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Fingers crossed,all hands on deck,Maoist heartland votes today

Poll-eve attack as Bastar,Rajnandgaon head for polling under extraordinary security cover.

Outside the Bastar Commissioner’s office in Jagdalpur stand three boards,erected over consecutive summers. They all say “special judicial probe commission”,followed by,respectively,‘Arson in Taadmetla,Morpalli and Timmapuram villages (March 2011)’,‘Sarkeguda encounter (June 2012)’ and ‘Darbha incident (May 2013)’. All the three inquiries,like many other probes into Bastar violence,remain incomplete.

On Monday,this and other facts will weigh heavy as the seven districts of Bastar and Rajnandgaon,all eight among the 26 severely Maoist-hit districts of India,cast their,setting off the bitterly contested electoral battle that will lead up to Delhi.

The significance of this region is not on account of this alone,however. Chief Minister Raman Singh is among those in the race on Monday,and after two terms in power,the bigger challenge for his government and the Centre is not just to ensure violence free elections,but free access to a region that has mostly remained out of bounds for nearly a decade.

On Sunday afternoon,two ITBP men were injured as Naxals triggered an IED blast in Rajnandgaon,targeting a polling party. The latter was however able to reach the booth they were headed for safely.

The attack was a reminder of what Monday means. Kurushnar in Narayanpur is the last police station towards Abujhmaad and security forces and administration have rarely crossed the thana boundaries in 10 years into this Maoist kingdom. No candidate,including local MLA and Tribal Affairs Minister Kedar Kashyap,has crossed it either.

For the 102 booths and 76,324 voters of Narayanpur district,12,000 securitymen have been deployed,a ratio of around 1:6 — the highest ever in India. Over the last month,564 additional companies have arrived in Bastar. Polling teams will be airlifted to 192 booths and 2,700 cameras have been installed to ensure transparency.

While the 26 booths in Abujhmaad have been shifted to “safer” areas,at least three still remain in the Maoist zone. On Saturday and Sunday,polling parties accompanied by security personnel marched inside to facilitate the vote. They walked for some 20 km,and will stay there till Tuesday morning,hopefully returning with votes sealed in EVMs.

The state has 17 choppers at its disposal but cannot afford to fly them in this zone of darkness.

Pointing to the map hanging in the Narayanpur collector’s office,a district official says: “You can see the blank area beyond Kurushnar. We know little about inside.” Last year when the CRPF crossed into Abujhmaad,they had found that the structures seen in satellite and Google images which they believed were Maoist bunkers were actually dense bamboo trees.

In the run-up to polling day,a record number of IEDs have been recovered across Bastar. On Saturday Maoists attempted an ambush of a police team in Rajnandgaon.

“Every day we are recovering IEDs. On Saturday,we also recovered over 400 wooden planks with sharp nails in Pushnar area of Bijapur. We have undertaken both offensive and defensive operations,” said R K Vij,DG (Naxal Ops).

Adding to the worries is the fact that a majority of the additional forces deployed are from other states and have no experience of working in insurgency zones. “They have done regular policing. They can at most hold a zone,cannot be used for offensive operations,” said a senior police officer.

“The induction and de-induction of these forces is a mammoth exercise,” said Raipur IG G P Singh,who is also the nodal officer for ensuring security for the elections.

The seven districts of Bastar and Rajnandgaon are eight of the country’s 26 most severly-Maoist hit districts,completely politically dominated by the BJP. Of the 18 seats here,the BJP got 15 in 2008,which laid the foundation of its government that year. The Congress may increase its tally this time,but it’s not clear if it would be enough to dislodge the BJP.

The past five years have seen among the biggest ever attacks in this zone — from 76 security personnel killed in Tadmetla (2010),to 29 policemen including an SP killed in Rajnandgaon in 2009,to the Darbha attack in which senior Congress leaders died this May.

Residents of many villages have never voted in their lives and this year too many are not likely to walk some 40 km just for voting. There is,however,a story of hope. If reports coming from inside are to be believed,Maoists had laid an IED in a school in Jangampal area of Sukma,which was also to be a polling booth. The plan was to blast it during voting. Villagers reportedly told the Maoists to remove it,as they wanted to vote.

“Yes,we also heard about it. Villagers forced them to take it out. We hope this momentum continues,” Vij said,adding his fingers were crossed.

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