Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fear vs democracy in Gadchiroli

Rahi Gaikwad

Elections in this remote area of Vidarbha will be held under the threat of violence

Calls for boycott of the polls have already been given out


(Above) A road in naxalite-dominated Gadchiroli; (right top) poster calling for a boycott of the election.

Sounds of the election bugle are muffled in Maharashtra’s naxal-dominated district of Gadchiroli. Calls for poll boycott and threats of violence have been frequent in this remote, forested area in Vidarbha, which shares its border with Chhattisgarh,

In Kotmi village in Etapalli taluka, calls for boycott have already been given out. An anti-election notice has sprung up on a solitary electric pole in the village, which serves as a polling station for about five to six nearby villages. The poster reads: boycott fake Lok Sabha elections and create a people’s government. Courtesy Gadchiroli Division Committee, Communist Party of India (Maoist). Locals say the notice has been there for the past two months. Even local body elections also meet the same fate. “There was no election for sarpanch because of ‘these people,’ ” says Vilas Moharevar of Kotmi.

Gadchiroli’s Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pradhan says that boycott calls are a feature of every election. The naxals try to threaten people and burn vehicles. “But we have counter-strategies. In addition, the police conduct meetings in the villages, and educate and sensitise the people about the democratic process and their rights.”

Many residents of Kondavahi village in Etapalli say there is no such threat but some differ. “Since 15 years, people here have not voted,” says Sudhakar Hitchami. Village teacher Hemraj Naik says: “The people are too scared,” — a likely fallout of double murders the village witnessed last year.

Mr. Pradhan says there has been a rise in naxal activity recently in retaliation to successful police crackdowns in 2008 and surrenders. On March 14 this year, in Venesara village of Etapalli, a group of Maoists in uniform slit the throat of a woman ex-sarpanch Geeta Topo — the first incident in the State where a woman became the target.

The act has gagged the people of Venesara. A demolished church bears testimony to the horror looming large. “Don’t ask anything. Just look. I cannot talk,” pleads a local. “We just wait for the night to end and the day to break,” others say.

Security arrangements for the coming elections are a top secret in Dhanora taluka, says inspector S.P. Ghorpad. In Dhanora’s Marke village, a group of 15 police officers were ambushed and killed in February 2009, in the biggest ever naxal attack in the State.

Mr. Pradhan says that “naxal-chasing” operations have begun 25 days before polling.

The State plans to deploy “a good number” of personnel from the Central paramilitary forces and commission choppers to provide security.

Refuting the general threat perception, he says: “The tribals don’t open up easily, so the inference that they are scared is not a sound one.”

Ashok Nete, Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from Gadchiroli-Chimur, appears undeterred by his constituency’s danger-zone image. “I have been campaigning for one and a half years and our booth-wise workers are in the areas. People are becoming aware.”

The usual voter turnout in Gadchiroli has been in the range of 60 to 70 per cent, says Mr. Pradhan. After delimitation, the district has become a Lok Sabha constituency and the number of polling booths has gone up from 712 to 838.

Only April 16 — when Vidarbha goes to polls in the first phase — will decide whether fear or democracy prevails.

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