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'Holding polls in Chhattisgarh tougher than J&K, North East'

Krishnakumar P in Raipur | November 17, 2008 10:06 IST

Polling in sensitive areas in Chhattisgarh's Maoist-dominated Bastar region, where the first phase of Assembly elections were held on Friday, was closed by 3 pm so that the Election Commission officials could wrap up and reach their respective district headquarters by Friday night.

But not everything went according to the plan.

BJP banking on new faces to win in Chhattisgarh

Till late Saturday night, 430 polling parties were still stuck in the jungles. By Sunday morning, more than 400 polling parties touched base. But there were still 23 polling parties stuck in hostile territory.

Over 48 anxious hours passed before the last polling party from interior Bastar, the nerve centre of the Maoists in India, reached safely.

Chhattisgarh: Will the 'Raman effect' work?

By Sunday evening, at least 23 polling parties  -- 20 polling parties from Konta assembly constituency and three from Bijapur  -- were stuck in the interior areas of Dantewada and Bijapur districts.

Highly placed sources in the Election Commission blamed the haphazard deployment of the security forces for the situation and said they have taken up the matter with the security forces. The Central Election Commission has asked the State Police Headquarters and the Central Reserve Police Force for an explanation, sources said.

53 pc turnout in first phase of Chhattisgarh polls

On paper, however, the Election Commission was diplomatic. "You have to go to Bastar to actually realise what kind of terrain you are operating on," said Alok Shukla, the chief election officer.

"The places where these parties were stuck were extremely remote areas of the region, deep inside the forests. This is how they did it: First, they sent a road opening party that sanitised the route. They checked out the routes and ensured that the route was cleared of landmines that the Naxals had planted. In some places, our parties had to march long distances -- over 20 kms --  to reach the polling booth.

Chhattisgarh: Violence marks first phase of polling

"Worse still, in some places, the road opening teams couldn't give us a 100 per cent go ahead. Our parties, accompanied by security personnel, had to abandon the road and get into the fields and the thick forested areas. Some of the polling parties had to march as much as 45 kms on foot," Shukla said.

Despite the best efforts of the Election Commission and the security apparatus, the Maoists disrupted polling in many booths and looted 32 electronic voting machines from various stations. "Last year, the figure was much higher -- 58. We were better prepared this time around. It is basically their [ Maoist] area. We were the ones going inside their stronghold. We did a good job," a top state intelligence officer said.

Naxals steal EVMs in Chhattisgarh

Shukla too agreed and was all praise for the security measures. "This is not to say that losing 32 EVMs is ok. I am saying the commission and the security forces have done a really good job this time around compared to the losses of last year," he said.

The Election Commission will meet on Monday to decide how to hold re-elections in the 32 booths. The Election Commission was provided with 32 companies [each company has 100 soldiers] of CRPF personnel and 100 companies of additional state security forces.

Chhattisgarh polls: Bastar holds the key

"We were also provided with 10 helicopters to ferry the polling parties into the regions," Shukla said.

The electioneering process cost the state at least two lives on election duty. "One CRPF jawan was killed by sniper fire. One Indian Air Force fight officer was killed when Maoists hit his helicopter in Bijapur," Shukla said.

 Chhattisgarh: Maoists unleash terror on poll eve

The election officer, who has been on election duty across the country, concluded, "In this region, the Bijapur and the areas bordering Andhra Pradesh were the toughest to reach and conduct polls in, as they are totally under the control of the Maoists.

"On the whole, if I have to compare it with holding elections anywhere else in India, I would say this is tougher than Kashmir or the North East. Imagine, if they can hit a helicopter and kill the pilot, what havoc they could have caused on land? It is really an achievement that polls were even conducted in these places," he said.

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