A Tech Battle for the Bastar Ballot

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In the line of fire Polling officials hit the ground to dodge Maoist bullets at a polling booth in a remote Bastar village, Photo: Ishan Tankha
Photo: Ishan Tankha

Polling in the tribal-dominated remote interiors of south Chhattisgarh always poses a huge security and logistical challenge, with the Maoists carrying out aggressive propaganda to enforce their poll boycott call and intimidating both voters and polling officials. In the recent past, polling booths have often had to be shifted to “safer” locations near police stations. Yet, many booths reported nearly 90 percent polling in the 2008 Assembly election. This has given rise to suspicions of bogus voting.

For ensuring free and fair elections, the Congress’ new state unit chief Charan Das Mahant has recently written to the Election Commission demanding that hidden cameras be installed in polling booths to check bogus voting in the Assembly polls scheduled for November.

Mahant has also asked for polling officials to be equipped with GPS devices so they can be tracked constantly as they traverse the deep forests.

Polling officials sometimes have to trudge through the woods for days to reach the polling booths in the remote areas, lugging the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and other polling material. Sometimes they run into Maoist cadres who snatch away the EVMs and let them go only after warning them not to come back.

Some villages are so deep inside the forests that it is impossible for polling officials to walk all the way there and risk being stopped by Maoists on the way. In such cases, helicopters are used to airdrop the officials and the polling equipment. In November 2008, the Maoists fired at a helicopter that was on a sortie to bring back the election officials from Pedia village of Bijapur district after the voting was over. A flight engineer lost his life in this incident, and for the Lok Sabha election held four months later, the polling booth was shifted 40 km away to Gangalur, which is near a police station.

During the 2008 Assembly election, the Maoists looted EVMs from the Handawada polling booth in the Dantewada constituency. Re-polling was announced and another polling team was sent to the area. The polling officials reached the village in the evening after a 25-km trek. The officials recount how they could hear the Maoists singing songs calling for election boycott all through the night. They knew the Maoists were close by, in the hills surrounding the village. Despite the clear and present danger, there was 19 percent polling the next morning and the officials managed to return safely with the EVMs.

However, the story was somewhat different for the team of officials sent for re-polling to Gaugunda polling booth in neighbouring Konta constituency. Scared of the Maoists, they did not even go to the village and returned after casting the votes themselves in a certain ratio for the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The matter came to light later and members of the polling team were sent to jail.

“The Maoists were nearby and had we gone any further, they could have killed one of us,” says a polling agent of a political party who was with this polling team. “Even the policemen were not ready to move and everyone decided to cast the votes themselves.”

Later, another polling team was sent to Gaugunda, accompanied by the then Dantewada Superintendent of Police, late Rahul Sharma. The polling booth was shifted from the village and set up at the foot of a nearby hill, considered a safer location. Yet, only 10 votes were cast in this area that has more than 700 voters.

Though places connected by road are considered relatively safer, that does not always ensure unhindered polling. EVMs were looted by Maoists from the Gorkha polling booth, which is close to a national highway (NH-30) and only about 10 km from the Injaram Salwa Judum camp. (Salwa Judum was an anti-Maoist campaign during which villagers were shifted from Maoist-affected villages to camps guarded by security forces.) When the polling officials were sent for a re-poll, they allegedly brought people from the Injaram camp under police protection for voting. Barring one, these people were not on the voter list, and so only one vote could be cast in an area with 938 voters.

It takes a great deal of coordinated efforts to reach hundreds of polling booths in the jungles and return safely after conducting the election. “There are many areas that you can reach only after two days of trekking. Sometimes the polling team gets lost in the forest,” says an official who has been thrice to the Maoist-affected areas on election duty. “When that happens, they look for a safe place and either call people from the nearby villages only or cast the votes themselves to complete the formality of voting. These bogus votes do not go to any particular party, but it does benefit the ruling party to an extent.”

During the 2009 Lok Sabha election, many polling booths in Maoist-affected areas were moved to “safer” locations. In Bijapur constituency alone, more than 50 polling booths were shifted. But polling was reported to have taken place in the Assembly election just four months earlier in many such booths. Voting was also shown in several polling booths that polling officials say are “impossible to reach”. Most of these votes went to the BJP.

In the 2008 election, the BJP won 11 of the 12 seats in Bastar region. In 2003 election, too, the Congress had won only three seats — Dantewada, Konta and Bijapur.

The sheer difficulty of conducting polls in the remote Maoist-affect regions and the tremendous risks involved in the enterprise give grist to the allegations of bogus voting. In the last Assembly election, there was zero percent polling at many booths, while heavy voting was reported from other booths in the vicinity.

The BJP claims the Congress is making false allegations of bogus voting. Kedar Kashyap, MLA from Narayanpur and Minister for Development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, says the BJP has done a lot to develop tribal areas in the state and that is why the party wins elections there.

However, CPI leader Manish Kunjum says that bogus voting in Bastar is nothing new, and “even the Congress used to do it when it had the opportunity”.

In the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly, the BJP has 49 seats, the Congress has 37 and the BSP two. This scenario makes the 12 seats from Bastar region very important in deciding who will rule the state. After the 25 May Maoist attack on its leaders, the Congress’ worries are quite evident. If the Election Commission accepts the demand for using hidden cameras and GPS devices during the November election, it might just help the cause of Indian democracy by helping Bastar’s tribals assert their democratic choice.

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