At a time when political parties are putting a premium on youth and asking patriarchs to take a back seat, the old guard in Una is at the political forefront asking people to vote.
They are a part of the ‘Centenarian Club’, the new brand ambassadors of the District Election Office in Una, Himachal Pradesh. After the special summary revision of electoral rolls, their number was pegged at 103. A team of the district administration is approaching each one of them and recording their appeals to vote.
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“Many times they give a tight hug. One guy didn’t leave me for five minutes,” says Somil Gautam, a Himachal Administrative Service probationer who is the nodal officer for this SVEEP (Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation) campaign.
Deputy Commissioner-cum-Election Officer Rakesh Prajapati intends to cover all centenarians. “There are many who have completed 100 years of age and have been voting in every election. I want to document all of them.”
The Indian Express travels with the team to some centenarians:
Karam Devi; 102,
Gondpur Banehra Upper village
Ask her age, and she claims to be “sau te upar (more than 100)”. She is hard of hearing but has a sharp memory. Her husband’s mention makes her eyes moist; he passed away “long ago”. She lives with the family of her youngest son, who works with a paramilitary force in the Northeast. Her pillar of support is her daughter-in-law Anu Dadwal, 47, who is the pradhan of the village.
Devi says she has been voting in every election. “Even when my daughter-in-law was working in Ajouli, about 70 km from our village, we would come to vote here,” she says, sitting on a charpoy. “Casting vote is a must.”
Khuni Ram; 100,
Even the scorching sun is not able to stop him. His family looks for him, calls for him and finally finds him in a field nearby. When he comes to know he is to be interviewed, he washes his face first, before walking over with the help of a stick.
“Majra kya hai (What’s the matter)? Why have these people come?” he asks, when his grandson makes him sit in a chair.
Ram forgets his age; sometimes he says it’s 80, sometimes 90. He gets it right with the help of his family.
Done with the shoot, he again asks, “Majra kya hai?” He seems to have figured it out when the team is about to leave. “You guys are late,” he quips, using a local phrase to say it’s like digging a well when the house is already on fire. “I’ll vote for the other party.”
Kala Devi; 108,
She first says she is 108, and then hastens to add with a twinkle in her eyes, “That’s not exact. I’ve reached 200!”
Devi is full of life. She refuses a selfie by hiding her face with a dupatta. Finally, when she agrees and the selfie is clicked, she takes a good look at her picture.
She also remembers the British rule. “Then things were different and peaceful. Now corruption and crime are on the rise,” she says.
Captain Jaswant Singh (retd); 101
Kuthera Jaswalan village
Well-informed and politically correct, he reads newspapers, Hindi and English both, and can talk politics. Without naming the PM or the Congress president, he believes it’s childish to call the “chowkidar” a “chor”.
In the 2014 polls, when Himachal Pradesh had recorded a voter turnout of 64.42%, Una had seen 71.40% polling — the highest in the state. Through various SVEEP activities such as organising voter awareness events, the Una district administration is trying to better the turnout even more this time
Mention national security, and his eyes light up. “The Balakot airstrike was a good step,” he says. Singh was in the Army and posted in Delhi when the British flag was brought down on Independence Day. He says he remembers those days as well as the taunts he faced when he went abroad before Independence: “Are you from India? India is a slave country.”
India, he says, still needs to do a lot to claim its rightful place in the world. “Steering India in that direction is not an easy task,” he says.
Singh (retd); 106, Ispur village
His baritone voice can put many leaders to shame. “I learnt Roman Urdu — Urdu in Roman script — in the Army, the way (UPA chairperson) Sonia Gandhi learnt Roman Hindi — Hindi in Roman script,” he says.
Singh claims he has been voting since the first Lok Sabha election in 1952. Greed, he believes, has brought down the level of politics. To stem its further decline, the educated should enter politics, he adds.
The mention of education makes him sad. “Didn’t get proper education, didn’t go to college,” he says about himself. “One can’t have any knowledge without college.”