Record Polling, Reelecting Sarpanch: How Bastar Villages Are Slowly Giving Naxals a Snub
The average polling percentage in recently held Panchayat polls in Bastar was 69.13 per cent, which was almost 11 percentage points higher than the polling percentage in the last polls in 2015.
Panchayat polls in Bastar were conducted in three phases in February 2020.
Bastar: Away from the media glare, between January 28 and February 3, something significant changed quietly in the Naxal affected districts of Bastar. Among the most sensitive and violence prone villages in Chhattisgarh saw record polling for Panchayat elections.
When even in villages in Abhujmad, where government footprint is still minimal due to the heavy influence of Naxals, polling was held without any incident of violence, the receding influence of Naxals becomes quite evident. But what does the increase in polling actually mean?
It means people like Sundar Alami, a sarpanch from a village in Abhujmad, who had been hiding for the past nearly three years after being pushed out of his village, has returned to his people. It may seem like a small win but Alami's return as the head of the village on ground means a huge victory for democracy.
Alami, who used to be a sarpanch, was evicted from his village by Naxals in around three years ago, at gunpoint. Not only was he split away from the villagers — many of who at the peak of Naxal violence had seen no other leader except him — he was also torn away from his family.
"Soon after I found refuge in Dantewada's Geedam town. I appealed to many bureaucrats in all departments to provide me some safety, but no one listened. So I was forced to live the life of a fugitive. I would on some nights slip into my home, spend time with my family and return before sunrise. I told them to leave everything and come with me. But they weren't ready to surrender our land. So living in the shadows became my life for the next three years," said Alami.
During this time, he says, he and his family suffered from immense mental trauma, of separation and of fear of being killed by Naxals. Murdering civilians on flimsy allegations of being informers or enablers of the government was not new to Naxals. In August, just before the assembly polls, last year the Naxals killed the sarpanch of a village adjacent to his. In April, the same year, Naxals had murdered a BJP MLA of a constituency in Bastar along with four of his security personnel.
"After the killing of the sarpanch, the villagers came to me and requested me to fight the sarpanch polls again. Which is what he did.” He was elected unopposed. "I know that circumstances are against us. But what options do we have? We can't leave our land and run away. The only option is to stay put and to try and improve our lives," says Alami, the re-elected sarpanch.
Panchayat polls in Bastar were conducted in three phases, starting from February 28, the second phase on January 31 and the final phase on Febuary 3. The average polling percentage was 69.13 per cent, which was almost 11 percentage points higher than the polling percentage in the last Panchayat polls in 2015. Severely affected districts like Dantewada and Geedam saw over 75 per cent polling. Voting was held in 29,525 polling centres, 1,520 clusters and over 1.44 crore voters exercised their right to franchise during the Panchayat polls.
The rise in polling percentage could be seen in conjunction with the reducing instances of violence in the area. According to the state Chief Minister, Bhupesh Bhagel, encounters between Naxals and security forces reduced by around 32 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018. The number of Naxal cadre who surrendered increased significantly and the number of civilian casualties in the conflict has been reduced by almost 50 per cent.
"Faith, cooperation and security are our three mantras. The public participation in voting has given us confidence that we are dedicated and effective towards our goals," Bastar Police chief P Sundarraj told News18.
Dantewada Collector Topeshwar Verma told News18 that not a single incident of looting of poll booths took place this year. "In last Sarpanch elections booths were looted and repolling was done in many places. This time not one such incident was reported. How historic and successful these polls were, you can understand from the fact that in a village like Potli where no election happened for last 15 years, 40 per cent polling was done,” he said.
Verma said that last time, in 48 villages in Dantewada district, no applications were filled by any contestant for the post of Sarpanch. "This time elections were held in all seats of this district. It's a huge step towards establishing democracy at grassroots level."
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