The battle for Bastar kicks off the battle for Delhi. And as it votes under one of the highest security covers in the country,the region that has seen the BJP rise along with the Maoists is yearning for a change from its bloody politics and its non-existent governance. Report and Photographs by Ashutosh Bhardwaj
Bastar comprises 12 seats out of Chhattisgarhs 90. But theres a reason that this nearly 40,000 sq km region (bigger than Kerala),covering seven districts,will kick off the electoral bout finally leading up to Delhi. It stands for the countrys fits-and-starts battle against Maoists,it stands for the Congress losing another bastion,it stands for the Left slipping in an important zone,and it will test the BJPs claims of being tougher on extremist groups than its counterparts.
The attack that killed senior Congress leaders in May this year in Bastar district,the biggest such political blow by the Maoists in the country,was the first sign of how crucial the battle for the region would be.
There have been others since. Maoists have ordered a boycott of the polls and reportedly threatened to chop off fingers bearing the indelible ink. Political parties have urged officials to not use the ink at places,and the proposal is under consideration. The Election Commission has shifted 167 booths out from interior areas such as Abujhmaad,and campaigning in Bastar is limited to just 50 per cent of its territory.
The BJPs win from here the last two times (nine of the 12 seats in 2003,11 in 2008),had played an important role in its victory in the state. Facing charges of a deal for peaceful co-existence with the Maoists,the party is hoping to repeat that. Still,not taking any chances,the BJP has taken out an insurance for its workers the first-such instance of electoral insurance in the country.
As the headquarters of Indias biggest and longest insurgency goes to polls on November 11,the security,says an IPS officer,is unprecedented.
A beige Scorpio moves through a forested road in Dantewada,a pilot car in the front and a vehicle behind. There are around 20 AK-47-wielding policemen in the three vehicles. Every 300 metres,more policemen patrol the road. Turn right, the man in the middle suddenly orders. The muddy lane trails off deep into the forest,not known to the policemen,not part of the schedule. The man has been strictly advised to follow pre-determined routes,where road opening parties have been deployed. He,along with his mother and three younger brothers,recently received Z-plus security after Maoists killed his father. Wiping the sweat on his forehead,his personal security officer seeks a re-confirmation. He repeats,and the three vehicles are now in unknown woods.
If politics in Bastar is not for the lily-livered,Deepak Karma epitomises it. The Karmas are probably the only family in the country to have the top-most security for as many as five family members. But campaigning for his mother Devati Karma picked as the Congress candidate from Dantewada in place of slain father Mahendra Karma 35-year-old Deepak shrugs off the risks.
The family has lived with guns for decades. Except Ashish. Karma kept his third and academically bright son away from the gore of Bastar,sent him early to Delhi,where he studied at Delhi Public School and Delhi University. He was preparing for the civil services exam to fulfil a family dream,when Karma was killed this May. Ashish then returned to Dantewada. Kya hoga? Mare hi to jayenge (What will happen? We will get killed at best). The fear has died. We have to reclaim this land, says Ashish,his biceps bulging beneath a tight T-shirt.
All the 232 polling stations in neighbouring Bijapur are hyper-sensitive,probably the only such constituency in the country. In neighbouring Konta constituency of Sukma district,of the 193 booths,182 are hyper-sensitive,11 sensitive. Of the total 2,629 booths in Bastar region,just 301 are termed normal.
Bastar candidates admit that Maoist threat prevents them from campaigning in over 50 per cent area of their constituencies. Its October 30,but except in district and block headquarters,there is absolutely no campaigning,even hoardings.
This electoral narrative has layers though. Pudiyami Linga,a Maoist recently arrested for the murder of a BJP leader,told the media before a CRPF and police superintendent in Dantewada that he had campaigned for BJP candidate Bhima Mandavi in the 2008 polls. Mandavi refuted this,but admitted that Linga had indeed campaigned for BJP candidate Dinesh Kashyap during the 2011 Lok Sabha by-polls that he eventually won.
In Konta,two-time MLA and CPI nominee Manish Kunjam is considered close to the Maoists. Please check in which areas Naxals have asked people to vote for Manish, says Harish Kawasi,the son of sitting Konta MLA and Congress candidate Kawasi Lakhma. The CPIs C R Bakshi rubbishes these charges,saying if they had any alliance with the Maoists,the party would not have repeatedly lost Bastar in the past two decades.
Politicians wanted 283 and police 299 booths relocated from interior Bastar,the area where they have no reach. Almost all of these booths recorded zero or negligible voting in 2008 as polling teams could not reach them. These booths lie in operational areas. If polling parties go inside,there is a chance of exchange of fire, says ADG (Naxal Ops) R K Vij.
