series of dizzying plunges down the dune, then a jerky scramble up the next one, while you hang on for dear life and wonder how you can be seasick in the middle of the desert. The ride mercifully ends as we re-enter Sam, and Sattar Khan takes me to his granite-and-mud home for tea.

Sam is inhabited by some 600 people. The community break-up is almost half and half, Muslims and Magawals. The two live in amicable alliance, have done so since 1985 when Ghazi Fakir masterminded the coming together of the two denominations in an alliance aimed at political and economic survival.

And is Sam -- where the voting is so causal, a villager strolls over to the booth, does his thing, and strolls back, at desultory intervals -- for the Congress? Yes, Ghazi Fakir's writ runs here -- and he, says Sattar Khan, has decided to support the Congress.

How do you know? "His man came here, last night, and passed on the word."

How do you know it is authentic? Ghazi Fakir sends a nishana (mark) with his messenger," Khan explains.

In response to his wave, an elderly gent strolls over to join us, fresh from the polling booth. Saktha Ram Magawal was the previous sarpanch. Apparently the two communities take it in turns to hold the post, Ghazi Fakir deciding the nominee.

As in Donana, so in Sam -- goat-herding and cattle-rearing are the main occupations. That, and tourism -- renting out their camels to tourists desiring to do the dune thing.

And that brings up their principal grouse. "Tourism is very dull this year," says Magawal. "After the atom bomb, the numbers are down -- at this time of the year, all our camels would be booked, but now, see," -- a wave of the hand at a large, fenced-in space where some 50 camels, hobbled by the front foot, graze desultorily.

There is one other interesting peculiarity to this village -- the inhabitants are, as Sattar Khan unabashedly says, "sub angutha chhap," completely illiterate. Yet, they all speak recognisable, passable English -- the legacy of years of living off the tourist trade.

Why the Paliwals fled Jaisalmer

On my way back to Jaisalmer, a signpost pointing to a side road reads 'Kuldhara -- A heritage village'.

Intrigued, I take the branch road. Eleven kilometres later I come to a fence, a gate and an RTDC checkpost where I am asked to cough up 45 bucks -- 25 for the vehicle, 10 apiece for the driver and myself.

I pay. We turn a corner. And come upon a huge village -- of an estimated 400 well-appointed granite and wood homes, elegant in appearance, lining broad, gravel-strewn streets.

There is not a single human being, though -- the place is a ghost town. And thereby hangs a tale.

Apparently, this village is one of 14 in the region, all inhabited, over 100 years ago, by Paliwal Brahmins.

They were famed for Vedic knowledge -- and for the stunning, ethereal beauty of their women. The first made them rich. The second proved the cross.

The story goes that the jagirdars, the Rajput chieftains of the region, were so smitten by their beauty that no Paliwal girl was safe from being kidnapped, raped, immured in various havelis and harems around Jaisalmer.

Until, to protect their women, the Paliwals one night fled en masse, leaving their prosperity behind. There are a couple of dozen in Jaisalmer today. A handful live in Bikaner. Larger numbers are in Calcutta, operating businesses. And many have migrated to the United States of America.

Two years ago, foreigners arrived with metal detectors. Discovered hoards of gold ornaments in wells and secret hiding places in the beams of the roofs. But before they could decamp, they were arrested by the police, their finds seized. The ornaments are now in Jaisalmer village.

The greater ornaments -- the Paliwal women -- are presumably breaking hearts elsewhere. And Kuldhara is now another 'tourist attraction', a tale to amaze wide-eyed foreigners.

How not to select a candidate

Back to Jaisalmer, and you wouldn't guess there was an election on. There are 20 booths in the city. At each, registered voters range from 1,000 to 1,500. Ergo, no queues, no crowds -- a relaxed time being had by all.

Polling percentages vary. In Hindu regions such as Radio Colony, IGNP Colony, and the area around the local high school, party agents and polling officers estimate anywhere between 60 and 70 per cent polling. In predominantly Muslim areas like Madarsa Road, ward number 16, and Deepapada, that figure oscillates in the 80 to 90 per cent region, and these areas are characterised by steady streams of voters, in little groups, doing their thing.

The outcome, judging by conversations with those who have finished their business, seems foregone -- Govardhan Kalla of the Congress to win; Shan Singh, the BJP rebel, to give Kalla a run for his money; Jitendra Singh, the official BJP candidate, a long way behind in number three spot.

"Batana hai Jitendar Singh ko, deposit bhi nahin milega unko," says Bashir Ahmed gleefully, while the lady with him stands mute. (You don't get any percentage out of trying to talk to women hereabouts -- they don't reply, and the menfolk give you outraged stares and quickly butt in.)

Why? A vendetta? I ask. "Last time, he played dummy to help defeat our Fateh Mohammad. This time, we will make him a dummy," Ahmed, who states his occupation as 'business', says.

Even the Rajputs appear to favour Shan Singh over Jitendar Singh. "Unka bharosa nahin hai," explains Man Singh, sipping tea at an ersatz stall near the Radio Colony booth. "One day he is Janata Dal, then he is a Congress dummy, now he is BJP..."

The ruling party would appear to have goofed badly in its choice of candidate. Perhaps they were barking on his royal lineage and the presumed loyalty of the people?

Doesn't work that way. Dr Jitendar Singh, hereabouts, is described as a "ghamandi (proud)." "You can't meet him," explains Shambudhan Rathnu. "Nobody is allowed inside that part of the palace where they stay."

I can testify to that. On the night of the 23rd, Gulab Singh Rawlot had taken me, from the BJP office, to the Mandar Palace, and passed me on to another party official with instructions to take me to Jitendar Singh, who was supposedly waiting for me.

A few twists and turns through granite corridors later, we are accosted by some officious chappie who says the candidate is resting and can't be disturbed. Told that Dr Singh is expecting me, the chappie says wait, and leaves me cooling my heels for a further 15 minutes before escorting me to the presence.

Not, apparently, a voter-friendly candidate -- and it seems likely to cost the ruling party a seat, here.

Wanna bet on the outcome? The local satta bazaar, on election day, is offering: Re 1 gets you 50 paise on Govardhan Kalla, the same amount gets you Rs 2.50 on Dr Singh, and a rupee gets 75 paise on Shan Singh, the BJP rebel.

No untoward incidents, says Jaisalmer's Superintendent of Police Anil Paliwal. "In Jaisalmer, elections are always peaceful."

Out of curiosity, I ask him if be belongs to the Paliwal Brahmin community, mentioning that I had been to Kuldhara. "You can ask me about elections" is the curt brush-off I get.

Assembly Election '98

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