Bastar votes amid IEDs and Maoist threats: ‘How many fingers can dadalog chop off?’https://indianexpress.com/article/india/bastar-votes-amid-ieds-and-maoist-threats-how-many-fingers-can-dadalog-chop-off-5443414/

Bastar votes amid IEDs and Maoist threats: ‘How many fingers can dadalog chop off?’

The man cannot be named for it is a matter of life and death. He will try not to unclasp his hands for the next two days because the colour on the tip of his index finger is also a matter of life and death. For he is the voter of Madenda.

Bastar votes amid IEDs and Maoist threats: ‘How many fingers can dadalog chop off?’
Outside a polling booth in Madenda. (Express photo by Dipankar Ghose)

As he watched CRPF personnel, on bikes and on foot, manning the road in front of the polling station, his hands were clasped tightly behind his back. Hidden in that tight ball that his hands had become, is the index finger on his right hand. On the tip of that index finger is a small smidgeon of blue ink.

The man cannot be named for it is a matter of life and death. He will try not to unclasp his hands for the next two days because the colour on the tip of his index finger is also a matter of life and death. For he is the voter of Madenda.

In Aranpur sector of Dantewada, Madenda is 6 km away from Neelavaya, where a DD cameraperson, and three other Chhattisgarh Police personnel were killed in a Maoist attack in the run-up to elections.

Also read | Express Fact Check: In Chhattisgarh polls first phase, a history of swinging fortunes

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For close to two months, the voter from Madenda has had routine visits from the Maoists to the village, warning them against casting their ballot. “The dadalog come often and told us that if we voted, there would be repercussions. They told us that if they found the ink on the tip of our fingers, they would cut them off. They have been very aggressive this year. So until this mark goes, I will keep my hands like this as much as I can,” he said. Even if the blue tip remained mostly hidden, his fingers gleamed with a layer of oil, applied so the ink wears off quickly.

But in Madenda, there is some strength in numbers. “We want to be part of this process. So we decided that we would vote anyway. How many fingers can they chop off? I am afraid. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what is right and wrong between what the dadalog tell us, and what the police tell us. We are only villagers, and I care about my family and what they will eat. But we decided we wanted to vote. I am afraid. I knew I would be. And I took the decision nonetheless,” he shrugged with a sense of resignation.

And so, at 12:30 pm, there was a queue at the room which serves as the polling station for Madenda in the primary school in the same village. They went in, their name was called, and they shuffled quietly to the EVM machine, often being instructed about the process to follow.

The room next door, polling booth number 267, was different. It was a deathly quiet, election officials in the room looking at the door in expectation. By 12:30 pm, only one voter had arrived from the village concerned. That village was Neelavaya.

On October 30, Doordarshan cameraperson Achyutnanda Sahu, and three Chhattisgarh Police personnel died in Maoist attack, which drew condemnation from all sides, and forced the Maoists into issuing a clarification where they said they were not aware that the media team was with the police, and did not intend to kill them.

But, what the DD team would have covered in Neelavaya was not just a road to the village, 5 km off the main road, that is being made. They would also have seen a polling booth, which was meant to be in operation on polling day, for the first time in 20 years. Then came the attack.

In the days since that attack, police officials in the area said that the area had been rendered almost completely non-navigable. “All along the road, and the jungles around, the Maoists have spread pressure IED’s on the ground, that explode when contact with them is made. Even more dangerous are spike traps that are the size of coffins dug into the ground, and have long sharp spikes made of wood or metal that could kill, or grievously injure both security personnel and jawans. The problem is they are camouflaged in the grass. It makes it hard, unless one knows exactly where they are, for any voter to come,” a senior CRPF officer said.

But it wasn’t just Neelavaya. Three kilometres ahead of Madenda, is the Potali polling booth, which like Neelavaya, saw elections for the first time in two decades. The booth is less than 1 km away from the Dantewada-Aranpur road, and yet even those few hundred metres had become a death trap by Monday morning.

Manish Kumar, second in command of the 111 CRPF Battalion, which has a camp in Aranpur said, “They have mined that path also with traps and pressure IED’s. For anyone who wants to vote, we have opened another narrow alternate path, and will wave people to go through from there. But in the area, we have encouraged people to vote and are taking all precautions to keep this peaceful and safe.”

By 12:30 in the afternoon, of the over one thousand voters in Potali, three had cast their vote. Two service votes, and one person from the village.

As the CRPF and the Chhattisgarh Police continued to man the road, with inputs even coming in of a possible IED planted on the main road meant to target a large vehicle, the polling station in Madenda remained open till 3 pm.

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In 2013, of the 742 voters in Neelavaya, six had voted. A little after 5 pm, a senior district official confirmed to The Indian Express that the number had increased, despite the attack. 19 people had cast their vote. It brought up the voting percentage from 0.8 per cent to 2.5 per cent. That jump of 1.7 per cent may be a small step, but in Bastar, it is a big leap.