‘Right to life more important than right to vote’: Low-key campaign for Chhattisgarh polls in Maoist strongholds threatens voter turnout

Dev Sharan Tiwari has an interesting analogy for the days leading up to the first phase of polling in the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections on 12 November. Tiwari, a senior journalist based in Bastar district’s Jagdalpur town, said days were now passing by are like the slog overs in cricket.

“The forces are determined to encourage voter turnout,” he said. “Maoists are trying to create fear to discourage voters from going to the polls. Both want to score as many runs as possible. We just have to make sure the ball does not hit us in the process.”

Tiwari made this comparison in a context. In the 2013 Assembly elections, 68 of the 2,831 polling stations had tallied zero votes in the Bastar division, which goes to polls on Monday. Around 80 polling stations in the Bastar division — which includes Maoists strongholds such as the districts of Sukma, Bijapur, Dantewada, Narayanpur and Bastar — had polled less than 20 votes.

I told Tiwari I would like to visit one of the villages around these polling stations in the heart of a Maoist-hit area, when he came up with the abovementioned advise. Two days later, with a local reporter and his cameraman, I found myself in the village of Sulenga in the interiors of Bastar, not far from the borders of Dantewada and Bijapur. It did not exactly have zero voter turnout, but in the 2014 general elections, Sulenga had polled only around 70 votes.

Warning messages by Maoists in Dantewada area. Images by/101Reporters

Warning messages by Maoists in Dantewada area. Images by/101Reporters

A hilly terrain with dense forests on both sides escorts us through the curvy, quiet, and intimidating road to Sulenga. We first crossed the Chitrakot Police Station — 40 kilometers from Jagdalpur — and then the Mardung Police Station — about 10 to 15 kilometres from Chitrakot. Both were attacked by Maoists a few days ago. Sulenga is 12 to 15 kilometers further from Mardung.

A pucca road for the better part of the journey meant that Sulenga was not completely cut off from the outside world like some of the villages in Sukma or Dantewada.

Upon reaching the bumpy offshoot of the main road that leads to Sulenga, we met a 13-year-old boy, who had been waiting to hitch a ride to Mardung. “I want to visit a shop,” he said. “My school is also in Mardung. Currently, I am on a Diwali holiday.”

The afternoon sun blazing, a few kilometres into a muddy, narrow diversion that runs through the forest into Sulenga, we walked into the home of an old man, stitching a soup that would help filter his paddy harvest. When asked how the election campaign was unfolding in Chhattisgarh, he gave us a bewildered look. “Do you see any flag here?” he said, not taking his eyes off the stitching. “The polling station is not out of reach, but there is always the fear of dadalog.”

Dadalog, as Maoists are known in the region, always instil fear among the people around the time of the elections. Rumours say that this time, Maoists have threatened to chop off the fingers of villagers if they were found inked after the polling.

Ahead of the 2013 elections, they had wiped out the state leadership of the Congress, murdering 27 of its leaders in Bastar in an ambush.

On 8 November, an explosion in Dantewada’s Bacheli village killed five people. And on 30 October, Maoists had ambushed security forces in Nilawaya village in Dantewada, in which a journalist working with Doordarshan was killed.

However, Vimlendu Jha, the local journalist who travelled with me, was unperturbed. “The Doordarshan journalist made the mistake of traveling with the security forces,” he said. “Maoists do not usually attack journalists.”

Our driver, who had been reluctant to make the journey from the beginning, quickly retorted: “This thought is nice to pacify ourselves. Maoists don’t give you the benefit of doubt. They shoot and then apologise.”

As a result, political parties have hardly campaigned in Sulenga.

After returning from Sulenga, I met a group of BJP karyakartas campaigning in the constituency.

“We only visited Sulenga once,” one of them said. “That is it. We cannot go there repeatedly. Even before we decided to campaign, a lot of meticulous planning went into it. Eight to ten people in a jeep went there, maintained a low profile, met as many people as they could and came back. If the word of our trip had spread, our lives would have been at risk.”

However, most of the people we met in Sulenga did not think much of political parties. “Even if we defy dadalog, is the politics worth it?” said a woman, refusing to be photographed.

Speaking in the tribal language with Vimlendu, she said: “No matter who comes to power, they are only interested in exploiting our forests. They do not have our interests in mind.”

As we continued our interaction, two young men passed us on their bikes. We asked them if they would vote in the impending elections. “Yes,” they said.

“At the end of the day, it is the government that builds schools, colleges and hospitals. It is important, and we cannot deny that. Kids in the village would not have been able to study if there had not been a school in Mardung. I have a feeling that the voter turnout from our village would be more than in the previous elections.”

The Chhattisgarh administration and state has taken several measures to facilitate as many voters as possible. Fifty drones and 1,000 satellite trackers are being used in Bastar. At least 60,000 additional security forces have been deployed.

The District Collector of Dantewada, Saurabh Kumar, said the voter turnout will be higher this time, and the administration is making sure no polling station in the district records zero votes.

“We have transferred 18 polling stations away from the sensitive regions. But we cannot force people to vote,” he said. “It has to happen organically. The right of the person to live is more important than his or her right to vote.”

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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 23:34:34 IST

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