But the Election Commission has said it is keen to ensure voting till the farthest point this time. We are trying to extend democracy, says Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath.
A collector finds this laughable. They never cared for democracy all these years. There has been no government inside for decades. And suddenly for a day,democratic vision has hit them, he fumes.
For conducting elections,564 companies of forces have arrived in Bastar,besides the existing 200 central paramilitary force companies,60 Chhattisgarh Armed Force companies and 100 District Force companies. This security in these elections is unprecedented, says a senior IPS officer.
In Narayanpur,the district that houses Abujhmaad,the personnel to voter ratio is 1:10,according to election officers,probably the highest ever in India. For some polling booths,voters will have to walk nearly 40 km through forests. Choppers have been requisitioned to carry polling teams to over 250 booths. But there is no helipad in the Maoist territory and forces have little inkling about the topography inside.
Booth agents of political parties will not accompany the polling teams to such places. I cannot send my workers, says Dantewadas BJP candidate Bhima Mandavi. Jagdalpur BJP candidate Santosh Bafna recently handed over Rs 5 lakh life insurance to his workers operating in sensitive areas,probably the first instance of electoral insurance in the country.
Sachin Stores in Narayanpur doesnt mind Maoists though. In this tiny town,the Rajasthani shopkeeper has registered a record Rs 50 lakh sale in just 10 days from October 20-30,as paramilitary personnel throng his shop.
Holidays have been declared in schools now occupied by forces,and the National Highway is closely guarded. Itna force… Dharti kharab ho rahi hai (Such a big force… The land is getting ruined), Lakhma rues. Stationed in a Narayanpur school,a BSF commandant from Manipur counters charges against his forces: We are not here by choice. My 200 hundred men are crammed in this two-room primary school. We dont have toilets,go out in the open forest with all the risks. Why cant you solve this problem on your own?
The Maoist surge in Bastar has coincided with the decimation of the Congress and CPI and the rise of the BJP. Their trajectories have moved north together,even crisscrossing each other during instances like Pudiyami Lingas confession.
Naxals entered southernmost Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in 1980,the year the Jan Sangh dented the Congress fort for the first time and wrested three Assembly seats in the region. For the next two decades,Maoists quietly worked with tribals and won them over,before beginning ferocious assaults from 2003 onwards. The BJP also built its cadre base during the period.
Congress Konta MLA Kawasi Lakhma blames the Mahendra Karma-led Jan Jagran Abhiyan of the early 1990s and the Salwa Judum for the Congress decline. These movements destroyed our base in villages,and helped the BJP establish itself in urban areas, he says. The Congress decline can also be attributed to the absence of ground-level organisation and that it took its voters for granted. Yahan logon ko panja chhaap ki aadat pad gayi thi (People had got used to the hand symbol here). We worked very hard for 25 years to build our base, says Shivnarain Pandey,an RSS veteran,in Jagdalpur.
In the 1980s,Jagdalpur colleges used to brim with Left leaders. Karma,in fact,made his political debut as a CPI MLA and within months was recognised for his fiery speeches in the Bhopal Assembly. But the dialectics of history and ideology are ironic. The Maoists gained the most in CPI areas. Karma later joined the Congress and his bastions Dantewada and Sukma became the most fearsome Maoist battlefields.
The percentage of voters with photo voter I-cards in Bijapur is just 76.85,the least in Chhattisgarh. The state average is 98.49 per cent. Considering that the margin of victory was just 192 votes in Konta and 109 in Antagarh,from where Forest Minister Vikram Usendi won,this is a significant figure. Any forged election in Bastars 12 seats can change political fortunes.
Bhejji village of Sukma district has two polling centres with 436 and 730 registered voters,of whom photo voter cards are only with six and 210 respectively. The centre at Mukram,near where the Maoists killed 76 security personnel in 2010,has 859 voters,618 named without photographs. In the 2008 Assembly polls,the Congress had alleged rigging and poll management. Edapalli village of Bijapur has 418 registered voters,635 in Sandra. The EC website also confirms a polling centre at these villages and several others in the zone. Villagers claim no one voted last time,they do not even remember any official ever visiting them in the seven-eight years.
Edapalli resident Chintu Talandi,among the few with voter cards,is thrilled,and not just because the 30-year-old is registered as 20. It is the first time he has acquired a sarkaari kaagaz (government paper). Early this year,I went to Bhopalpatnam (a block headquarter in Bijapur),officers prompted me to get it done, he says,flashing his voter ID card.
Not that Talandi or others like him are planning to cast their vote last time no polling party turned up at the designated polling booth near their village and the actual booth is at least a 50-km walk.
Officials of all Bastar districts admit to the possibility of forged voting in interior areas in 2008. The EC,in 2008,had also ordered probes in some such booths.
