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September 3, 1999


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Naxals strike fear among voters in border areas of Maharashtra

Pankaj Upadhyaya in Gadchiroli

The Burgi Ashram School in the jungles of Etapalli division of Gadchiroli district hit the headlines on August 15 this year, when a group of Naxalites belonging to the People's War group entered its premises even as students were preparing to hoist the national flag, and burnt the tri-colour in front of a stunned assembly.

It was probably the first signal from the Naxalites that they would try to disrupt the general elections once again this time in the four sensitive districts of Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara and Gondia in Maharashtra.

The boycott by the Naxalites has since been made official. Pamphlets have appeared mysteriously on government buildings. Handouts have been sent to all major newspapers in the four districts and there have been reports of armed Naxalites visiting villages in groups and threatening villagers with death if they dared to vote.

The threat perception is highest in the villages bordering Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These areas include Bedgaon, Lehari and Bamragad areas in Gadchiroli; Rajuri, Gondpimpri and Korapna in Chandrapur; and Darekasa in Gondia district.

Quite surprisingly, however, superintendent of police in all three districts are not only confident that polling will proceed smoothly on September 5, but are also positive that there would be record voting! What gives them this confidence are the figures of the last three elections. All three districts have recorded over 65 per cent voting in the last three elections.

But this, unfortunately, does not mean that Naxalite threat has been eliminated. Speak to villagers in the interiors and they will tell you that they vote only because there is pressure from the police. Is it the reason why these regions lead in voting percentages despite being shrouded in the fear of gun?

Senior officers deny this. Superintendent of Police S Jaganathan said the police never puts pressure on anybody to vote. "We persuade them to vote. We also provide heavy police cover during the elections which makes it impossible for Naxalites to strike,'' he said.

If Jaganathan feels that credit is being taken away from his men, his anger is justified. He, along with his officers, has been hard at work for over a month now. They had started moving men and material into the district even before the August 15 incident happened.

"Before the polling date my men would have visited every village in the district twice. They would explain to the villagers the importance of participating in the democratic process. The idea is to infuse confidence in the people,'' he said.

They call it Operation Viswas-II.

In Gadchiroli district alone the police have identified around 400 polling booths that are hyper-sensitive. This means that these booths are located deep into jungle and hilly areas and are not easily accessible by road. This also means that there is one or more Naxalite dalams operating in the area.

There are around nine dalams currently active in the four districts of Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara and Gondia. These are: Devri, Tipagad, Etapalli, Permiti, Aheri, Mahadevpur, Sukna-Kunta, Vasaguda, and Platoon or Military dalam.

Most of these dalams derive their names from their area of operation except the Platoon or Military dalam. This dalam specialises in carrying out blasts and in handling sophisticated arms and ammunition and thus the name.

Political leaders, so far, have not complained of any threats. Marotrao Kovase, who has been elected thrice from the Gadchiroli assembly segment and is a Congress candidate this time, said he had campaigned without any trouble in tribal areas, supposed to be Naxalite strongholds. He shrugs the presence of a police chowkie inside the boundary wall of his house as the "baggage that goes with every politician."

Naresh Pugalia, Congress candidate from the Chandrapur Lok Sabha constituency, too has not faced any threat from the Naxalites. Though he is aware of their boycott call, Pugalia says they do it every time there is an election.

However, both seemed distinctly uncomfortable speaking about the Naxalites and did their best not be drawn into a discussion on the subject.

Sources said these leaders buy peace with Naxalites. This is possibly the other reason (sources insist this is the main reason) why there is record polling in tribal areas. Naxalites force villagers to vote and that too for the candidate of their (Naxalites') choice.

Most of the leaders in this region have flourishing businesses running in Naxalite-dominated areas.

While one leader in Chandrapur has a thriving business in bamboo, another in Bhandara deals in tendu patta. They anyway pay regular hafta to Naxalites. Only, the figure swells during the elections as stakes rise.

So, is all this cry about Naxalites hogwash? Jaganathan insists they have the potential to strike anywhere at will. There is a chart of all Naxalite strikes that have taken place in the recent past in the SP's office in Gadchiroli. Gory pictures of severed limbs, slashed necks and blown up trucks.

Several Border Roads Organisation trucks have been destroyed in landmine blasts and a very large number of men have lost their lives in such attacks.

Superintendent of Police, Chandrapur, B K Upadhyay, said most of the dalams are heavily armed. They have AK 47s, self-loading rifles, land-mines and improvised explosive devices.

In the final analysis it's a vicious circle - the police put pressure on Naxalites, Naxalites put pressure on politicians, and politicians pay them to put pressure on the villagers.

As the police, politicians and Naxalites play this game of hide-'n'-seek, it's the poor tribals who pay. They will have to vote regardless of whether they wants to or no. Regardless of whether they like the candidate or no. Regardless of whether they understand what democracy means or don't. And there will be record voting in Naxal infested tribal areas once again.

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