A vote for democracy from the heart of the ‘red zone’
Sukma district in India's Chattisgarh, an area plagued by violent Maoists who oppose voting, saw record turnouts by villagers defying threats to repeat the violence that scared many from casting ballots in 2013
Government officials have been delighted by polling conducted recently in Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. This is a backward, remote and densely forested part of east India, an area with few roads and one where many villagers had little exposure to the electoral process.
This was also an area where Maoists – communists radicals known locally as Naxals or Naxalites – had killed many people and threatened villagers not to vote. However, a significant proportion of local civilians defied these threats to come out and vote in state polls that ran from November 12 to 20.
Polling booths were set up for the first time in villages like Temilwada and Mukram, located in the interior. And villagers who had never seen an electronic voting machine before were taught what it was and how to use it.
In 2013, some of these villagers had to make a dangerous trek to neighboring villages miles away to cast a vote. This time around, the state government used helicopters to ferry election officials and their equipment to these places to set up their booths and hardware, and ensure effective security for voters. In villages and polling booths that registered zero voters five years ago, hundreds of people came out to vote.
Ideologically opposed to ‘bourgeois’ ballots
Perhaps the most special aspect of these polls was the determination of local people, especially young voters, to challenge the “red” threat. Sukma lies in heart of a corridor on the Chattisgarh-Odisha border with probably the largest number of Maoists active in the region. The area has seen considerable violence by people ideologically opposed to the Indian constitution and electoral politics, individuals who condemn voting as a bourgeois system.
R Rajesh, a 26-year-old who runs a bike accessory and service center near Jhapra village, on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border, said: “The threats were there of course, but we wanted to overcome that.” He, and others, eagerly jumped on their bikes and went out to villages to campaign for the party and candidates they supported.
“We visited many remote Naxal-prone areas of Sukma and saw and heard from the villagers about the boycott called by the Naxals,” Rajesh said. Violence by the Naxals during the 2013 state elections was still fresh in his memory. But he was determined to chip in and be a part of the democratic process.
“Groups of Naxals visited several villages of Sukma asking citizens to boycott the elections. They used to roam in groups and sing songs and shouted slogans asking villagers to shun the polls. Yet, a large number of villagers took part in the electoral process,” he said.
The number of people who voted in areas that registered no voting at all in 2013 showed the impact of young people like Rajesh who were determined that villagers must not be cowed by the Naxals’ propaganda.
It also showed that security arrangements for polling were effective. The district administration set up 212 polling booths, most of them in areas classed as “sensitive” by security forces. And even though some villagers had to trek 15-20 kilometers to reach a polling booth to avoid the Naxals, the number of people who voted in places where no one had voted earlier was an eye-opener.
Beating the Naxalites
Voter turnout statistics shared by Sukma Collectorate Office showed that in Gorkha village, which had zero turnout five years ago, 144 villagers cast a vote. In Sendur Guda, where five people voted in 2013, some 315 villagers voted – about half the population. In Tetrai, the ratio of voters rose from 15 (2.5%) to 201 (56%). In Temilwada, the number went from zero to 208. In Mukram, the tally jumped from zero to 203. And in Bejji, where just one person voted last time, 19 people cast a vote, although this was still less than 10% of households in the village.
The commitment of poll officials was also high, given that most were teachers, anganwadi (rural childcare center) workers, and other government employees. “Forty polling booth parties were ferried in two helicopters to eight different destinations in remote areas,” a senior Sukma official said. “They were first taken to a camp, from where they walked through dense jungles amid tight security to their designated polling stations in remote villages”.
Many polling officers were initially reluctant but were bolstered by the movie ‘Newton’, which highlighted the role of polling officers in remote areas where the Maoists have thrived, the official added.
In villages like Banda and Lakhapal, which had no concrete structures, makeshift polling booths were erected with cots, bamboo sticks and sarees, as most villages in the interior of Sukma have dwellings made predominately of kutcha (mud, wood, and straw). In these villages, the few concrete buildings are government schools or offices. In Mukram, for instance, only a government school and ration shop are made of concrete. Though a few villages like Chintalnar dominated by traders and Polampalli, situated 13 kilometers from the highway, have concrete buildings and roads.
Police said District Reserve Guards were mobilized and used advice from intelligence officers to ensure the safety of poll officials. The main threat was traps planned by the Maoists in forest areas and remote villages, preventing improvised explosive device (IED) blasts and other attacks. The threat perception in Sukma was rated as high given the Naxals’ propaganda to try to disrupt the polling process.
“Sukma hosts the maximum number of Naxals in the country,” Superintendent of Police Abhisheek Meena told Asia Times. “The threat perception was alarmingly high this time unlike in 2013. They were desperate to make their presence felt during the polls but failed.”
Killings in 2013 scared voters
Over the last three months, the Maoists had started executing villagers, with seven or eight civilians killed and many injured in IED blasts, Meena said. “From our side, we received only one casualty.” There was just one attack on polling day, on a party rally, which saw two Naxals killed. In 2013, the Naxals had the upper hand, he said, as they were able to kill several politicians and instill fear among the villagers.
Sukma has seen some of the worst Naxal attacks. In April 2017, some 25 security personnel died in an encounter in Burkapal. Superintendent Meena said Battalion 1, the most dreaded Naxal group in the area, had around 180 members. But that had been whittled down to about 130 after security forces started to hit back. Over the past 18 months, several operations by police and reserves had put the Naxals on the defensive, sources said. Nine Central Reserve Police Force platoons are posted in Sukma and Bijapur because they have the most active Naxal cadre in the country.
One factor that played a role in these elections going off without a serious incident was the Sukma police ending its dependence on police serves and training a local force, the District Reserve Guards, a body made up of former communists and assistant constables from the area. These are men with expertise in local security threats, familiar with Naxal tactics, who know the local dialects and villagers in the interior, who are familiar with the terrain and fit enough to walk 40 kilometers a day. More than 80% of offensive operations were undertaken by these guards and accomplished with 90% efficiency rates.