Over 2,000 CCTV cameras will be installed at select polling booths this year.
Chief Electoral Officer Sunil Kujur,however,dismisses the possibility of a discrepancy. It is not easy to get photographs of people in interior villages,so only their names are listed. Voter list is prepared by a booth-level officer,who is a local teacher,anganwadi or health worker. To ensure false names are removed,we revise these lists annually, he says.
However,will a villager cross 50 km to the nearest government office to raise objections about something he hardly knows about? They would have travelled to the block headquarters at least once during this period. If they had any doubt,they would have raised it, Kujur insists.
The buzz is that the BJP may lose some seats in Bastar. Their several candidates,including Santosh Bafna (Jagdalpur),Bheema Mandavi (Dantewada),Dhaniram Varse (Konta),Lata Usendi (Women and Child Development Minister,standing from Kondagaon) and Vikram Usendi (Forest Minister,standing from Antagarh),are facing opposition from their own people. In the Congress,a major probable,Neera Ravatiya,is contesting as Independent after she was denied ticket from Bijapur. But the party may get five-six seats,and the CPI may also open its account after two decades,or at least make a significant dent.
It was earlier this year that the Congress first showed its intent to politically reclaim Bastar. Then PCC chief Nand Kumar Patel led from the front. The party held chintan shivirs in Bastar,their leaders reached spots where tribals had been killed in encounters. For us,unlike Raman Singh,Naxalism is not a law and order issue. Its a social and economic problem, said state Congress in-charge B K Hariprasad. However,its message to Bastar tribals has been confused,with the party invoking the sacrifice of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. The tribals have not heard of them. They are equally non-plussed when the BJP hails Chhattisgarhs inspiration Vivekananda. Of the 12 constituencies in Bastar region,all except one are reserved for tribals.
The CPI is the only party that has tribals and Maoists on its electoral agenda. Both advocate withdrawal of forces. You cannot kill Naxals without completely destroying Bastar. You need to talk to them,bring them on board, agrees the Congresss Lakhma.
CPI nominee Kunjam adds that before the forces came,the area was free. We could move freely,but now you have only fear and insecurity. He also points out that Schedule V and PESA (PanchayatExtension to Scheduled Areas Act) are applicable in Bastar. The government sets up police and CRPF camps anywhere,do they ask us what do we want? Schedule V has even gives us powers that if there is any law of the state and the Centre that harms us,we have the authority to reject it. What we are demanding is not something drastic,these are our Constitutional rights, says Kunjam,who led a padyatra in March across Bastar for the implementation of the Sixth Schedule,a demand supported by the Maoists.
The latest inputs and documents suggest that after the Darbha attack,the Maoists have regrouped themselves. In early October,CPI (Maoist) chief Ganpathy managed to bring all his senior comrades to Abujhmaad.
Stationed at the Raipur-Jagdalpur highway,a CRPF personnel from Tripura underlines the implications of the prolonged ambivalence as practised by the Raman Singh government. Pointing at impoverished tribal women and kids,he says: You are spending hundreds of crores on us (additional forces) just for conducting these elections on a day. Why cannot you spend this money on people here? You wont need to fortify Bastar in the next polls.
In a large part of south and west Bastar,there is no school,health centre,electricity,police post or PDS shop. Chhattisgarh figures at the bottom on the Human Development Index,and Planning Commission slams it for ignoring 50 per cent of its population,comprising SC-STs. The administrative-political presence has been negligible for the past six-seven years. In fact,even at the block headquarters in Orchha of Narayanpur,a huge government storage house still carries the name Madhya Pradesh,a state Chhattisgarh separated from 13 years ago.
Some 25 km from Abujhmaad lies Mukhbiron ki basti (A settlement of spies). As the battle intensified,Maoists,who had by then made the un-surveyed Abujhmaad forest their kingdom,drove tribals out on charges of being police informers. The first batch of migrants built huts on an open field in the Narayanpur district headquarters seven-eight years ago. With time others joined them and got acquainted with the town life.
Kunti and her husband Sandhulal Usendi,both in their early 20s,recently got voter cards. They say they will vote,and wont say for whom. Its my first vote, says Usendi,who works as a labourer. Six year ago Maoists had held his father and elder brother captive suspecting them to be informers,and one midnight the entire family fled their Tekanar village,leaving everything behind.
While the Maoists recently announced a poll boycott,the mood,according to residents of Abujhmaad,is to vote for the Congress. Bhagirath Dihari,Mahesh Kumar Nag and Dulum Singh,three 20-year-olds of Kihkad village,say Poora maad is baar Congress ko vote daal raha hai (The entire Abujhmaad will vote for the Congress this time).
Its not Bastar it appears that has forgone democracy,its democracy that has forgone it. And they talk of extending democracy for a day.
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