April 3, 2021 4:05:57 am
THE ELECTION Commission (EC) Friday ordered fresh voting in a polling station in Assam’s Ratabari Assembly seat following a controversy over officers transporting an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in a vehicle owned by a BJP candidate.
The date of repoll will be announced soon.
Acknowledging that there was a “violation of transport protocol,” the EC issued a show-cause notice to the presiding officer and also suspended him along with three other polling officers for the lapse. The transport protocol states that under no circumstances should a person take an EVM in private custody or to a private place.
Later in the day, on the recommendation of its special general observer, the Commission also suspended two armed escort officers responsible for ensuring the polling party’s safety. The special observer advised the EC against penalising the Returning Officer since the incident appeared to be an “isolated” one and happened due to “the total negligence and foolishness of the Presiding Officer and his team.”
“There is otherwise no deliberate or malafide intention in the incident aimed to disrupt the polling process,” EC quoted the observer as saying in his report.
The EC decision comes a day after the second phase of voting in Assam, in which the state recorded a turnout of over 77 per cent.
The controversy broke out late Thursday night when videos of a group of people intercepting a BJP candidate’s car carrying an EVM surfaced on social media. The machine was used for voting in Polling Station 149 at Indira M.V. School in the Ratabari Assembly seat, and the car belonged to the wife of Krishnendu Paul, a BJP contestant in the nearby Patharkandi seat.
Following this, the poll panel called for a report from the Assam Chief Electoral Officer and its general observer in the state.
According to the Commission’s statement, the car in which the polling party was originally transporting the EVM had broken down around 9 pm on its way to the strong room. Although the presiding officer had requested the sector officer for a replacement vehicle and was assured of one, he and three of his colleagues eventually hitched a ride in a private vehicle without checking its ownership details. They soon realised their mistake only after a group of 50 people intercepted the car near Kanaishil in Karimganj district, the statement said.
“The mob also started abusing them and did not allow the vehicle to pass. When they asked the leader of the mob, he replied that it was the vehicle of Sri Krishnendu Paul who is a contesting candidate of a neighbouring constituency (Patharkandi LAC-2) and he levelled allegations that the EVM was being taken to be tampered with,” the EC’s release read.
The Commission said that the polling party was “attacked” and held hostage for almost an hour by the mob till the District Election Officer and the SP of the Karimganj district arrived at the spot. Of the four election officers, one had gone missing and was found by a search party hiding in the undergrowth nearby only this morning, the EC said.
“On examination, the polled EVM comprising BU, CU and VVPAT was found to be with its seal intact without any damage whatsoever. All the items have been deposited in the strong room,” the statement said.
All four officers of the polling party have been placed under suspension for breaching EC’s transport protocol.
The incident attracted sharp political reactions with Gaurav Gogoi of Congress tweeting that BJP can only win elections by tampering with EVMs. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi took to Twitter to call for “a serious re-evaluation of the use of EVMs” by all national parties.
Senior officials from the Karimganj Police said the police was only investigating the mob which had gathered around the car. “We are trying to identify those who were involved in the attack. A case has been filed under the Karimganj Police Station and we will be making arrests soon,” a senior police official told The Indian Express.
The official, who was present on the ground, said the mob comprised about 50 people and was “very violent”, “threatening to harm the police personnel and destroy the EVM.”
“We tried to disperse the mob but they started stone-pelting, so we had to resort to using force. We fired in the air to disperse them,” he said.
Mayank Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Karimganj sustained injuries and the car was damaged too.
The incident happened in an area called Kanaishil which is located on the outskirts of Karimganj town.
The official said that more details cannot be shared since it was a “sensitive issue” but the “bottom-line is that there was a mob and they had to be dispersed by force.” “The EVM was found in a safe condition and we took into our custody,” he said.
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