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'Naxals do what they like at booths'

Ehtasham Khan in Hazaribagh | February 02, 2005 18:46 IST

Bansidhar Singh, 50, calls it "punishment for some sin he must have committed in his previous life."

Singh, who is a clerk in the irrigation department in Barhi village in Hazaribagh district, has been assigned work as a polling officer at a booth in Barkagaon village.

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This village is said to be the turf of Naxalites, who have been waging a war against the state and have been terrorising not only Jharkhand but also five other states extending up to Nepal.

The Naxalites, belonging to the outlawed Maoist Communist Centre and People's War Group, have called an election boycott.

The first phase of elections covering 24 constituencies in the 81-member House will be held on February 3.

This is Jharkhand's first election after it separated from Bihar in 2000. In the fray are the ruling combine Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United), and opposition parties Congress and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Posters are put up in many places by an extreme Left outfit asking people not to vote. One poster says the first voter will face the worst punishment. The voters' thumbs will be chopped off, says another in Barkagaon, in the outskirts of Hazaribagh.

This has created fear in the minds of the electorate and government employees responsible for conducting the elections.

Most officials are sent to districts other than their own constituencies to conduct the polls.

Singh, and some 50 others, were seen waiting in front of the Police Training College in Hazaribagh on Tuesday evening, shivering due to the bitter cold.

"We have been waiting here for more than three hours. There is no vehicle to take us to the polling booth. They (policemen) are trying to arrange a vehicle for us."

"I want to run away. But I am a government servant. I have to follow orders," he says.

Private vehicles have stopped plying three days before the polls adding to the problems of ordinary people.

Singh's polling booth is in a village deep in a forest area.

Singh and his colleagues are therefore compelled to wait till a vehicle is arranged to ferry them and the voting machines to the remote area.

"If they (the police) cannot arrange a vehicle then how are they going to protect us from Naxals?" asked a worried Singh.

"My wife is scared. There is no phone around to inform her that I am safe so far."

Satyanarayan Yadav is another polling officer, whose posting is in naxal-hit Katkumsandhi village.

He said: "It is a good that it is raining. At least the landmines will not blow up."

Most polling officials are scared to go to villages, but have no problem with urban areas where the naxal threat is not so bad.

To avoid the duty, some officials submitted false medical certificates and went on leave.

Last week, the chief election officer of Jharkhand asked the authorities not to grant medical leave till elections are over.

One such person was Salahuddin, who obtained medical leave 20 days back. He works with the Central Coalfields Limited.

He said: "In the Lok Sabha elections last year, I was posted in Giridih. It was a nightmare. I didn't interfere in anything. I allowed them (criminals) to do whatever they wanted. I just watched everything from a distance. I do not want to face it again"

"Anything can happen. The Naxals can do anything to show their terror. I don't want to be a victim."

Family members of polling officials are praying for their safe return. Sandhya Chaurasia said: "I will be happy only when he returns. Till them I am so scared."

Her husband Mahavir is a driver in the police department. He will be on patrol duty in the sensitive Chatra district.

Hazaribagh Deputy Commissioner of Police Rahul Kumar Purwar counters the above arguments: "There is no point in getting scared and crying over it. It will not solve the problem. People will have to gain confidence to fight the menace."

He said ample arrangements have been made for the peaceful conduct of polls. The borders of 15 districts have been sealed.

Checking of vehicles and suspicious looking characters are being done. Paramilitary forces are checking for landmines in some areas.

Purwar, however, accepted that naxal activities have increased in recent times and that there is a bigger threat this time as compared to the Lok Sabha elections last year.

Chief Election Commissioner of Jharkhand, A K Pandey, said 50,000 paramilitary forces and policemen of all these districts were on duty.

There are 5,253 booths, of which 20 percent are considered sensitive.

Two helicopters will monitor the situation in the polling areas. One paramilitary company has been put on hold to tackle any unforeseen problems.

All arrangements will be monitored from a control room.

A total of 53,60,000 voters will decide the fate of 402 candidates in the first phase of elections.

Some constituencies in Palamu, Chatra and Latehar are considered supersensitive.

Given the naxal threat, observers are predicting low turnout in some areas.

In the Lok Sabha elections last year, there was no voting in 41 booths.

In the last assembly elections in Latehar, Rashtriya Janata Dal's Baidyanath Ram won after he got 7,700 votes out of a total of 150,000 voters. He defeated his nearest rival by a 3,000 votes.

There have been isolated incidents of violence in some areas in the past week when supporters of the naxal bodies attacked campaigners.

One BJP road show was attacked in Simaria on Sunday.

There was one landmine blast in the outskirts of Hazaribagh district on Sunday, while another landmine was detected on Monday.

Police officials say there could be some more landmines in Katkumsandhi, Vishnugarh and Mandu areas.

Paramilitary forces have been conducting combing operations in these areas.

Planting landmines are a common method used by Naxals to deter voting in Jharkhand. It is mainly targeted at poll officers.

Apart from small skirmishes, there has not been any major naxal violence in the last few days.

One Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) candidate Mahender Singh of Bagodar constituency was killed on January 16.

He was shot dead while campaigning for another party candidate in Giridih district. This, however, is not seen as the handiwork of Naxals.

The voters in the villages seem unwilling to commit whether they will vote or not. The situation is quite normal in the urban areas.

Mohammad Halim, a driver in sensitive Chatra district, says he will definitely vote. "There is no problem in the town. I know whom to vote for."

"Whether one votes or not, somebody will win. The Naxalites cannot capture all the booths of a constituency. Someone will win, no matter how much violence is there. This is how it happened last time."

The candidates are campaigning in full swing. It is praiseworthy that candidates have strictly followed the code of conduct, one observer said.

Unlike previous elections, there were no posters or banner on the road or other public places when this correspondent traveled from Ranchi to Hazaribagh on Tuesday.

Posters and flags were put up at party offices or at homes of those who willingly accepted it.

Rejecting the fear in the minds of people, Manoj Yadav, Congress sitting legislator from Barhi, said the polls would be peaceful.

"There is no problem. We are campaigning and people are listening to us."

He said he campaigned in the sensitive Chauparan village on Tuesday.

Complete Coverage: Assembly Elections 2005

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