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In Chatra, democracy wails under Naxalism

Ehtasham Khan in Hazaribagh/Chatra | February 03, 2005 19:36 IST

Tears crawl down the cheeks of Mohammad Ismail, 80, when he recalls the last assembly elections in 2000.

He had defied a Naxal call for poll boycott, and his life became a nightmare after the elections. Those memories have stopped him from casting his vote in this election, which is Jharkhand's first after it was formed three years ago.

In 2000, Jharkhand was part of undivided Bihar. Ismail had campaigned for the Congress in his village Homba in the Naxal-dominated Chatra district.

Having 953 voters and about 300 homes, his village is eight kilometres from Chatra town. One of the poorest districts of Jharkhand, Chatra is 130 km from capital Ranchi.

Ismail, a farmer by profession who has been living in Chatra for ages, had defied the orders of the extreme Left Naxalites to boycott the elections. And he paid the price.

As soon as the polling was over and the police and paramilitary forces left the area, Naxals belonging to the outlawed Maoist Communist Centre reached his home. Ismail had sensed the danger. So he, along with his family, went hiding in a neighbour's house.

When Naxals found nobody in the house, they locked it from outside. His four-room house in the middle of dense forest is made of mud and mud tiles known as khapra in the local lingo.

Ismail, a white-bearded man who always wears lungi, and his family stayed in a neighbour's house secretly for 26 days.

"Only I know how I spent those 26 days. It was like dying everyday and every moment," says Ismail in choked voice, standing close to the village's government primary school, which was a polling booth.

On the 27th day, theNaxals pasted a letter on the door of his house summoning Ismail and his family members to the MCC leadership to explain why he defied their call.

Since Ismail could not walk properly due to problems in one of his legs, he sent his 22-year-old son Mohammad Aftab.

Aftab says he was called near a mountain close to his house. When he reached there, some Naxals blindfolded him and took him across the mountain.

After reaching there, he saw an assembly of nearly 1,000 people. It was a Jan Adalat or People's Court.

"I pleaded with them to forgive me. I was not alone. There were several others like me who had been summoned from different villages. One activist read out the charges against us, which was that we defied their orders," says Aftab.

Then every 'offender' was punished according to the extent to which the order had been defied. Some were beaten with sticks, Aftab says. He was asked to hold his ears and do 50 sit-ups.

Those memories are still fresh in Aftab. "My life is dear to me. I don't want to vote," he says.

On Thursday,a crowd of about 50 young men had gathered near the polling booth near Ismail's house. But none had the courage to vote till 1200 noon when this correspondent visited the village.

Outside the polling station, there were red-coloured graffiti written in Hindi on the walls of several homes. One slogan read: "Vote-seeking capitalist parliamentarian dogs go back. Or face death." The slogan was written on behalf of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which was formed by the merger of two major banned outfits the MCC and the People's War -- last year.

People say that don't know who wrote it.

Another poster said: "They promise new things. They call voters their lords. They have eaten all the assets of the country. They made the country indebted." The word 'they' refers to the politicians contesting the polls.

The slogans appear to say what the ordinary people of the country think. But the people in Chatra do not buy the ideologies of the Naxals. They are angry. One person points towards another slogan and says: "Look at that one. That is what scares us." The slogan said: "Anybody who will vote will face death. We appeal for a boycott of elections."

Shailender Kumar Singh, 29, is a graduate. He is an agent with an insurance company. He disagrees with the ultra Left ideology. "We are living in fear. We want to get rid of this situation. The government is not doing anything to protect us from extremists."

He says the Naxals want to impose dictatorship in the region, which should be opposed. "What they say is right but what they do is wrong. The movement has been reduced to robbery," Singh says

He continues: "What is the alternative they provide? Nothing."

Nearly everybody agrees with him. According to 40-year-old farmer Ram Kumar Singh, the development works have been hampered. Now no legislator is interested in the development of the area because they know no one will vote. "The village has been pushed back to the medieval ages," he says.

"They (extremists) do not allow the government to build roads because they demand heavy taxes from contractors."

There is no electricity or water supply in these villages. Most houses are made of mud. Women still have to travel several kilometers to fetch drinking water. There are primary schools in almost all villages but in dilapidated conditions. Just one hospital in Simaria serves at least 10 villages. The doctors visit the hospital only twice or thrice. Most of the time they stay at home, say locals.

As this correspondent moved from one village to the other crisscrossing dense forest, he found villagers gathering outside polling stations. There were paramilitary forces posted at every booth and also along the roads.

The villagers gathered outside polling stations were willing to vote, but none had the courage to take the initiative.

Some queried about the situation in other polling booths. "We will vote if it happens in other booths," one man said.

Amid all this fear, there was one booth in Sila village under Chatra constituency where voting was normal. That, people said, was because the sitting legislator, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's Ram Tahal Tori, was the cousin of the area commander of the region's MCC unit. Therefore, MCC had allowed people to vote.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, a section of the MCC did not oppose the elections despite a ban announced by the outfit because one MCC leader, Veer Bhagat, was contesting. He lost the elections because of confusion within the outfit.

"It shows how the ideology among the extremists groups has taken a backseat," says Mohammad Ziauddin, an advocate from Chatra, who is based in Ranchi.

Businessman Ahmed Zakaria, who is based in Hazaribagh town, says extremists demand money often. "Whenever they organise rallies, they demand buses and other vehicles from us. Many times they dump the vehicles somewhere in the jungles. It creates lot of obstacles in the development works," he says.

"Nothing much has changed since Jharkhand separated from Bihar. But I am optimistic things will change for better."

Complete Coverage: Assembly Elections 2005

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